April 3, 2016

Another smart take on the small scale: Ralph Segal on densifying RS-1

A few weeks ago I had a chat with Ralph Segal, a former senior urban designer (retired) with the City of Vancouver (and someone who I deeply respect). Ralph shared with me his take on densifying RS-1 (Vancouver’s primary ‘single family’ residential zoning classification, which of course has long allowed for more a single dwelling on a single lot though the permitting of secondary suites and laneway houses).
Ralph’s take would increase the density of RS-1 (0.65 FSR but of course can be higher with laneway housing) to about 1.5 FSR (FSR is floor space ratio, the ratio of building to land area, for the uninitiated). This would allow nicely sized family-oriented units (1500 – 2100 square feet or larger) with the potential for a small (~400 square feet) basement suite in two 3-storey (plus basement) buildings (one in front, one in rear). Similar to Bryn Davidson’s version, this model does not require lot assembly and fits on a 33 foot wide lot.
As I’ve posted before, I believe that Vancouver needs more small-scale infill residential options to help our neighbourhoods evolve. From my perspective, anything that can deliver 1000 square foot (or more) units in denser configurations, while maintaining the intricate and interesting fine-grain quality of our traditional neighbourhoods, needs to be considered. Ralph’s sketch shows another way that’s possible and its worth considering.

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  1. Yes we need more density in some parts of Vancouver. The city should lay that out block by block.
    We need dense and not so dense neighborhoods. Would folks in Shaughnessy, for example, love to have two 20,000 sq ft homes on their massive yards ? Do we want all lots in E-Van, Grandview or Point Grey to have 2-3 dwellings, or just some parts ? If only some, what %? Half ? 33% ? 80%? 25?
    Why are houses along Hastings single family and not eight stories ? Why is Langara golf course not an urban park plus 20,000 new homes ? Loads of low hanging additional density in Vancouver.

    Ralph’s quick sketch does show how easy it is to gently add duplexes and secondary buildings to Vancouver’s suburban neighbourhoods in a form that does not depart much from the rhythm and aesthetic of the existing fabric. What really helps from a public involvement perspective is that there are many PHYSICAL PRECEDENTS IN PLACE all over the city – some dating back more than 25 years.
    Back in 2005, I helped create “Alternative Housing Futures” for the Vancouver Planning Commission. The website featured a number of built housing alternatives that made better use of land and adapted better to emerging economic and demographic changes. Case studies and interviews with leading developers, planners and architects focused on a number of alternative forms of development including Strata Title Secondary buildings, Coach Houses, Courtyard Townhouses and Commercial Conversions.
    While many of the recorded interviews are no longer hosted on the site, you can see some of the images including some of a beautiful, generously-sized, light-filled strata-titled coach house at Maple and 13th designed by Paul Merrick:
    The owners who commissioned this lovely coach house had three teenagers at the time, but they liked the coach house so much, they moved in and sold the main house (they could because they were allowed to Strata Title the property. Merrick was reportedly living on a boat at the time and the space saving designs applied in the house reflect perhaps some of his experience living in small spaces. The bedrooms are more like cabins, and there is fine woodwork all through the house. Light filters in from above via a glazed roof peak.
    We need to make better use of these precedents and share them with the wider public in an engaging format (perhaps taking a leaf out of the pages of Dwell Magazine and some our most prolific real estate marketing agents). These built examples present images of change that most people in Vancouver would view as VERY attractive and liveable.

  3. What gets lost in that is any green space. Those little green hedges quickly turn to more hard surface or sad cedar hedging that provides very little aesthetically or biologically.
    I’m all for densification, but it has to include all aspects.

    1. Indeed. We cannot densify everything. Most folks living in less dense neighborhoods prefer it that way. Too much density changes character of neighborhoods. Plenty of inexpensive housing available in New West, Burnaby and Surrey.
      We also need appropriate transit infrastructure before or while we add density, not a decade or 2 later.

    2. We cannot densify everything, but we should be densifying almost everything. During the time it takes the CoV to complete a new OCP, the cost of housing rises 100’s of thousands of dollars, so I think a new approach should be taken. Not which neighbourhoods should be rezoned to include row-house or town-house, but which areas shouldn’t be rezoned.
      All that time and effort put into the Marpole plan, and in the end we end up with a few token blocks of row-house and the already unwritten rule of towers in the industrial area. The Grandview/Woodlands plan is still ongoing (how many years now?) The only real substantial plan is the Norquay OCP. Even then, it still only covers a small fraction of what we really need.
      The average price of SDH in Burnaby is over a million dollars now. In Surrey/Langley it is over $800 000, so no there is no inexpensive housing in Metro Vancouver. The main culprit for this is our extreme lack of available land (we have less than 1/4 the land Calgary does), and our civic leaders unwillingness to respond to our extreme land shortage. In the meantime, we can waste our time debating something that doesn’t need debating.

      1. Big cities with international appeal have a WIDE VARIETY OF HOUSING choices. We need all housing choices, not just density. Acreages in Southland or mansions in Point Grey or Shawnessy: why not ?
        People somehow think Vancouver’s houses are expensive. They are not, given the size of land and distance to the core or water. Try Vienna, Munich, Singapore, New York, SanFran, Boston, London .. they are ALL expensive when you want to live in a single family house close to beaches, water front or downtown. Condos iand even houses n Surrey or Burnaby or New West, if we called them “Vancouver” would bring the “Vancouver” average way down.
        But yes indeed, we need to upzone quite a bit of Vancouver, especially close to downtown (say ALL of E-Van), 2-3 blocks within major arterial roads like Granville, Broadway, 70 th Ave, Main, Commercial, Hastings etc .. so that still leaves maybe 50% of SF homes remaining, and guess what, those remaining houses will get even more expensive. An average home will be $6M+ in 2040, likely earlier (as per Ozzie Jurrock’s real estate conference from last weekend). Get in now in case you want to own a house. It won’t get any cheaper, with a billion+ Chinese and a billion+ E-Indians and a few hundred million of Middle Easterners, S-Americans and soon Africans wishing they could live elsewhere !
        What behooves me is that we do not plan transit until their is density. Where is the vision ? N-Van, for example, is packed full of condos and still not a subway or fast train along Marine Drive and/or to downtown. How come ? [ you know the answer: because our timid politicians do not want to tax properties and road use appropriately]

      2. One could also densify by narrowing street widths, pulling the setback closer to the streetside and “giving” the extra land so created to the adjacent lot owner It may take several years before it is exploited (though not in the “Hot market” days of 2015-2016), but I would mean a larger existing “lot” for FSR calculations.
        Better the west-side of former Municipality of Point Grey could enjoy the community closeness of the east-side with small narrow streets and the absence of boulevards.

    3. There is lots of public land to maintain green space. Most of it is occupied by pavement. Get density up and car use down so we can free up road space for trees and plants.

    4. I could not agree more about this shameful loss of green space and contiguous backyard habitat for birds and other species, and humans! Impermeable ground space is also lost and this has major implications for storm sewer infrastructure.
      There is a better way that is the globally the most successful urban housing form: the townhouse, aka row house. A fee simple row house has been legal in BC for almost a decade now, and it’s time Vancouver adopted it as the most street-sensitive, respectful, and successful urban building form in the arsenal of housing.
      Offering eyes on the street (public safety), large back yards for permeability and natural gardens and trees for both humans and wildlife, a townhouse has half of the heat loss of a SFH, far better fire and noise protection from neighbours (insulated concrete party walls), far better stability and survivability in earthquakes, and considerably higher density in a traditional fee simple property. Every 33-foot lot could have two rowhouses of 16 feet width each and maybe 900 sf per floor, with a basement and three stories above grade (35′ max as it is now). Set forward on the lots with small and manageable front gardens in a 10-foot setback, the back yard greenspace would be at least as large as at present AND with room for at least four parking spots (for bicycles of course!) off lanes where there are such. From one SFH, you have up to 8 3BR units on a lot in two 3-storey rowhouses, in fact more privacy from neighbours more wall hanging space inside. Given the general hilliness of Vancouver, the basement and first floor units could be fully accessible and the second and third floors would be walk-ups (healthy for those with mobility).
      Why aren’t we doing this?

  4. Thanks, Neal, for posting my “back-of-the-envelope” hand drawn sketch as well as your other posts this past week on urban design, architecture, affordable housing, etc., etc. And Michael M., for your link to Paul Merrick’s delightful coach house which I enjoyed revisiting.
    Before I take too much credit for sketching out how to densify RS-1 (without the need for assembling multiple lots), I should note that Vancouver already has a zoning schedule providing for 2 single family houses on one standard lot, RS-1B, the intent of which reads…”to permit a second one-family dwelling on some sites…”. The City has even been so kind as to accompany this zoning with a set of useful design guidelines (just google Vancouver Riverside RS-1B Guidelines. I’ve merely taken the liberty to more than double both the density (floor area) and the number of dwelling units (from 2 to 5) but would add one more element to the equation – the ability to strata-title the two buildings on a single lot. All these steps together would achieve the kind of densification needed for neighbourhood sustainability (and improved affordability?) at a scale of development that is sympathetic with the character of many neighbourhoods. How about a demonstration pilot project, perhaps on a few city-owned RS-1 lots in a willing neighbourhood?
    Full disclosure here. My wife and I, along with our fully domesticated cat, Tucker, happen to live in one of these houses and enjoy without any compromise all the attributes that single-family homeowner nimbyists claim would be sacrificed with this type of densification. We certainly could raise a family in the home we now spread out in, albeit with somewhat smaller yard area in which to throw a frisbee (do kids still do that?). But I must take exception to Don’s comment above about lost green space and “sad cedar hedges”. Although the patios shown above are, true enough, smaller, they need not turn entirely into hardscape – our patio is lush with greenery. And as for cedar hedges, our dense 8 foot high flourishing, verdant hedge has proven so attractive that a lively family of racoons has chosen to take up residence in it, testimony no doubt to it suitability as accommodation for our wildlife neighbours with whom were are now learning to co-exist. Top that, all you Yaletown urbanites!

    1. They need not, but often do. Many people don’t want a sliver of green and just pave it as there’s no maintenance.
      I’ve turned my backyard into a fully planted yard, no grass, no parking pad or garage, just trees, veggie gardens and shrubs. (Gotta take advantage of that free squatting out on the street!) But I certainly don’t think that’s the norm.

  5. There’s a lot to like in Ralph’s sketch, including a smaller front yard and more generous space between front and back units. However, unless there is a pretty generous slope of the lot down toward the street, I think the basement suite beneath the garage slab will be pretty dark and unlivable. So, three units like we do already seems about right, without requiring a shared walkway with your neighbour.
    Another related version for 3 units would be a front and back duplex and laneway house, preferably stratified. The rear yard would be smaller, but so would the laneway house, say 800-1000 SF as in the creative little City of North Vancouver, which you know quite well, Neal.

    1. Frank, just a point of clarification – the basement suite in rear building would not extend beneath the garage slab (unless there was a slope to site as you note)…..its a small 400 s.f. suite under “front” portion of this rear building, with various levels arranged to achieve good natural light for this lowest unit (i.e. not dictated by garage slab level).
      But your main point about all the variations possible is well taken. Plenty of alternative arrangements on the ground – no need to re-invent the wheel.

  6. Ralph – thank you again for the clarification as well as pushing the RS envelope. This is likely the most important conversation our city needs right now, especially WRT affordable and gentle densification for families with children. (Our schools need this, too!)
    Remember CityPlan’s “demonstration projects”? For some obscure reason, once they were demonstrated no more were ever approved. We need to get back to that idea in the RS zones, but with the idea of doing more than one if it seems to work. Opening doors to housing innovation, etc.

  7. Ralph,
    Please explain why densification is needed for neighbourhood sustainability. It would appear that densification has precisely the opposite effect on neighbourhood sustainability because densification results in the dislocation of existing communities while producing enormous demolition waste, construction disruptions, and traffic chaos resulting from infrastructure expansion. Why then is densification of RS-1 neighbourhoods considered desirable?
    I believe that what is lurking here in this idea is the transformation of the “home on the lot” where any economic or recreational, activity is possible to the “architect’s box” where the landscape has disappeared and very little activity is possible either in or out of the box. This land use transformation represents an enormous erosion of self-reliance and self-determination while enslaving folks to a life of narrow possibilities.
    The idea that RS-1 densification is desirable is an idea in need of critical analysis. It has not produced affordable housing, in fact it destroys what few affordable options exist (basement suites, rooms to rent, group homes, and garage conversions, etc. while eliminating financially unencumbered properties that do not need to generate top dollar returns from renters).
    Old housing stock is extremely valuable to society because of its flexible potential, to view it as only having redevelopment potential is a bias view of reality. Would it not be more sustainable and more beneficial to society to develop new communities and new mixed use neighbourhoods on undeveloped land supported by mass transit and green infrastructure where best sustainability practices can be implemented beginning with the first line drawn on the master plan?
    The city of tomorrow cannot be the demolished city of yesterday.

  8. Jolson, – I’ll begin by referencing an interesting Nov. 13, 2015 pricetags post –
    “Jeff Olson: Design for a New Vancouver Special…Idea House” (isn’t that you?) which I commend readers to revisit. Among the several propositions for the new Vancouver Special in our single family zones, this one (“Idea House”), which provides for up to 8 units on a 33’ x 120’ lot, exhibits a deep understanding of the many benefits of increased density and diversity in these neighbourhoods. I know, I know, Idea House is predicated on mass-produced, factory-built modules trucked to sites pre-approved by C of V, assembled and hooked up on Monday, with the new residents (“kids, teens, students, starter couples & seniors”) moving in on Tuesday. And it would be fantastic to see this type of densification implemented in conjunction with this new industry and employment. Do it!
    But fundamental to both Idea House and my proposal is that they can be implemented independantly on a single, standard 33’ x 120’ Vancouver lot, allowing for gradual, gentle, densification at a compatible scale, not a dislocation or disruption of communities that comes with the phenomena of land assembly. And implicit from a Planning perspective would be a selective identification of candidate areas for RS-1 densification such as, for example, transition zones behind more intensively zoned arterials and close to public transit stations, rather than wholesale rezoning of all RS-1 lands. Ideally it would be a post-war, 1600 s.f. stucco bungalow (with a dubious basement suite?) that would be replaced with 3 or 4 or 5 highly livable units totalling 5-6,000 s. f. of desirable floor area, without the need for neighbourhood utilities replacement. And, of course, this would be in addition to more substantive new green development on essentially vacant land (read Jericho and numerous other locations) or seriously under-utilized land (read Pearson-Dogwood, rezoning approved) integrated with existing and yet to come mass transit as part of a series of new, tailored, mixed-use neighbourhood master plans, together providing an array of strategies throughout the city and region that accommodates anticipated growth in a variety of land use, built form and scale.
    But back to your question – Why is densification of RS-1 needed for sustainability? It goes beyond a far more efficient utilization of our limited land base and replacement of energy-hogging structures with new, green, energy-producing buildings. Its about supporting with an incrementally increased population base a higher level of neighbourhood amenity and diversity and bringing down per capita civic infrastructure costs. At these proposed densities, the ability to keep open or support new neighbourhood schools and other facilities within reasonable walking distance is possible, a serious issue for Vancouver School and Park Board. A stronger array of neighbourhood-based retail for day-to-day local shopping and thereby, employment, is created. And, as always, increased ridership on transit. These are just three examples of enhanced amenity and sustainabilty. And I’ll cite the economists’ proverb w.r.t. housing affordability – Increased Supply Brings Down Price (even though this appears not to be working in Vancouver). I could go on but something tells me I’m preaching to the converted.

  9. Yes Ralph, I did publish the Idea House.
    Thanks for clarifying what you see as the limits of stratified RS-1B zoning i.e., transitional land use zones, which was not apparent in your previous post. This is a development strategy that I can certainly support and one in hind sight that I should have suggested for Idea House.
    As for affordability and sustainability, Idea House beats the current design cannon by many orders of magnitude on every parameter that can be applied in my opinion. Not only is the question of affordability addressed but also the possibility of financial speculation is all but eliminated; manufactured rooms are chattels just like cars, boats and airplanes and the tiny strata lots that they occupy have little speculative value.

  10. Always a fascinating topic. Thanks for this post.
    There are a few things I think need to be addressed. One is the “requirement” for strata title. Perhaps the city and many residents see speculation as the bug bear that accompanies freehold ownership, and strata as a way to dampen the raging fire, but after two decades of condo rot aftermath, newsworthy strata council power tripping and shortchanging long term maintenance and replacement reserve funds, not to mention human nature (one bad neighbour with power on a strata council ….), don’t people think strata should be tamed? You can accomplish everything you need to with subdivision into fee simple properties with a simple, occupancy permit-required standard contract with your immediate neighbours. This is very easy with Ralph’s front-back split on one lot because everything but the suite is detached.
    Attached single family homes should offer a freehold version to balance with our current preoccupation with strata. I suggest design can address this with independent load-bearing walls, 50 mm gaps between units, and extra fire protection, sound-proofing and outdoor privacy measures. The price will increase with these added measures, but in a row of multiple attached SFHs (some with suites) and with precision factory-controlled modular construction, the costs can be countered with quantity, faster construction and lower site labour costs.
    Jeff’s Idea House demonstrates a lot of creativity and insight. However, I would find from personal experience the vertical orientation does little for ageing in place and, ultimately, home-oriented elder care, which are surely going to become Big Things as Boomers age and the health care system is strained a lot more. In fact, despite the call for three-bedroom ground-oriented housing for young families with at least one child, the dominant demographic leans towards singles, and over 50% of seniors are single. One small accessible floorplate containing one room at ground level will not cut it for those over 60 with arthritis or mobility and other health challenges.
    Rowhousing would be narrower but will occupy a similar ground plane area and could offer at least two ground-oriented rooms and a restroom on each floor, which makes it easier to live on one level. Travelling up and down the stairs to the w/c, inconvenient even with a stair track chair, will be greatly diminished.
    There are those who cavalierly suggest seniors should cash in and move to a condo elsewhere, but that runs counter to the admirable concept of ageing in place. Some will not sell out because their homes were purpose-designed over the decades for their unique personal / family needs and sometimes offer the potential to live exclusively on the ground floor and make adjustments for wheelchairs and walkers. I think designing for all ages and abilities is where we should be directing our focus with infill housing in RS zones. I fully agree with the notion that building family-friendly infill should be a priority (especially considering the lessening Vancouver school enrollments and the provincial government’s divisive attitude and anemic funding priorities for public education), but we also must address the other end of the demographic reality too.
    The suggestion that the Idea House should be free of DCCs and CACs doesn’t account for the public cost of accommodating new development or offering the flexibility to trade the additional costs of conserving character homes and recycling materials instead of landfilling them with building additional units. It is possible to keep the per-unit area construction costs quite stable with this kind of trading, and possibly with the efficiencies of modular design. Simply locking in lower heritage-rated houses and banning demolition will not address affordability, especially with the forceful economics of high land prices.

  11. The preoccupation with providing loads of green space with infill housing is simply not realistic. One doesn’t need two thirds of a tiny outdoor space occupied by lawn that is mush in winter or planting beds, space that can otherwise be used by humans year round. A patio with varying textures and materials surrounded by a narrow perimeter planting area is all one needs in an urban setting and is arguably a lot more interesting than a lawn. You can do a lot even with just a one-foot wide perimeter planting bed as long as the soil is deep and of good quality. One can even build a patio over the root area of an existing tree with special design and construction techniques that maintain aeration and do not compact the soil.
    There is a huge misconception here that rain runoff should generally be allowed to infiltrate into the ground. That doesn’t work at the best of times because the ground gets saturated very quickly at the beginning of the winter monsoon season and the runoff overflows across the landscape, sometimes percolating into nearby basements. Vancouver is largely underlain with metres of hard glacial till just below the surface and runoff cannot get past it. Those planners and bureaucrats and designers who continue to promote ground infiltration even on postage stamp lots should do a little research.
    The best way to address runoff is to recycle the rain water by using large cisterns on private lots, and to design new neighbourhoods with large downstream wetlands that store and filter a good portion of the stormwater before it enters salmonid habitat.

  12. MB; One scheme does not suit all!
    Here is the data from the 2011 census for the City of Vancouver;
    By household type;
    Couple-family households with children aged 24 and under at home = 48,960 = 18.5%
    Couple-family households without children aged 24 and under at home = 64,715 = 24.5%
    Lone parent family households=21,580 = 8.2%
    One person households=101,205 = 38.3% (251,745=28.2% Metro Van)
    Marital status breakdown for the population over 15 years of age;
    Not married and not living with a common law partner = 268,050=50.4%
    Further breakdown;
    Single never legally married =194,270 = 36.5%
    Separated = 12,845 = 2.4%
    Divorced = 35,820 = 6.7%
    Widowed = 25,110 = 4.7%
    And finally; Age; 65 and older = 13.6%
    Clearly this data challenges our notions of the nuclear family.
    You are quite right to note that vertical organization is not appropriate for seniors, this is why I suggested a horizontal configuration for Idea House rooms.
    The census data also suggests that a flexible multi configurational and affordable approach such as Idea House is an appropriate development strategy.

    1. Jolson, thanks for this data. I wonder what the numbers will be beyond 2020? I will archive this link for future reference and exploration. I hope to post some graphics and data on this and other topics on another site later.