Canadian Contractor

Robert Koci   

Laneway houses

Canadian Contractor Business Environment Market

Image courtesy of lanefab (

Image courtesy of Lanefab (

By David Godkin


Peter Simpson is an optimist at the best of times. Ask him about the phenomenon of laneway houses – homes built on existing lots in the footprint of a typical garage – and his enthusiasm knows no bounds. “It’s a great opportunity,” says the president of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association (GVHBA), “a great opportunity for renovators, custom home builders, even modular builders.” The biggest opportunity, he adds, is for families who saw Vancouver city council three years ago remove restrictions against the infill housing concept.

“Many times older children can’t find affordable home ownership without moving far away from the neighborhood they grew up in. At the other end are seniors who want to maintain their independence and still be within reach of family and friends. The laneway house is a great concept, a win-win for everybody.”



Build it right, build it right…

In many ways Vancouver was the ideal place to test zoning bylaws that have traditionally prohibited laneway home construction. Caught between the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Rocky Mountains on the other, the city has had to push the envelope in the amount of residential density it can allow before it diminishes livability. Neighborhood fears about intrusive construction and parking problems were just some of the objections that persuaded city council to prohibit laneway housing when the concept was first introduced as “granny flats” back in the 1970s.

Scroll forward nearly four decades and soaring real estate values and urban crowding have forced the city to re-visit the issue, with Vancouver builders quick to act when the by-law  prohibiting laneway homes was lifted in 2009. 450 building applications have been approved since then, among them Jake Fry’s of Small Works Studio, a passionate advocate of laneway house construction. He says the growth potential in Vancouver is enormous.

“The current by-law opened up just shy of 70,000 building sites for this type of small residence in the back of someone’s home. So it’s significant and widespread throughout the city.”

Fry’s company completed construction of one of the first of Vancouver’s fully permitted laneway house during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Twenty-four laneway houses later, Fry is still struck by how much Small Works’ designers have been tested by the laneway house’s restrictive building envelope. “Height restrictions, depths into the lot, sod yard setbacks; it’s a pretty tight little 3 dimensional cube that you have to build a home in.” The premium, says Fry, is on “judicious” space planning and built-in mill work “that takes advantage of every nook and cranny.”

“We also try to get those mill work pieces to serve more than one purpose: islands that can become tables, low storage closets that have an additional closet behind them, beds with storage space.”

Mike Dutson’s entry into the laneway housing business came at the prompting of a client looking for additional rental income. His firm Econ Group responded with an open concept, loft style configuration that combines dining, kitchen, and dining room areas one floor up, bathroom and utility closet below. A key consideration, says Dutson, were the non-living areas.

“It’s all about minimizing hallways and reducing the staircase foot print. They really take up a lot of non-living square footage. With this one, we have a small staircase and an entrance that enters right into the living unit.”

Another factor is the importance the environment plays in customers’ building decisions, a demand laneway houses are particularly good at meeting, says Sam FitzZaland, General Manager of Green City Builders. “It’s perfect. For one it’s a small footprint. And it’s an infill housing type so you’re getting more density on the same amount of space.” Green City is in the permitting phase of its first laneway house and plans to introduce some interesting choices during construction. Turns out that lint from a blue jean manufacturer, for example, makes a great cotton insulation. Green City also specializes in cabinet doors made from a mix of hardwood scraps from a local mill. The most striking aspect of this job, however, will be overhead.

“We’ll be putting a living roof on it. This is a shaded area north facing so we’re going to use a six inch growing soil so that we can grow ferns and other shade loving plants on the roof.”

A living roof has practical as well as aesthetic and environmental benefits, says FitzZaland. “It helps with insulation and it will also extend the life of the roof membrane because there’s no UV exposure to it.” A shallow sloped roof in combination with a premium flat roof waterproofing membrane, 2 ply SBS torchon, will ensure adequate drainage for the roof.

Western Growth…

Laneway housing, or their equivalent, have been slower to catch on east of B.C. Witness a decision by Edmonton city planners to permit expanded construction of “garage” suites; these are nearly identical to laneway houses, i.e.  newly built, secondary homes on a single lot, in some cases adjacent to a laneway.  Paul Kozak, senior planner with the city’s sustainable development department says garage suites have experienced only “a modest uptake” – 27 permits – since the by-laws were changed in 2007. But for the lack of staff to meet the demand he thinks they represent a real growth opportunity for home builders. “It fulfills a housing need. There is desire for it to some extent and it’s something we’d like to progress with.”

Is there similar potential in places like Regina? “Absolutely,” says Stu Niebergall, Executive Director of the Regina and Region Homebuilders’ Association. “We’ve got a good need for that in the marketplace. Our vacancy in Regina is the lowest in the country.” On top of that are some good secondary suite funding programs through Saskatchewan Housing Corporation and CMHC. Niebergall also pointed us towards Jerry Ricci, owner of Hybrid Construction, a Regina renovator just getting into the home building market. Ricci calls the laneway house concept “a great idea.”

“We’re just getting designs made on a 25 foot alley side lot that’s 125 feet deep so there’s plenty of room on the back end of it to build a two-story dwelling of something back there. It’s just a matter of trying to get that zoned with the city.”

Give us three years and we just might make that happen, says Regina’s zoning department. The city is half way through its Official Community Plan, which will explore the potential for stand-alone, secondary residences like Vancouver’s laneway house. Currently, these are only allowed if they are connected to the principal dwelling.

Hold on their pardner…

Just about everyone – even those in oil rich Alberta – agrees the major drawback to laneway houses is their cost. It’s helped dissuade some Vancouver builders like Bernie Wittig, owner of CWD Homes Custom Homes, from getting into the business at all. “I think they’re a great idea, but some of the initial hook-up costs are high.” Doug Kerr of Kerr Construction helped build one laneway house and agrees. “You need to have separate sewer connections, separate electrical connections, separate hydro meters; they treat it like a separate home; you don’t just connect to the existing home.” The result, says Kerr: “It hasn’t been a big boom for our business.”

Even Rob Chetner at Trasolini Chetner Construction Corporation which has up to four laneway houses under construction is cautious. “We build them, they’re cool they’re neat,” but are they a growth opportunity for industry? Chetner’s not so sure. More clients don’t see it as an option than do and part of the reason is the cost of Vancouver real estate.

“It’s a nice mortgage helper; on the other hand if you’re building a home that’s going to have an end value at a minimum in the west side of Vancouver of $2 million plus, does adding $1,500 a month of pre-tax revenue really make or break the difference for your home? Everyone’s going to answer that differently.”

For his part, Green City’s Sam FitzZaland defends the cost of laneway houses by pointing out that his project’s costs will be lower by up to $100,000 because trades people will already be on site building the master house. “Whenever we do a new house we’ll really push the possibility of doing a laneway as well.” Peter Simpson adds that removing the land cost from the equation is a big factor in the decision to build a laneway house. Another cost reducer and opportunity exists outside “the stick build” community – in modular laneway homes.

“The time of construction is lessened considerably if it’s factory built and the time on site is minimized. So if you’ve got all your servicing and foundation in place it cuts back on time and, in many cases, cost.”

But the biggest single obstacle to laneway homes is not cost, but the Nimby factor. “People don’t like change,” says Simpson and until they see a reason for change, they won’t. Still, he remains confident a review now underway by the City of Vancouver will conclude that neighborhood fears about laneway home construction are unwarranted. Vancouverites will embrace the concept as a great addition to neighborhood life and an economic driver.

“It’s a great idea on so many levels.”


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories

1 Comment » for Laneway houses
  1. Michael McCullough says:

    The nearest Rocky Mountains are about 900 kilometers from Vancouver. The mountains that overlook Vancouver are the Coast Range.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.