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In Vancouver, housing affordability goes small

The award-winning Smallworks Studios have been pioneers in Vancouver, a city now firmly on the forefront of new laneway housing nationally. Ever since council passed a bylaw in 2009 that allowed for laneway homes in RS1 and RS5 zones of the city, Smallworks have been creating variants of six two-level prototypes for a wide variety of Vancouverites.

From a 650-square-foot Arts and Crafts style home, to a more modern-feeling "loft house", the firm – the brainchild of builder Jake Fry – has exemplified the new residential take on "small is beautiful."

But now their kind of beautiful is even smaller. With the recent unveiling of a new trio of more affordable 380-square-foot "laneway cottages", Smallworks hopes to attract dozens of buyers.

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As always, the firm works collaboratively with homeowners, in-house designers and architects (notably James Burton of Birmingham and Wood) to customize homes according to site demands and client preferences. And they pre-assemble the homes at their studio/factory in Southlands (the bucolic location begs the moniker "cottage industry") so 10 to 12 components – constructed with locally sourced and sustainable materials – are neatly bolted together on site just like an Ikea cabinet.

The difference now – one that has almost halved the price of their standard laneway houses – is that their designers have literally gone back to the drawing board to envision inventive ways of reducing infrastructure costs. Building costs account for only 30 per cent of the total price point, with infrastructure and onsite costs taking the lion's share of expenditures. But these new laneway cottages have been designed with a small footprint and, at $150,000, a much smaller price.

They are available in three different styles, with floor plans that can be interchanged or modified for maximum flexibility. The "elegant" – a cousin to their Edwardian style laneway house, features a traditional pitched roof and dormer window. The interior consists of a bedroom walled off for privacy, a small bathroom, galley kitchen and larger living/dining area. Skilled use of custom-built millwork throughout streamlines clutter and maximizes space. Consider the bedroom, for instance, where deep drawers on one side merge into a large-screen TV in the living area in a single piece of millwork.

Then there's the "modern" – a miniature riff on the work of iconic West Coast architect Ron Thom – with a multilayered flat roof raised to maximize floor space in the living area (and also available for "greening"). The floor plan offers a double-access closet in the bedroom, and a captains' bed with built-in cabinetry underneath that could double as a linen cupboard. A sliding wall separates the bedroom and kitchen area from the living space – making it a perfect live/work space.

The "simple" has a more contemporary exterior with a shed roof and ample glazing to let in light. It also features the same patio door that the other two prototypes have to encourage a real indoor/outdoor aesthetic as well as two sets of French doors. But this unit more than the others offers a singular interior space. It's designed with extra storage space and a Murphy bed, so that living area can quickly be converted into a work space.

For clients David Vogt and his wife Tracy Proke – who chose the "simple" style for the backyard of their Dunbar home – the appeal of the cottage was not just its reduced price – but its smaller footprint.

In a "transitional" stage of new empty-nesters, Mr. Vogt says, "We didn't want something that would impose itself too much on the property." Happily, with their home's sloping site, their existing balcony will still tower above their soon to be built (building time is a mere three months with the new Smallworks prototype) cottage. But above all they wanted something that would be flexible to fit their changing needs.

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"We have children in their 20s and they all have partners," says Ms. Proke, "we don't know if perhaps one day one of them might like to live here. Or perhaps it might be a suitable place for my mother."

It's also a place they might rent out to a tenant. But it's not just a case of bringing in revenue, they say, it's also a way of doing their bit for densification.

"I remember when a Japanese colleague of mine came to visit," Mr. Vogt, who works at UBC, recalls. "He looked out at our lane, saw all the garages, and wondered if there were some strange underclass of people who lived in windowless residences in other people's backyards. He couldn't imagine that all that space was being used to house cars."

Having laneway housing on their property, he contends, is a way of "socializing and beautifying the laneway."

It's also a way of adapting to their changing circumstances. "Sometimes it feels like the two of us rummaging around in this big old house," says Ms. Proke of their 2,600-square-foot 1920s Arts and Crafts style home. "But we're not quite ready to pick up and move downtown." The laneway cottage will create a sense of multi-family living without having to forsake the place where she raised her own family.

"In some ways," notes Mr. Fry, "laneway housing is a more sustainable alternative to the 'monster house' "– which was after all – a form of "family compound" very popular with new Asian communities.

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And laneway housing isn't a new housing type of course, with its roots in the traditional coach house. "Even in Dunbar" notes Mr. Fry of the now tony neighbourhood," which was really a largely working class area until the eighties – it wasn't uncommon for people to live in their garages."

A quick tour of Dunbar's back lanes reveals a few earlier, pre-Smallworks attempts at laneway housing – including an interesting and quite modern backyard writer's studio encased in steel – as well as some of Smallworks' – who have essentially standardized, modernized and made sustainable a rather old world housing-type works-in-progress.

In front of one "Edwardian" style house with a modern, spacious, high-ceilinged interior, a 40- something woman and her parents in their late 70s are sizing it up with a view to purchasing one of their own. Mr. Fry notes that 30 per cent of his clientele are young first-time homeowners building on their parents' property (one such couple is even blogging about the whole experience) while an equal percentage are older folks moving into laneway housing on their children's property.

As Vancouver's population continues to grow – and age – not to mention as demand and cost of housing rises, it's easy to imagine a city where laneway cottages can become part of a well- designed and rather charming solution.

It also offers the possibility of "having your own house and garden," contends Mr. Fry, "to a much wider segment of the city's population."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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