What's the skinny on new housing ideas?

Post by Mike Klassen in

1 comment

A rare "skinny" house in Vancouver
It's time for new homes to go on a diet in Canada's cities

In his brilliant speech to a Vancouver audience a year and half ago, urbanist Andrés Duany stated (I'm paraphrasing) "there is more design in that restaurant next to the lobby than in four square miles of Vancouver residential neighbourhoods." Awkward silence and a few titters from the audience followed. I sat at the back of the room, packed at nearly 500 in the audience, and smiled.

Duany is right. For all its accomplishments in city building, suburban Vancouver is a depressing mess of junk architecture. It's time we truly consider people in how we build our neighbourhoods.

For starters, isn't it time that Vancouver homes go on a diet? Seriously, show me one of the many 5000 square foot monstrosities that line our streets that is truly packed to the gills with tenants. As Gordon Campbell observed in a speech I heard a couple years back, families are tiny compared to previous generations, yet our homes are three times as big.

Big Vancouver houses are now the norm. Builders, and the cities who permit them, frame these suckers to the maximum allowable floor space to the lot, and it's absolutely unnecessary. Why don't we propose allowing more "skinny" homes on lots less than 25 feet wide? Probably because it's politically tough, but that's no excuse.

In Dunbar, it should be no shock to any of you, sub-dividing lots is considered heresy. When someone tried it a couple of years back someone in the community set the (unfinished) homes ablaze. But we shouldn't let some of this unenlightened thinking stop us from trying it elsewhere in the city.

Look at Toronto's The Danforth neighbourhood. What energy, what fantastic local shopping and dining, what great parks. There is clearly a lot of pride in this compact community. Same for Queen's Park in New Westminster. Skinny homes are situated next to larger ones and it looks great.

The photo above is a "skinny" house just off Cambie Street. The occupants, a young family, beamed with pride when I asked them about their house. The big house next door dwarfs it, but these folks love their little house. And guess what? Because most of the value in Vancouver homes is in the land, it didn't cost them as much as a typical detached home with a yard.

Vancouver with its trial RT-10 zone (located around Kingsway & Knight) has taken a noble step forward in increasing density in single-family neighbourhoods that is compatible with existing forms. However, coach houses and several homes on a set of paired corner lots is not always going to work. It might not always attract buyers the way a single lot with its own front and back, including a yard, will.

There are neighbourhoods such as in the south side where very large homes were built for families where the kids have left the nest, and parents want to scale down. Where are these folks going to go? The kids will have to head for the 'burbs, and the folks will either sit tight in large, empty houses (the most likely option), or head into a condo.

The City of Vancouver should look closely at communities who will welcome subdividing single-family residential lots. The City must also spell out the benefits before it gets sandbagged by the plentiful fearmongers around town.

There should also be an emphasis on DESIGN. If we're going to re-shape our neighbourhoods into welcoming places to raise a family, then you must defend against the creeping despair of boxy, stucco junk architecture.

We should start this discussion now. What do you think?

1 Comment

we West is a good example of neoghbourhoods done right. Queen's Park is a gem but Sapperton and the West End also have livable neighbourhoods with modest houses and a great community. I think it's the lack of driveways in front. Makes the street seem friendlier.

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