LaneFab's Little Vancouver Laneway Houses Are Pretty Fab

CC BY 2.0. Lanefab houses/ Lloyd Alter

They may not be the answer to the housing crisis, but they certainly are wonderful little homes.

Many of Vancouver’s streets have parking via back lanes or alleys, and in 2009 the City approved back lane housing. The first out of the gate was Bryn Davidson with is Lanefab house, covered in TreeHugger here. Since then there has been a real explosion in back lane housing, and Bryn’s company, LaneFab, is building back lane and conventional houses all over town. Bryn notes that "as a form of densification, laneway houses allow new density to be inserted into existing walkable, and transit accessible, neighbourhoods while helping to preserve the community’s existing homes."

the first laneway house

© Lanefab/ the first new laneway house in VancouverJust building tiny houses on back lanes would be enough for TreeHugger but Bryn goes further than that. He builds his full-size houses to Passivehouse standards and uses the same technologies for the tiny houses, even with their space-eating 13-inch thick walls.

laneway house with back garden

Laneway house with lower living and back garden/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Bryn took me to see a pair of houses under construction, being built as rental units. One has the living space on the larger, lower level with the bedrooms upstairs; the other, on the corner, with the living upstairs and a deck overlooking the street. I preferred the living downstairs because of the sunken patio and the bigger living space, but the other plan did have a more dramatic cathedral ceiling and the deck was lovely.

Interior lower living room

Lower level living room/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It is actually really hard to build a little laneway house as a Passivehouse; the bylaw demands that the second floor be only 60 percent the area of the lower level, and there are all kinds of rules on setbacks and overlooks that make it hard to be #BBB or boxy but beautiful. The energy intensity is much higher in a small building, the relation of surface to habitable area is different. But LaneFab uses the same Passivehouse windows and doors and levels of insulation, and tries for the same level of air tightness.

wall section

© Lanefab/ Wall section with intern Tanvi

LaneFab builds a Hybrid wall with Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) prefabbed in the shop, with an interior wall that contains all the services, and a total R-value of 38. They have a higher-performing thicker wall for the PassiveHouse designs that gets to R58. Using precut SIPs lets them close the house in very quickly, a must when you live in a rainforest.

Another problem building back lane housing is that it is expensive. You have all the same stuff as in a bigger house, more difficult access, often complicated designs and expensive servicing of water and drains that run through the main house’s sideyard to the street. Every new Vancouver house is sprinklered, so there has to be a bigger service. Laneway houses are a way of increasing housing supply, but they are certainly no answer to the affordable housing crisis in Vancouver or anywhere.

But housing prices in Vancouver are totally crazy, so even if it costs close to half a million bucks to build a tiny house in a back lane, that is still half the cost of a condo. Many families are doing as a multi-generational solution; as Sandy Keenan wrote in the New York Times of one family and their 1050 square foot laneway house:

There were huge advantages, it turned out, to building new, in his family’s backyard. And not just because his mother continues to cook for everyone on weeknights....Because they didn’t have to buy the land, the total cost of the project was well below their budget: less than $500,000. So they can save for Maddy’s college tuition and they have more disposable income.
Bryn Davidson

Bryn Davidson/ Photo by Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The rules for back lane houses keep evolving as the city learns from them; when the bylaw originally was passed, one parking space in a garage had to be built. However the minute the houses passed inspections almost every garage was converted into living space. Now, there has to be an outdoor parking pad, which is a bit more efficient. Bryn's designs have been at the forefront of this housing revolution, and I suspect in a few years they will look different again. See them all at Lanefab.

Back lane housing has been controversial in many cities; where I live in Toronto, they have been fighting about it for at least 30 years and are just getting close to making it legal. But the key to making it work is to make it as-of-right, so that neighbours cannot say almost literally, Not In My Backyard. So in Vancouver, designers have to jump through a lot of hoops to preserve privacy and sunlight, but if they meet the rules they can build.

That’s a hard sell in many cities, but it is the only way it will ever happen.