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Since 2009, 800 permits for laneway houses have been procured and 500 homes have been built, including this on at 3904 West 22nd St.

Ihor Pona/smallworks

For a city with the highest cost of housing in North America, it's no surprise that Vancouver is also Canada's laneway housing capital.

Now, with a new proposal to extend the city's current program to about 94 per cent of single family-zoned neighbourhoods, laneway housing will soon have a foothold throughout Vancouver. Since the program was introduced in 2009, 800 permits for laneway houses have been procured and 500 homes have been built.

While the program only allows for rentals, innovative "tenants in common" arrangements or "mixer mortgages" are offered by lenders like Vancity, often facilitating intergenerational living scenarios, where parents can share equity in laneway homes on their property built for their children – or vice versa.

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The current proposal, which many expect to be approved by council this summer, is encouraging more single-level, cottage-style units.

While one of its raisons d'être is to increase visual privacy for neighbours, architects and builders say it will also have a positive effect on design elements and consumer options.

Jake Fry of Smallworks (www.smallworks.ca) welcomes the proposed bylaw changes.

While currently only 5 per cent of Vancouver laneway homes are single storey – (most are a storey and a half) – Mr. Fry thinks the incentive to build single-storey structures will have creative dividends.

"The proposed changes will create more diverse and interesting building forms," he affirms.

Since the new bylaws will offer more square footage to single-storey homes, he also says they will "allow for more living space."

Mr. Fry is currently looking at prototypes that will have more flexibility in terms of interior space, with innovative use of millwork and furniture. Beyond traditional elements like Murphy beds, he suggests interior environments that can easily shift usage – such as a room with a desk that can convert into a bedroom.

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In the new proposal, the current parking space regulation will also change so that at least one outside stall is required – opening up the possibilities for inventive use of green space.

"Parking areas could convert to play areas in the day time," he suggests. "The new bylaws will allow for a more dynamic expression of what buildings look like. There will be more glazing at the ground-floor level and more variation in building shapes because they're not so close to the property line."

Mr. Fry also anticipates a "nicer dialogue between the principal residence and the laneway house."

Currently laneway homes can only come 26 feet into the yard, but the new rules would extend that to 32 feet at grade level.

In essence, the proposal would allow for greater use of lot depth – not just width – to create living space, as well as possibilities for side yards and interior courtyards.

Architect Shelley Craig of Vancouver's Urban Arts, who recently received a call from a potential client in an area of Kitsilano that will be laneway-home friendly if the proposed changes are approved, is also positive about the new bylaws.

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"Anything that increases density and allows for more equitable distribution of units on a lot," she says, "will be welcome."

The new laws will create more interesting, socially and environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods, she contends, and will "instantly double or triple the number of families and/or dwelling units in large swathes of single-family zoned neighbourhoods in the city."

They will keep neighbourhoods "young and affordable," she maintains, with increased floor area allowing for larger units and "different family situations to be accommodated."

She hopes they will also create a sense of laneway community, like the mews concept – popular in cities like London.

With the new emphasis on single-storey houses, "there will be a strong connection to garden space. If there's a larger footprint at ground level, this will allow for a completely glazed wall looking out at the greenery."

The indoor-outdoor aesthetic could also extend to green roofs, Ms. Craig anticipates.

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While current bylaws make it difficult to occupy roof space, Ms. Craig suggests that "taking extra space at grade might free space up on top." The result could be roof gardens, vegetable patches, and/or outdoor terraces.

She even suggests that the city might look at awarding extra density bonuses for off-grid houses – or for certain "sustainable thresholds."

"The city should consider staging a design competition for the most innovative green design of a laneway home," she muses.

In East Vancouver, where the new proposal would open up many single-family neighbourhoods to laneway housing, Tej Singh of Simplex Home Design sees it as a more sustainable solution to intergenerational living.

The architectural technologist whose company builds single-family homes in Vancouver and India, as well as some laneway housing here, notes that traditionally South Asian families prefer larger footprint, multistorey dwellings where different generations can live together.

But since the new proposal was announced, he says, several clients with pre-existing plans for single-family homes called to switch from parking garages to laneway homes.

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In addition to being a smaller footprint and creating a more pleasing streetscape, laneway housing, he notes, offers privacy. "Families can live together – just not necessarily under one roof."

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