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The Withrow Laneway House in Parkdale, Calgary.

Creators of two Calgary homes hope their example will reignite a move to loosen zoning laws

Local architects have unveiled two laneway homes in Calgary and say they hope the recent general election and subsequent council shakeup could end what they call "Calgary's four-year laneway housing standoff."

Mark Erickson and Matthew Kennedy of Studio North completed the Withrow Laneway House in Parkdale and the Bowling Lane House in Crescent Heights this summer. They say the homes demonstrate the full range of benefits laneway housing can offer homeowners, young professionals and communities seeking to protect the scale and aesthetic of a heritage streetscape. Both projects are located in inner city, riverside communities, alongside heritage homes, which were also extensively renovated by the architects.

Mr. Erickson and Mr. Kennedy say the homes are "cornerstone projects" for their design studio and hope they could go some way toward changing public perception of laneway homes in Calgary. To prove their commitment to laneway living, they've even moved into the homes as paying tenants.

"The original plan was that we would both live in the Withrow Laneway House," says Mr. Erickson. "We actually bought that property in 2014 and renovated it with a view to eventually building the laneway house and renting out the main house. Sadly, by the time the renovation of the main house was complete and we had a tenant for it, we didn't have the funds to build the laneway house anymore, but we still had the design and permits to do it."

The Withrow Laneway House has an airy and spacious interior, thanks to a gabled roof and built-in storage.

Mr. Erickson and Mr. Kennedy ended up selling the renovated home, a municipally designated historic resource, to their tenant, with the agreement that the new owner would build the laneway house, as planned. They also agreed that Mr. Kennedy would move into the laneway home upon completion; reversing the original tenant-owner relationship and providing him with a compact and affordable home in a neighbourhood he loves.

The two-bedroom Withrow Laneway House sits atop a triple garage and encompasses just 950 square feet; the interior is airy and spacious thanks to a gabled roof and built-in storage. The modern exterior "tips its hat" to the adjacent heritage home, and the neighbourhood as a whole, through subtle, mirrored design cues.

"When we renovated the main house, we added some modern materials on a rear extension; a metal roof and cedar siding stained black, for example, which we matched up to the laneway house. Then, with the laneway house, we used some throwback materials to echo back to the main house; textured dash stucco and exposed rafter ends," Mr. Erickson explains. "The goal was density that fits the context."

Studio North puts the average cost of a laneway house in Calgary at $250,000 and it claims the outlay makes financial sense in many cases.

"The owner had already paid for the land so building the laneway house was really just dollars per square foot, which was cheap compared to what he paid for the main house," Mr. Kennedy says. "Now he has a tenant, me, who's paying half his mortgage, essentially."

"The long term plan is that his parents will eventually move into the laneway home," Mr. Erickson adds, "so it serves two purposes."

Bowling Lane House retains the same footprint of the original tandem garage.

Financial incentives and flexible living for the future were also the drivers behind the Bowling Lane House, built for a client on a site overlooking a bowling green, a couple of kilometres east along the Bow River.

"The main house is a heritage bungalow so it was really important to retain a sense of scale with the laneway home. We actually kept to the same footprint as the original tandem garage, which was replaced with a single garage, building up and not out," says Mr. Erickson, who moved into the property in July.

The floor space of the 700 square feet home is equally divided between the ground and first floor; a skybridge, above the living area and kitchen, joins the bedroom and office above. This allows the full two-story height to be enjoyed from the ground floor, creating a sense of space and height.

Having the living space and kitchen at grade allows the home to connect with the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood to connect to the home; the laneway itself passes directly in front of the kitchen window.

"That's another advantage with laneway housing; you automatically have more eyes on the street," Mr. Kennedy says. "I actually chased someone trying to break into our neighbour's garage just a couple of months ago. We know having a population in the lanes of these communities makes them safer."

The living space and kitchen in the Bowling Lane House is at grade level, allowing the home to connect to the neighbourhood.

Mr. Erickson and Mr. Kennedy say the recent re-election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor could re-ignite the laneway debate in Calgary.

"We'd like to see blanket rezoning for laneway housing back on the agenda in the inner city, for sure," Mr. Erickson says. "Mayor [Naheed] Nenshi has always been a huge supporter of laneway housing and we're hoping he's going to bring that discussion back to the table this term."

Blanket rezoning for wards 7, 8, 9 and 11 was proposed in 2015 as a way to streamline the approval process for secondary suites in low density, inner city neighbourhoods. It would have affected more than 80 communities. In the end, council voted against the reform.

Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Erickson aren't the only ones rooting for change in the wake of the election.

Calgarians for Secondary Suites, a grassroots group dedicated to advancing secondary suites in the city, surveyed all mayoral and councillor candidates, in advance of the election, to see where they stood on basement suite and laneway house policy reform. Their findings allowed voters to throw their weight behind what they termed the city's "Suite Picks."

Mr. Erickson and Mr. Kennedy are also hoping the city will take steps to stamp-out poor laneway home design which, they feel, is damaging the typology's reputation and hindering progress.

"Currently, Calgary doesn't have design guidelines in place for laneway housing, which is both a good thing and a bad thing" Mr. Kennedy says. "In Vancouver, they have really strict design guidelines, which means laneway housing is all of a certain standard; there's no bad design but that means it also lacks creativity. Our laneway designs would never have passed Vancouver's guidelines."

"Conversely, having no guidelines means people are free to just build anything and a lot of people won't hire a design studio for this kind of work," Mr. Erickson adds. "We'd like to see a design review committee, who are able to make discretionary decisions, and design guidelines that make architecture better, not worse."

Cliff de Jong, special projects officer with Calgary Building Services, says 202 laneway homes exist in Calgary and design guidelines for future builds are just one of the changes on the horizon for 2018.

"We started working on design guidelines recently because we recognize that community acceptance is one of the biggest challenges facing this typology in inner city neighbourhoods. We're working with some of the communities which we consider to have most to gain from [laneway housing] to address some of the technical issues, like set-backs and overlooking, as well as design and aesthetic aspects which cause concern," he says.

"We're not going to get prescriptive from a look and feel perspective but we do want to demonstrate how you can achieve a higher standard of architecture and encourage that," he adds.

Mr. de Jong says they're also working hard to "tighten up on confusing terminology" which, he believes, will support greater community acceptance by easing some of the frustrations communities face when deciphering land-use redesignation applications.

"We plan to introduce a land-use change which more clearly differentiates between basement suites and backyard suites," he says. "Differentiating between those two uses is an important part of the whole puzzle because we know that people view them quite differently."

Mr. de Jong says this should mean less concerns are put forward, per application, at public hearings; thus making the whole process more efficient. It would also make the process of applying for a basement suite, rather than a laneway home, easier.

"It's nibbling around the edge of the issue," Mr. de Jong admits, "but we want to move forward in a logical way. There are many issues around secondary suites in Calgary and they are deeply rooted. These are small steps but they are steps in the right direction."