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TEXT Matthew Soules

In an era increasingly focused on maximizing the spatial efficiency of cities, it is not hard to describe the omnipresence of the single-purpose service lane as anachronistic. Because once an infrastructure and pattern of use is established, it tends to be exceedingly difficult to dislodge. It’s not hard to understand why this is the case. Countless North American cities have innumerable kilometres of service lanes, a shadow doubling of the named and therefore proper streets, devoted to the messy realities of parking, trash collection, and loading and unloading. However, at the outset of the 21st century, this phantom network of narrow streets is increasingly considered a territory ripe for dual duty, asked to emerge from its singular role as service space to be backed onto, and to become a space in its own right upon which architecture fronts. And through lane-fronting architecture, at least according to some, the possibility of a denser city emerges. Despite much conversation and debate, it remains to be seen what an extensive repurposing of service lanes would offer the North American city, but to get a sense, Vancouver–the continent’s pre-eminent working laboratory of contemporary urbanism–offers the best glimpse yet.

The city of Vancouver, with just over 640,000 residents within its 115 square kilometres, is already Canada’s densest city. There are roughly 5,000 people for every square kilometre. However, despite this density, more than three-quarters of the city is zoned for single-family dwellings. Indeed, the vast majority of the city is defined by detached homes with front and rear yards. For such a statistically dense place, it’s remarkably suburban. In effect, very high densities in the relatively small central core outweigh more meagre densities in the rest of the city. The West End, for instance, clocks in at 22,000 people/km2 while tony Shaughnessy comes in at an almost rural 2,000 people/km2. Unlike urban morphologies that more evenly distribute population, like San Francisco or Brooklyn, Vancouver offers a binary system: a compact and super-dense core, sitting within an expansive low-density field. 

With the one million extra residents that demographers predict in Metro Vancouver by 2040–combined with the geographic constraints of mountains, ocean and the Agricultural Land Reserve, increased densification in Vancouver is inevitable and low-density areas offer tantalizing territories of opportunity.

Within this context, Vancouver enacted its July 2009 by-law allowing laneway housing on essentially all single-family lots. Roughly 60,000 parcels are now eligible. Compared to swaths of new condominium towers or the redevelopment of industrial lands, laneway housing is ostensibly an insignificant agent of densification. However, 60,000 new dwelling units represents a major expansion. If realized, it could absorb a population increase of almost 20 percent. While zoning that supports some form of lane-fronting secondary dwellings is increasingly common across North America, it is still very much the exception. There is no such zoning in Toronto and Chicago, for instance. And the minority of cities that do permit laneway housing tend to do so only in certain areas or on sites with particular qualities. Edmonton, for example, allows secondary dwelling structures on corner lots as well as those along major arteries. Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s Director of City Planning, knows of no other city that has embraced laneway housing as wholeheartedly as Vancouver. In addition to allowing them throughout the city, Toderian points out that relaxed parking requirements and the continued allowance of secondary suites are both factors that increase the viability of laneway housing. Considered in combination with the parallel allowance for secondary suites, the entire fabric of the city is now zoned for a minimum of three households. The single-family zone is a thing of the past–in effect, if not in name. The extent to which laneway houses will actually be constructed remains to be seen, but it is clear that a significant conceptual shift has occurred in the planning of the city, a major shift toward blanket densification outside the central core. It also represents a seismic shift in the thinking of the lane, a hidden but vast territory of the city.

The by-law is a tightly worded document that permits laneway houses on parcels with a 33′ minimum width. The standard dimension of a Vancouver residential property is 122′ x 33′ while in some areas of the city wider lots prevail. By prescribing an allowable footprint that extends 26 ft2 into the lot, the intent is that laneway housing occupies the footprint that would otherwise be a garage. On the standard lot, the floor area is limited to 500 ft2, plus a required exterior or enclosed parking space. Floor area exclusions enable an extra 125 ft2 if certain conditions are met. A second storey is allowed as long as it’s no larger than 60% of the footprint. Prescriptive directives on massing are rationalized as a means to ameliorate privacy concerns and to diminish adverse effects on views and sunlight penetration.

In the two years since the by-law came into effect, about 400 laneway homes have been approved and there are roughly 60 currently in the approval process. Approximately 200 have completed construction. Firms specializing in laneway housing, such as LaneFab and Smallworks, have emerged to cater to a growing demand. Judging from the completed projects, what to make of the architecture and urbanism that the by-law is beginning to engender?

Given that most new homes built in the city fall into common historical genres such as Arts and Crafts or Victorian styles, it is not surprising that most laneway homes have followed suit. Various concoctions of gabled and hipped roofs, dormers, eaves, punched fenestration, and clapboard siding are the norm. Whatever one might think of these stylistic preferences, it is clear that in most instances the designers have not grappled with the most fundamental aspect of the laneway house: its small scale. More often than not, these “traditionally styled” laneway homes look busy on the exterior and feel cramped on the interior. It is as if they are attempting to be something they are not–a full-size house–and in the process pack too many moves into a small volume.

As architects increasingly tackle the design of laneway housing, one can expect greater refinement in regards to scale. One recently completed structure that falls into this category is Brian Billingsley’s own laneway house on Vancouver’s West Side. Granted, Billingsley’s lot is 56′ wide, and therefore afforded him more space to work with, but it is nevertheless a simple design that succinctly manages its small floor area to maximum effect, and in doing so, shapes its peripheral exterior space. The wide site enabled Billingsley to separate a two-car garage from the laneway house. This separation offers an interstitial space that functions as a private exterior courtyard. The plan of the laneway house proper avoids any unnecessary distortions, instead favouring a clean tripartite arrangement. A rectangular bar condenses all service spaces into one central strip of bathroom, closets, washer/dryer and mechanical. An open living and cooking space sits on the south side of the central strip while the bedroom sits to the north. These two main living and sleeping rooms occupy different positions along the strip in relation to the exterior space. The bedroom is pushed to the west to make room for an existing tree, while the living and kitchen space slides to the east in order to establish the courtyard. The result is an exceedingly simple and unencumbered space that makes the most of its small floor area while shaping the exterior spaces around it.

Another project that offers a provocative picture of an emerging typology is Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture’s L33 project in Point Grey. As the project’s name
suggests, LWPAC’s scheme sits on a 33′-wide lot and is therefore more prototypical. On this size of lot, it is impossible to achieve the maximum allowable floor area without incorporating two levels. LWPAC have unpacked the by-law in a meticulous manner to find opportunities for perceptually enlarging the space without exceeding strict floor area limitations. The result is a faceted, angular geometry in which walls incline beyond the footprint and a double-height ceiling slopes down over the main living volume. A crystal-like form emerges from a rigorous by-law analysis. It is an approach like this that pursues the potential for new form that is unique to the parameters of laneway housing in order to animate lanes in a manner that is distinct from the more traditional frontages of the city.

If the rate of completion over the first two years more or less continues, it will take many decades for the city to build out its 60,000 lots. This pace will be vastly outstripped by the 30,000 new residents the region is expected to absorb each year. Clearly, laneway housing is not a sufficient solution–not even close. This might be worrisome if it were the only densification strategy being pursued. It isn’t. It would seem then that the greatest potential of laneway housing is not so much in the realm of densification, but rather to offer a heightened metropolitan experience to largely suburban areas of the city that are resistant to change. The foregrounding of the lane could offer an experiential thickening of the city at large. From this vantage point, the first crop of laneway housing doesn’t offer as much as it could. How future projects enrich the lane by truly treating it as a front through direct engagement so that the space of the lane fully enters the foreground of the city remains the as-of-yet unrealized potential of Vancouver’s by-law. CA

Matthew Soules is the Director of Matthew Soules Architecture (MSA) and an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia.