March 30, 2016

Innovative Infill – what Vancouver (and other cities too!) need

Recently on the twitters, there have been some interesting discussion on new models for small-scale infill development. I am always super interested in this topic as I believe there is both a need and demand for new residential types that fit the evolution happening in our city’s neighbourhoods (for example, I very much appreciated and support Michael Mortensen’s discussion of a ‘New Vancouver Special‘ – right here on Price Tags!). Myself, I have long been an advocate for the triplex and its something we championed in the Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre plan (we called them ‘stacked flats’) as the triplex is a very flexible housing type (and one that doesn’t require significant land assemblies). So naturally, I was very interested in a proposal by Bryn Davidson of Lanefab (one of our city’s exemplary design/build firms and the designer of some of Vancouver’s most innovative laneway houses).
Basically, Bryn’s proposal (being worked out incrementally through discussion and testing – so its not fully formed yet) is to subdivide existing lots (seems to work best on 50 foot frontages), relax some setbacks, and allow for triplex + laneway houses to provide real housing options that fit the DNA of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Some examples:
50' subdiv - rowhouse 25x122
50' subdiv - rowhouse 25x122 - PLAN50' subdiv - rowhouse 25x122 - SECTION
for 33 foot lots:
33x122 rowhouse 4 plex
33x122 rowhouse 4 plex - plan
33x122 rowhouse 4 plex - single lot
What I appreciate about this scale of development, and really any approach that doesn’t require assembly or lot consolidation, is that its a scale that doesn’t require a deep-pocketed developer and can work with many different development and ownership models. And I believe that Bryn thinks it can be done to Passivhaus standards for hard costs of approximately $250 per sq. ft.
To help make this happen, the City should be proactive and help innovative solutions like this navigate the rezoning and development approval process (and even initiate rezonings itself), as well as help with public engagement and consultation (critical to refining any proposal to fit the neighbourhood). This is what the City does best, so it doesn’t require heavy lifting or investment.
For more detail, check Lanefab’s twitter feed.

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  1. The stairs in the front remind me of Montreal’s brownstone neighbourhoods, which I find absolutely beautiful. I’m wondering how the finishing would look, though. If that’s just a stucco exterior on a square box, the effect could look much less attractive than pre-war examples, and certainly uglier than what’s being demolished, often pre-war houses in decent condition. The attractiveness of these houses is going to play a huge role in public’s acceptability of them, so that’s something they have to get right. At this point, I’m not sure they’ve done that.

    1. Those are massing models that don’t attempt to show finishes. As always, street appeal will play a huge role in every sale. First impressions…

    2. Good points, Tessa.
      There is a very wide range of architectural treatments and finishes that can address concerns about finishes.
      I believe the negotiations with the city should allow extra density in exchange for the retention of character homes (and in some cases heritage gardens), but this policy needs to be flexible enough to allow a character home to be moved around on the site. I’ve tried to articulate this before here that the sheer waste of land locked up in the setback zoning created six decades ago is phenomenal. Ron alluded to this below too. You’re looking at over 73,500 m2 (18 acres) of land in 7.3m front yard setbacks for every 1,000 standard lots. Using just half of that (12 feet) will accommodate potentially 36,750 m2 of land for an equivalent area for ~220 houses averaging 165 m2 (1,800 ft2).
      If the city also starts to restrict demolitions, then there has to be some give to allow extra units to be built to recover the costs of recycling the materials (e.g. old studs in the new structures) without adding to the per ft2 cost.
      Another way to keep costs manageable is to prefabricate modular components in a factory setting (e.g. glulam and cross-laminated timber framing, wall & floor panels, standard windows and doors ….) and crane + bolt them together on site a lot quicker than traditional stick framing, therein saving on total labour costs.

  2. I like the idea of greatly reducing front yards and freeing up more room at the back for larger laneway units. The “palace” front yards that have dominated North American housing are one more significant reason that citizens find themselves so alienated. The front yard setback all but assures a lack of commonality between the pedestrian and the “Land Owner!”.
    Laneway houses have no such yard between house and lane and I think that will lead to laneways that are more dynamic, friendly and safe than our front streets.

  3. This exactly what we need in Vancouver. Kudos to Lanefab and Bryn Davidison for producing the above images that illustrate the simple rationality of using given urban land more efficiently.
    Two areas of concern need to be addressed. The zoning bylaws that govern subdivision and setbacks will have to be worked out with the city, which one hopes will be cooperative and amenable to change. And the city should also allow rental suites in these homes as one measure to address affordability through mortgage helpers.
    Also, the Strata Title Act may automatically kick in where it will not be always welcomed. There has to be design techniques and simpler contractual agreements that will allow freehold ownership. My feeling is that building separate load-bearing walls just a few cm from the neighbour’s and addressing fire & sound proofing and privacy head on may well result in additional costs, but they will still offer a fee simple home with a bit of a yard for about 1/3rd less than the value of detached houses on full lots. I suspect Lanefab counts on shared load-bearing party walls to keep costs down, which leads straight into strata. Just hope the neighbours aren’t noisy.
    This is that wide open and very fertile middle ground between strata condos and unaffordable fee simple detached houses.

  4. I like the ideas presented here, but theres a couple general suggestions I have regarding the energy efficiency. All the solar panels shown are flat. This really makes no sense, in Vancouver they’d ideally be around 30-40 degrees above horizontal facing south. This is basically throwing away a significant portion of the roof area and increasing the costs the solar system.
    I’d suggest making the rooftop mostly a deck, and making shades out of solar panels on the southern exposure. Alternatively, if you want the panels flush, then tilt the whole roof.

  5. This is sort of a denser version of the old zero lot line idea, assuming there will (or should) be a direct exterior front to back link on one side.

  6. The idea here was to expand on the affordability that comes from allowing individual owners to be developers without the need to consolidate lots at current land prices. This is something that has played out with laneway housing, where – for example – young couples are able to build on their parents’ properties at a cost that is 1/2 to 2/3 of an equivalent sized condo (because they’re not paying for the land). The challenge is figuring out the ownership structure that can allow these benefits to accrue to a larger slice of the population.
    The ownership structure could be a range of options: fee-simple with 3 mortgage helpers, a market based strata, or it could be a non-market ‘Baugruppen’ approach (like a co-op or cohousing development) depending on the social goals the city wanted to see in exchange for the density and setback reductions. We certainly get plenty of inquiries from individuals and groups who would like to pursue the last option.
    There are lots of different ways that the actual massing could work, but in this case we were looking at the Montreal ‘plex as a model for the front unit, with the additional goal of reducing land wasted in side and front yard setbacks.
    This particular version opted for large balconies and patios vs. roof decks, but there certainly could be a version with roof decks, or a 3 level infill (or less parking etc. etc.). We did maintain a continuous access path from the street to the lane, but with housing built above the path.
    We’re in touch with an owner of a 33’ lot adjacent to a multifamily site near Fraser st. who is keen to explore the idea further…

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