Michael Mortensen: Do we need a New Vancouver Special?


From Michael Mortensen:
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Do we need a “NEW Vancouver Special?”

I’ve often thought that Vancouver needs a “New Vancouver Special” – a new type of ubiquitous infill housing that addresses affordability, the high cost and limited supply of land, and the scarcity of ground-oriented housing typically favoured by families.

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There are some lessons that can be learned from the Old Vancouver Specials – those boxy but roomy, poorly insulated, one-up-one-down duplexes popular in Vancouver from the 1960s to the 1980s.

I wonder if we can we adapt that old model to create:

  • Development that houses more than two families on a lot
  • Infill that is attractive and more in character with local architecture
  • Housing that is affordable and quick to design, approve and build?

And like the old Vancouver Special, can we make the new version something so tuned to market demands that it is widely adopted and becomes a part of the fabric of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods?  What might surprise you is that some of these ideas already been designed and vetted by the City some time ago … but first a look back.

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The OLD Vancouver Special


The Vancouver Specials that proliferated from the 1960s to the early 1980s are celebrated by some in our city as an iconic form of once-affordable housing. They were favoured by new immigrants to Canada, many of whom had extended families.

Simplicity and repetition were part of the reason for their success. Stock plans for small 33-foot-wide lots could be bought for as little as $65 in the 1970s, with all the info needed for a one-page planning application at City Hall. They were approved quickly and built almost as fast in many of Vancouver’s close-in suburbs.

After falling out of favour in the 80s, Vancouver Specials are enjoying some new popularity today. Many people are updating them, finding value in their roomy volumes perhaps after beefing up insulation and replacing the single-pane aluminium frame windows.

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*Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Google Image Search

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The basic template for the Special was a two-storey box with a low pitched roof; living, kitchen and dining rooms on the top floor, with balconies on the front and decks on the back; and bedrooms below.  It was easy to add another kitchen and convert these homes to duplex use.

Builders finished the exterior with siding, brick or stone on the first floor and cheaper stucco above, a departure from the finishing of craftsman homes that were more typical of Vancouver’s older neighbourhoods.

On a 33’ x 120’ lot, a builder could easily get two 1,500 square-foot levels for a total of 3,000 square feet of gross floor area. Compared to apartments today, 1,500 square feet of space for each of two families today sounds pretty spacious. Over a 3,960 square-foot site, 3,000 square feet of development equates to a 0.76 Floor Area Ratio (FAR).

Grossing up the land 30 percent to include road space, this type of development generates about 17 units per acre (UPA) which is two to three times the density of farther-out car dependent suburbs, but generally below the intensity of townhouses.

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How could we adapt the idea of the Vancouver Special?


What if we changed the Old Vancouver Special to better meet for contemporary social, economic and environmental conditions?  A good start would be to break the building up to create more but slightly smaller separate units to house more families per lot, perhaps making better use of land by taking advantage of the efficiency of assembling two to three lots.

We may want to build the houses just a little bit higher – a third floor perhaps, with a sloping roof to minimize the apparent mass of the new buildings.

More people are cycling, taking transit and car sharing (saving money) so we could reduce parking requirements, which frees up more land for housing people rather than housing cars.

One thing to increase would be energy efficiency and environmental performance. And perhaps we could even take affordability a bit further by sharing facilities that would otherwise consume space within each of the homes (i.e. shared laundry or workshop space).

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What would New Vancouver Specials look like?


Well, this is where we are in luck – because a few years ago Patricia St. Michel, an urban planner with the City of Vancouver and a colleague from my planning days there, led a team that developed a series of prototype infill plans that capture the ideas above.

Working with residents in the Cedar Cottage neighbourhood, they developed “RT-10 and RT-11” Zoning and Guidelines which are worth a closer look.

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The zoning and design guidelines illustrate some prototype dwellings that can be organized on assemblies of two to three small lots. They intensify the use of land but they also respond to the rhythm and fabric of the neighbourhoods in which they sit.

In some cases, setbacks are varied; in others, they remain consistent. The designs typically create multiple buildings with internal green spaces for privacy and relief. They all accommodate parking which could possibly be relaxed further in areas well served by cycle routes, transit, and car share.

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Where could we build New Vancouver Specials?


Vancouver’s downtown peninsula comprises 5 percent of our land but houses 10 percent of our population.;  The predominant building forms are mid-rise and high-rise apartments, so New Vancouver Specials are not really going to work here.

Outside of the downtown, the first ring of “streetcar suburbs” from the early 1900s (i.e. Kits and Mount Pleasant) comprise 10 percent of land but house 15 percent of the population. A mix of housing, predominantly multifamily in character, defines this area. New Vancouver Specials could work here, but they are perhaps still a bit too low in density to compete with higher density options.

Looking further out, Vancouver’s low-density suburbs account for 85 percent of the land, but only 75 percent of our population. There may be opportunities there – ageing suburban neighbourhoods well supplied with amenities like parks and under-subscribed schools.

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A Quick Case Study


With deference to Patricia’s superior design skills, I pulled together a quick SketchUp model of what a New Vancouver Special might look like using two 33×120-foot lots in an existing Vancouver neighbourhood. I picked a suburban location close to transit, parks and schools.

The plan has a cluster of four four-bedroom homes at the front of the property – each with a 500 square-foot floor plate and three levels, yielding 1,500 square feet of space per home. Three two-level coach houses at the back of the property yield a 1,000 square-foot three-bed unit and two 500 square-feet one bed/studio units (two have parking below).

BC’s Strata Property Act could be used to legally divide up the property into strata lots and common property. Grossing up the land 30 percent to include road space, this development generates about 30 UPA, which is on par with ground-oriented town house development.

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What would New Vancouver Specials cost?

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A back-of-napkin financial analysis is shown below. The cost of land is the largest factor, followed by hard construction costs, and then soft costs which include design, permits and fees, insurance and construction finance costs.

A “prototype design” vetted by the City might reduce the design costs and expedite the approvals process. An unknown would be the contribution the City may seek for the additional density (the difference between the 1.0 FAR proposed from the 0.78 FAR existing).

For simplicity and clarity, I’ve just looked at land, construction and design Costs, factoring in a modest 15 percent development profit.

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Therefore, based on an average cost of $551/square foot, each of the units would be priced as follows:

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If $500,000 is added to the cost of each lot – either through the land price or CAC’s or a combination of the two, the “all-in” costs increase to $695/square foot, and the homes begin to look considerably less affordable.

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Conclusion


This quick design and analysis suggests that residential uses in our outer suburbs can be intensified with New Vancouver Specials but the economics are sensitive to land prices and additional costs such as Community Amenity Contributions.

With land costs at $1 million per lot, the cost of new housing generated is not going to be cheap, but it is going to be competitive with new mid and high rise development. The added benefit is ground access and perhaps more space for your money.

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I’d be interested in your thoughts! Do you think there is a case for a New Vancouver Special? Where would you like to see these new housing opportunities?

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Michael Mortensen is a developer and an urban planner with 20 years of experience managing the development of transformative mixed-use projects in Vancouver, and Toronto, and more recently in London and Edinburgh in the UK.

45 thoughts on “Michael Mortensen: Do we need a New Vancouver Special?”

  1. In theory, Michael, this is wonderful idea and should be implemented all over town. There will be lots of opposition from residents of the remaining 85%, and lots of blaming the Chinese, and lots of indifference from City officials; but aim high and be willing to compromise. With a plan and appropriate incentives, I think a good number can eventually get built – maybe increase the housing stock by 5% – 15%. I’m in. Do it.

  2. Thanks for the long and detailed post.

    A few thoughts:

    -It’s a huge improvement on the status quo, but it would be preferable to allow even more housing (midrises etc.) on that land.

    -Any zoning change to so much of Vancouver’s land will be contentious; if we’re going to spend a lot of political capital on this, I think we might as well go “all in” and aim for something a little denser.

    -I think it *might* be feasible if a politician appeals to the majority of Vancouverites who already live in multifamily housing to push it through. Would be more of a tough sell in suburbs where single-family homes make up a bigger % of the housing stock.

  3. all that is interesting should find place in the urban landscape and can certainly meet a market, but does it is something so tuned to market demands ?

    time to remember some basics:

    the market overwhelmingly demand house with freehold property title.

    In that regard: land assembly is not a move in the right direction, land division is.

    • City Flaneur said:

      Agreed. And this way we’re not reliant on developers to do the density – more individual owners could become small developers for more incremental development and finer scaled density. Also it would hopefully help people able to stay in their neighbourhoods rather than feeling forced out as everyone else around them sells to developers.

    • Market also overwhelmingly demands Ferraris. Not everyone can have one. Their factory can only build so many each year, that’s why the price is high. Exact same with respect to Vancouver SFD’s – capacity is very limited so prices are high. Even now, the majority of households are not living in SFDs in our region. 66% of households live in duplexes, rowhouses/townhouses or apartments; only 34% of households live in single-family dwellings. And 90% of new supply is multi-family (after you net out demolitions of SFDs that are being replaced by more dense forms), so that proportion is declining every year.

      • Cogent points. Indeed we have to look at practical ways to make multifamily at all scales work a little harder – to deliver the easential bits of the North American Dream, but in a way that creates a smaller footprint and a more walkable, cycling and transit friendly city. Our Strata Title legislation dates back to 1974. It’s not perfect but we’ve made it work pretty well.

        I recall a line from Peter Calthorpe’s “Pedestrian Pocket’ book that goes something like this:
        “Europe has its cafes; America it’s bathrooms. What America needs is more espresso and less plumbing”

    • Definitely a place for fee-simple row housing in our city.

  4. Frank Ducote said:

    Excellent work , Michael. Just the kind of anaylsis and dialogue we need to have in order to pursue expansion of ground-oriented housing in our cities.

    For those who think more density is warranted, the model that Michael offers of back to back townhouses plus courtyard townhouses in the rear can yield more than the 1.0 FSR he proposes. There are local examples of up to 1.45 FSR using this approach, which is exactly the same density as – yet is much more livable and neighbourly in lowrise areas – as a 4- storey corridor apartment building. Th

    As such, it can be employed both on arterial corridors and “shoulder” sites that form a transition to lower density areas away from arterials and transit nodes.

  5. I think this is an interesting approach, and certainly worthy of further discussion.

    My concern has to do with the required zoning changes in Vancouver’s SFH (single-family housing) areas, which still make up roughly two thirds of our residential land area. There seems to be this general opinion that bringing in moderately higher density zoning changes will be easier in Vancouver proper vs the suburbs. There’s a comment to that effect further above, and I heard Larry Beasly make the same argument yesterday at an SFU event downtown.

    Based on my experience taking part in Cambie Corridor Phase 3 planning discussions this Fall, my impression is that any changes to residential SFH zoning will be met with a lot of push-back. Phase 3 is looking to allow for the construction of ground-oriented, family-friendly housing in formerly SFH zones (rowhouses, duplexes/triplexes, stacked townhouses, etc.). Nothing over 3 stories, some of it along arterials (King Ed), and a maximum of one block in from the Phase 2 zoning (which we can see being built now along Cambie).

    Going into the discussion, I’d have thought that these sorts of changes would have been embraced, or at least accepted. That could not have been further from the truth. I was the one person at my table who was in favour. The others (couples in their mid/late thirties) were opposed. They didn’t want any change to the neighbourhood (Douglas Park). I found this beyond odd, considering we were discussing the softest up-zoning available to the City: ground-oriented, family-friendly housing. In an area that already has 3-4 story mid-rise on the main arterial streets, and along some shoulder road (Heather).

    If this is the kind of response that this kind of up-zoning will face, I despair at the amount of time and political capital that will be needed to bring about the sorely needed changes to Vancouver residential zoning. Never mind the suburbs, there is still a large part of this city’s population that remains obsessed with SFH housing, and fighting any and all possible changes.

    • Thanks, it’s good (albeit depressing) to know how the Cambie Corridor workshops went.

      I think the silver lining in that cloud is that most Vancouverites live in multifamily housing and development trends are only reinforcing that further; politicians *might* be able to risk angering SFH owners if they’re a relatively small percentage of voters.

      That said, I’m doubtful that we’ll see significant change without a major overhaul of our land use regulations; moving some decisions to a higher level of government (like in Ontario or Japan) would be my preferred approach.

      • Thanks all! I think that this could be ONE of many creative responses on how to accommodate more people in relatively more affordable homes in Vancouver. Politically I do get that this may trigger opposition. However, alot can change in a decade – just look at the secondary suite debate. In the 80s the question almost provoked suburban riots in council chambers; 10 years later, I think there were 3 speakers opposed. Pilot projects help – thinking here about the late Art Cowie’s fee simple row homes on Cambie.

        I’ll do a follow up and another round of analysis, including feedback from you all, particularly Frank’s Ducote’s notion of more density; Richard Whitstock’s ideas of simpler more replicable (and easier to approve) row-house forms; and Greg Mitchell’s idea to use larger lots.

        Stay tuned!
        Michael

      • Adam Fitch said:

        I don’t think that politicians need to “spend their political capital” to make this happen, in the long run. Like laneway houses, once they approve one or two of these “new Vancouver specials” and people see how popular they are, how attractive, how minimally intrusive in sf neighbourhoods, and how profitable, they will catch on like hotcakes.

    • Depressing, but not very surprising. There are no costs to existing homeowners in keeping the neighbourhood exactly as it is, and creeping costs to the city. It’s as if the city wants Cambie homeowners to voluntarily approve this very modest upzoning as an expression of goodwill, or is dressing it as such to claim that the residents were adequately consulted once the zoning is approved. I wish there could be a more frank and public discussion about density in Vancouver, rather than keeping it to these technocratic operations, since the contours of the problem need to be clearer to everyone. Until then, anti-density will probably remain the default stance in neighbourhoods that can most softly accommodate more.

  6. Here’s my comment on this article pasted from Facebook:

    Great article Michael Mortensen. I have long felt that we need a new typology for affordable family housing in the city. I don’t know if these complex cluster housing forms are it though.

    As you note, the hallmark of the van special is that it is cheap and easy to build and easily repeatable. One of the keys to this is simple slab on grade construction. Excavating and forming a basement (never mind an underground parkade) is expensive and adds a month or two to the schedule.

    I believe that the new Vancouver special should be a row house- take a 33′ lot and slice it down the middle to create two 16.5′ zero-lot-line lots. At 1 FSR you could build 2000 SF with a front yard, private rear yard, detached garage and, if desired but not necessary, a basement (suite).

    This should satisfy the criteria of being cheap, easy and repeatable without major intense planning reviews like the ones I have experienced trying to do simple RT-8 duplexes (12 months to get a permit, and that’s when things were less busy than they are today). And a much better form, very similar to the SFD “ideal” that people still seem to desperately want.

    • Great points Richard. Physical and economic models to follow! I like the flow of these ideas and comments and will honour all with another iteration of thinking.

      Cheers
      M

    • Adam Fitch said:

      Richard, if you look at houses all over south Vancouver, they already are “sliced down the middle” on the ground floor, into two lower suites – very narrow – and then one suite upstairs.
      I believe that this did not used to be legal, so they still appear as “single family dwellings” from the outside, at least from the front. But now I have heard that the zoning allows them outright. Does anyone know for sure?

  7. Better solution: allow subdivision of the lot. 1- 33′ wide lot becomes 2- 15.5′ lots. 0′ side yards (townhomes) with laneways. You get 4 units / lot (1 more than you are proposing) and have a workable backyard for each unit. Bonus would be to allow for no front yard and larger back yard.

  8. The lot depths on the Vancouver streets where I have lived range from 85′ to 122′. Half of them are 106′ or less. Therefore any discussion of a new Vancouver Special cannot be a single design, but must be a whole range of similar designs to fit different size lots.

    I think one of the most important discussions must be about minimum setbacks. A key feature of a lane way house is the fact that it sits pretty much on the rear property line. We need to consider doing something similar with the structure or structures on the front of the lot. Many multifamily structures and single family homes on corner lots have only a few feet between sidewalk and front door. I consider that appropriate for the new Special. You still get a bit of buffer from the street and space to grow shrubs and flowers while opening up room in behind for a courtyard, parking or larger lane way structures.

    We also need to talk about surface permeability. You can’t pave 100% of every lot in Vancouver without creating a huge rainwater problem. Shade trees are also an important feature of the city that has been in steep decline recently. In buildings without shade I’ve seen indoor temperatures exceed 30C here in relatively cool, temperate Vancouver. Designs with limited parking would allow for a higher ratio of vegetation to pavement.

    • David, I think these interests can be addressed with some stock designs. The footprint of these new multi family options is not far off what’s permitted in RS-1. If you look at the City’s RT-11 guidelines, they show a number of designs for special conditions like corner lots and lots where the setbacks can be varied while retaining a nicely landscaped street frontage.

      • I’m not talking about special conditions, I’m talking about lot on every street in the city. Front yards are, by and large, wasted space. Nobody spends any time in them except to cut the grass or trim the shrubs. Reducing the setback of every home would create space for much larger backyards (where people actually spend time) and much larger lane way houses. The new Special should be no more than 10′ from the sidewalk.

        • Good clarification David. I can see that working under many situations and I get benefits of wider internal separations. The RT-11 zoning I referenced illustrates this in some detail.

    • David brings up a good point about setbacks. Considering that there are 73.6 hectares (over 180 acres) locked up in the standard 7.3 m (24 ft) front yard setback for every 10,000 detached homes on standard 10 m lots, it clearly becomes a land planning exercise calling for some intelligent site planning ideas. Michael has generaously and creatively provided several.

      The RT11 plan indicates a four-unit assembly on two existing 10 m standard lots. These already exist in older neighbourhoods like, Mount Pleasant, Grandview Woodlands and Riley Park, and many of them predate the earliest zoning bylaws by over 40 years. Most of them have front yard setbacks of 3 m, sometimes less, and these indeed create a charming and more humane neighbourhood than the garage door archi9tecture that dominates so many distant subdivisions. The city has learnt from its own history in the RT11 initiative, but that wasn’t followed up in the FAR allowances which treat them as standard lots with 0.7 FAR, meaning people who renovate after a fire have to go through the trouble, time and expense of visiting the Board of Variance to get their century-old ~1.0 FAR grandfathered in with no guarantee of success.

      I see these subdivided lots as a precursor to attached freehold single-family homes (i.e. rowhouses), and some of us are producing study models of our own. To eke out of the Strata Title Act, which to me is essential to make these homes more attractive (a contract with the neighbours in the row is probably all one needs), notably after the condo rot crisis, I believe there must be some kind of internal separation and stout sound attenuation measures. This could be in the form of a 50 mm gap in the party wall and foundations with independent load-bearing capacity.

      Recycling materials from demolished houses will be necessary in future, but there is no way to prevent that from adding to the list prices of the new infill housing tht will take their place. Therefore, one should try to negotiate an additional unit or two above the zoning allowances for avoiding demolition, and thus offset a portion of the increase in costs (therein list price) with an extra sale or two. In addition, preserving heritage-rated and unique character homes should be made possible by allowing them to be moved closer to the edges of the lot to free up space for the rowhouses or new infill Van specials. Heritage trees should be saved and the city must be more flexible in allowing new development to swing around the root zone within the lot configuration. This may be easier if more than two or three lots are consolidated and the density pushed over to one side to save a large, beautiful tree which would take generations to replace.

      The homes are only one component. Their yards are also part of the mix of considerations. Backyard privacy is very important to most people. We should take some of our clues from older, more experienced communities such as London’s Chelsea. There you see 2-2.5 m solid masonry walls between yards, higher still facing busy roads and lanes with the masonry mass blocking out a lot of the sound. Today’s Vancouver requirement for a 1.8 m height restriction for sideyard fences isn’t adequate. If the issue is light, then one can add stout glass to the upper 60 cm of masonry walls, and outline them with interesting window framing techniques in brick.

      In a denser city with smaller yards, maintaining large expanses of soft ground for runoff infiltration is just nonsensical when the soil capacity is maxed out very early in winter because of the hard glacial till is not 60 cm below the surface, and where tiny bioswales become a maintenance nightmare (they plug up with sediment, as does porous paving which has failed every test over time in our climate). It is better to build large underground cisterns during the intial home construction below patios, decks and terraces for rain water collection (or one super large cistern per row) and use the water for gardens and flushing toilets. The best community water management assets are a series of substantial downstream wetlands that collect runoff from an entire group of neighbourhoods, filter and clean it before its allowed to enter streams containing salmonid habitat.

      • Thanks for that very impressive and informed response MB. Lots to think about (pardon the pun!). I am reading your feedback in the kitchen of my Georgian house in Richmond UK looking out at the back garden of my terrace house, surrounded by a tall brick wall. Most of it is paved – as is the front garden so one does wonder where all the rain goes (out to the tidal Thames I guess !!)

        That sort of privacy is ok but but one of the most endearing features of the townhouse complex I left in Vancouver (4319 Sophia) was the open plan nature of the green space – kids in the complex could roam around and play freely as this was all common space. It all worked surprisingly well in this 32 unit development and everyone got along very well. As with all stratas, there are issues with big maintenance decisions and landscape changes etc, so the idea of a freehold option for a new Vancouver Special is an interesting one.

        My concrete house in the UK is as old as Canada and shares a party wall with two neighbours – a pub to the north, and another house to the south. They’ve been constructing lot line to lot line for centuries here and have agreements for maintenance and access etc. I think we can learn much from the efforts of the late Art Cowie and his freehold row units on Cambie.

        Thanks for your feedback!

      • Thank you, Michael, for your very informative and creative original post. My grandfather’s old terrace house is in Chelsea just off King’s Road. It is one in a row of seven built in the 1870s from the ubiquitous London tan brick with white ornamentation. It’s a little run down now and remains divided up into flats along with probably three others in the row. The terrace house at the end was listed at about 1.5 million pounds five years ago for four levels, including the ground floor which I believe the new owners rented out after renovations.

        There are many things we can learn from communities like Chelsea and other old towns regarding urbanism and architectural responses to allow comfortable increases in density while respecting personal privacy inside and outside one’s home. Though unreinforced masonry would not be a viable modern construction technique here, we can certainly modify it to address things like sound attenuating mass and durability.

        Of course, much depends on the quality of one’s neighbours too. We too have developed life-long friendships with other residents and families in previous apartment complexes and in our current neighbourhood, but there have always been a few people in every location who generate a cacophany of noise and / or do not always bear goodwill toward others. It’s these few folks who make it necessary to build high fences and solid walls, especially if they live next door. Being open to the street seems to counterbalance the privacy measures needed inside and in the backyard. We also live close to a small park with a generous playground and open lawn, so it acts as a kind of communal backyard. I feel strongly that open space planning should be as important to urban design considerations as the transportation system for this and several other reasons.

        You are absolutely right that land values are drowning affordability in Vancouver. Construction costs are the smaller component. Nonetheless, rowhousing will occupy the vast gulf of prices between detached homes and condos. They can be a simple slab at-grade, two-up-two-down cheaper, U-finish 4.5 m wide unit right up to a five-storey 7 m custom design with a full basement and legal suite. If they addressed fee simple ownership, privacy and durability and were extemely energy-efficient, then I feel the market is wide open, especially when located on the shoulder streets of arterials with good transit.

        I believe that there is great potential in using shop-fabricated modular components and minimizing on site labour-intensive and time-consuming construction techniques such as building extensive concrete forms. Moreover, stick framing is always saturated for months from inclement weather. A rowhouse complex could have only one cast-in-place concrete foundation wall at the perimeter surrounding an array of ground-level concrete footings. Glue-laminated load-bearing timber framing, steel bracing, floor joists, roof rafters and wall components pre-fabricated to exacting design specifications in a shop then trucked to the site, erected with a crane and bolted together very quickly could save a lot of on-site labour costs. Roofs would be finished and offering protection from the weather in days, not weeks.

        As mentioned above, each unit would have an independent load-bearing structure separated from the neighbouring units by a ~50m mm gap right down to ground level, therein allowing the consideration of freehold purchases without strata. I believe this is how Art Cowie did it. Fire and sound proofing techniques can be addressed within the separated wall cavities. Fire codes will dictate a low wall with non-combustable surfaces extend above the roof line between units, which will be the only common element shared with a neighbouring unit.

        There are great possibilities.

      • Adam Fitch said:

        MB, I like those points. With respect to one of the points that you made: “In addition, preserving heritage-rated and unique character homes should be made possible by allowing them to be moved closer to the edges of the lot to free up space for the rowhouses or new infill Van specials” I made the same point in a post on Vanishing Vancouver about a year ago.

        In response to all the howling about preserving character houses on the west side of Vancouver, this model *would* allow them to be preserved, and would enhance affordability and neighbourhood revitalization. But he main sticking point is for the neighbourhoods, west side or elsewhere, to accept the additional density as a quid pro quo for the character home preservation.

  9. How much roughly would a new Vancouver Special cost in today’s market? If a new single-family house on the same lot sells for $2.5 million, how much would a townhouse or row house be?

    • Hi Antje,
      The costs – for a variety of unit sizes – are detailed in my blog post. They are much less than a SFD and I think quite competitive against new concrete high rise product in the City which sells for north of $600/sf.

      • Thank you, I missed the cost table above. This sounds quite a bit less costly than a new single family home.

        New SF houses seem to have practically no yards, only entrance greenery. The rest is house, double garage, pavement. It seems to make sense to at least provide more homes if all trees are cut and gardens paved every time a house is sold.

        • Indeed. The cost would be competitive and cheaper than most new apartments, but the New Specials deliver more ground oriented space and value.

          I think that these lots can retain their curb appeal with attractive landscaping (thinking drought resistant after last summer!)

        • Perhaps this idea could be brought to North Vancouver District (under a different name than New Vancouver Special since there aren’t many original Vancouver Specials here). The pace of single-family redevelopment is high. The new houses are out of reach for most. Neighbourhood character and parking would be the main obstacles to build anything else but single-family homes.

        • Good Point Antje! The North Van Special! 🙂

  10. What’s wrong with the Norquay template? Row-house, townhouse, and apartments. The row-house and townhouse zones have a higher density than being proposed here. FSR 1 is too low.

    • Hi Logan 5,
      Thanks for your comment. The New Van Special is posited rather a ‘base option’ for pretty much any suburban neighbourhood in the city. It would not preclude higher density forms of redevelopment (like Norquay) where they make sense.

      Following on from your idea though, comments from talented urban designers like Frank Ducote suggest that even this base option could be higher in density, so I am exploring that too.

  11. Recent-grad from UBC SALA Eleonore Leclerc worked on this precise question, in her thesis of the same title. Notable conclusions smaller units in incremental aggregations – smaller day-to-day kitchens – common-use special occasion kitchens at ground level and notably common-use guest rooms.

    • Cool! I’ll look it up!
      In 1997 i completed a MA Thesis on “Retrofitting Suburbs” on pretty much this subject of what to do with out suburbs. In the face of new investment flows and no alternative forms of development, you get a reinforced version of the North American Dream, just bigger with a bigger garage!!

  12. How about a different approach altogether.

    Factory built “move in ready modules”; kitchen dine combo / bedroom bathroom combo/ flex
    space room.

    Modules that can be stacked above each other or plugged into each other side by side. Built in a controlled environment with skilled labour using modern materials and trucked to the home site with zero construction impact on neighbourhoods. Ground oriented stand-alone projects that are compact and low cost per square foot with no party walls and yielding interior spaces filled with fresh air and sunshine.

    No Building Permit required based on pre-approved factory specifications, no soft costs, with the potential for factory financing options.

    Such an affordable housing strategy is suitable for RS-1 neighbourhoods on lots 33’x120’ while respecting all required setbacks and height restrictions. No land assembly required. Four strata titles per lot. Typical module at 240sf. Three modules = one bed arrangement / four modules =2 or 3 bed arrangement. Average occupancy cost per module target at $25,000. Therefore one bedroom unit = $200,000 plus profit, taxes & CAC’s.

    Just saying, maybe this whole affordability issue needs an industrial production strategy. And maybe we should be paying more attention to the demographics on the demand side.

    • Hi Jolson,
      I think there are many elements of homes that can be built in factory conditions. At the turn of the century you could buy a small house from a Sears catalogue and the CPR would flat pack it on a train and mail it to you! Lang Construction here in the UK has a big moden plant but the principles of pre-design and manufacture are the same.

      There are some downsides to prefab, largely around competition (limited number and capacity of plants vs traditional stick build). Perhaps the lesson here is to design them so that you had the flexibility to go either route.

      On demographics i totally agree. Have to consider aging in place, accessibility and flex uses.

      Thanks for your comments.
      M

    • City Flaneur said:

      It is my understanding that part of the high cost associated with laneway homes are the separate hydro connection fees (and probably other separate services required by the City also – ~$10,000 for sewer, etc) so presumably those would have to be tacked on to your idea as well.

    • Adam Fitch said:

      Jolson, we do have a thriving manufactured and modular home sector in BC, they are particularly popular and common in the interior of BC and the north. However, they are looked down on quite a lot in southwestern BC, and especially Vancouver. Not that that cannot be overcome, but it will take some efforts.

      And they do require building permits to install, although the permits are simpler than for a stick-built house. Someone still needs to ensure that they are installed properly.

      • There are some very good prefab home builders in the Vancouver area. Mainstream developers / builders are not interested in changing from stick-built houses as long as the market is hot. So the prefab market is mainly small islands with poor access and export.

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