Vancouver's big house conundrum

Post by Mike Klassen in


old house new house
The small Vancouver house in the foreground is dwarfed by the new house beside it

How Vancouver has grown up over the last century is illustrated in the types of housing throughout its various neighbourhoods. Many of the homes built during the decades before and after World War Two were comparatively small by today's standards, yet were on average inhabited by larger families.

Roam the residential side streets of Vancouver these days and you'll notice the change in the style and the scale of housing being built. As in years past it's a mixed bag in terms of quality of construction, and often leaves a lot to be desired in terms of urban design. What is even more obvious is that the driving principle of builders and home-buyers today is GO BIG.

The modest post-war home with under 2000 square feet total floor space is being knocked down and replaced with a home that maxes out the allowable floor space ratio (FSR) for the property. Home by home and block by block, we're seeing an increase in home floor space that appears around twenty and forty per cent higher in Vancouver neighbourhoods.

For example, one of my neighbours just knocked down a house that was old and relatively small. It was a bungalow where a couple raised four children. On the main floor there was a small kitchen, a cozy living room where four might sit comfortably, two small bedrooms and a single three-piece bathroom. The attic was dormered out with two bedrooms up, and the low-ceiling basement was unfinished.

The home which is replacing it is pleasing to the eye, well-constructed, and it dwarfs the houses next to it. As is often the case today, the size of the family going into the new home is smaller than the one which resided in the home it replaced, and the new house has been built to the maximum allowable square footage. Furthermore, the property owner plans to also build a laneway house, which is additional square footage on the property bonused by the City.

That's just one house on the block. There are several more that are likely nearing the end of their lifespan or economic appeal.

On the one hand the increasing size of Vancouver homes is a measure of our prosperity, which is a good thing. But property owners have no incentive to build smaller homes, as the resale value of the property strongly depends upon the build-able square footage.

Our big homes are also evidence of our relatively low energy costs when compared to other jurisdictions. It's said that British Columbians pay some of the lowest prices for electricity on the planet. Furthermore, natural gas prices today are at rock bottom, allowing us to heat homes and hot water tanks cheaply compared to past generations.

Politically there is huge incentive to keep these prices low. Premier Clark has told BC Hydro they must go back to the drawing board on plans to increase their rates. The BC NDP also promise low energy rates. While British Columbia has a modest carbon tax, the cost is offset by reductions in income taxes and other incentives. Federally, the major parties during this election campaign are promising to give households a break on the cost of heating fuel.

Keeping gas prices and energy prices low is the way you keep power, and raising them is the way to get voted out of office.

According to an article by the New Urban Network, what's happening in Vancouver in terms of the growth in the size of homes contradicts what a builders organization predicts will happen in the United States. They say that the size of new homes will reduce by ten per cent by 2015.

The March 2011 e-mail newsletter from James Wentling Architects in Philadelphia reports that the Economics and Policy Group at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) asked builders, designers, and manufacturers last fall to predict what will change in the next five years.

"The top three broad-brush predictions were that single-family homes will get smaller, greener and more loaded with technology features," Wentling reports in the firm's Housing Perspective newsletter.

"The magic number predicted for average house size by 2015 was 2,152 SF — approximately 10% less than 2010's average start size," Wentling says. However, the newsletter says "more recent data shows new starts are creeping back up in square footage. This is likely to vacillate in the future based on the direction of the economy."

The sheer costs involved may have resulted in smaller sizes for condominiums to make them more affordable to buyers. But it's not reducing the size of new houses being built in our region – they're getting bigger.

Vancouver's big house conundrum is resulting in a substantial increase in the per person carbon footprint of many single family households. With each additional square foot of space comes the cost of energy to produce housing materials, and of course the energy cost to produce all the "stuff" we put inside, such as flooring, TVs, furniture and light fixtures.

Despite the additional space, families still spend most of their time in their bedroom, the bathroom, at the kitchen dining room table, or in front of the TV or computer. As David Owen, author of Green Metropolis remarked in a recent speech here in Vancouver, "I moved out to the exurbs in Connecticut from my 700 square foot apartment in Manhattan, and there are rooms in my house I only see when it's time to vacuum them."

How does a city which is trying to become more "green" deal with this contradiction? Screwing in compact fluorescent bulbs or installing energy efficient windows or heating systems doesn't come close to offsetting that per person energy usage. And what happens when our affordable energy holiday comes to an end? It's predicted that the cost of energy worldwide will skyrocket during this century.

Does Vancouver or any of the surrounding cities have a strategy to address this long term challenge? Should we discuss, as my friend Michael Geller suggests, allowing single-family homes to be more easily replaced by triplexes on the same lots? A new home on my street will have two legal suites downstairs, but why not have those units above ground as well? Some neighbourhoods already do this – such as near City Hall, and in Kensington-Cedar Cottage – so why not others?

Is there any other way to compel someone to build smaller homes when both the price of materials and energy is so low and our dollar and property prices so high? How about cities providing information on the average cost to heat and furnish a typical 12x12 sq ft room over a decade or two, or the projected cost over the average life of the building?

Cities can help by giving citizens the tools like these to make good decisions on matters such as housing development. Maybe that knowledge will influence the marketplace.

It's new ideas about more efficient land use and reducing energy costs that I think will help to preserve and enhance single-family neighbourhoods in our city, not erode them.

- post by Mike. Follow @MikeKlassen & @CityCaucus on Twitter.


A friend lives near Cambie and 30th, right in the heart of the whole Cambie Corridor Planning mockery. Densify, densify, densify they say. Two new giant homes have just been completed next to what will be 6-8 stories in the near future.

Who is making these decisions?

My first house in Vancouver was a 1940s bungalow in Arbutus, white stucco, open lawn at the front white picket fence at the back, friendly working and middle class neighbours. Utterly ordinary and delightful, the whole neighbourhood looked like the set of a 50s sitcom. Gradually it started to fill up with monster houses, overwhelming their surroundings, with enclosed front yards and unused front doors, entered and exited in Lexuses and Mercedes through the triple garages lining the lane.

On the previous thread Max mentioned the change of West Fourth from a street with characterful, useful shops to "yoga, babies and sushi", that change occurred at much the same time.

This article made me think of these things, and it is sad to think that here in our city social and economic pressures have already eliminated the last remnants of the chance for regular citizens not already owning real property to attain the simple,comfortable lifestyle that suburb represented, or to build up and sustain businesses that are a real part of the community.

Our politicians are eunichs, our city planning folks, failures.

What else is there to say?

Another great post about an important issue. I hope you will follow it up with another one setting out the pros and cons of larger houses in more detail (good start here but I am sure you have more to say) and laying out the policy opitons. I tend to be in favour of making it easier to build and to convert into triplexes. That may be because I have three children and we would rather have them inherit the house than sell it! Seriously though, our architects and designers need to come up with new an more creative ways of helping us live in more compact, resource efficient spaces and city zoning and planning needs to support this. A good design challenge for us all!

Amen to all you have said. Great post and a thoughtful piece to be sure. Vancouverites. like everyone else, need to think about the housing issue holistically, and understanding as many of the costs and benefits as possible from the outset.

What would certainly help immeasurably would be to begin comprehensive community planning exercises involving residents, architects, planners and other concerned citizens to review housing / development options.

Some sort of 'envisioning' process - design charette - what have you - should kick-start the dialogue. As neighbourhoods get involved and input their suggestions some consensus of the desired density and housing forms could hopefully be arrived at.

This could then become the foundation for better land use/planning decisions that could form the policies that replace the disastrous spot-rezoning popping up everywhere.

We deserve this, and hopefully the day will come when the planners and council wake up and start to get it. Please keep ideas like this floating.

I started out in 3,600 square feet. Over the course of 4-5 homes, I am now down to 1,350. Could use a little more space (where do you stash the earthquake readiness kits and Christmas decorations?) but other than that... I wonder what on earth I was thinking and why I spent half my life cleaning a house far bigger than I needed.

I understand that our family makeup is changing as our demographics change and there is a need for space to sleep 6 or 8 but that is not what we are building.

The other item to consider is how these houses and new occupants put additional strain on other amenities, like public schools.

This is part of the problem Surrey faces.

A monster house is built and maybe 2 or 3 families move in. So instead of 1 or 2 kids there are now 5 or 6.

may well be, but we have been using the same argument in reverse to reduce the taxes of business and nobody seems too eager to change it so, unless we go to a pure consumption model (and that will never happen) we are stuck with it.

Back in the 50's my in-laws had 5 kids and 2 renters in a 1,600 square foot 2 bedroom home with 2 bathrooms and a built out basement. How should they have been taxed?

Sorry Sharon, I should have been more clear.

Schools plan for x children to attend that school from the encatchment area.

When monster houses go up, it is harder to predict that number.

I grew up in Maple Ridge. At one point a large house, almost motel like, went up on a property in the Pitt Meadows area. The 'tax' issue did come up as multiple families were living in the house and local residents were taken aback.

However, at that time, if there was only one main kitchen, it was taxed as a single dwelling.

Now, this is 25+ years ago.

And thinking about it, that house would be considered small as compared to some we see now.

As a kid, I lived a few years with a sister and 2 parents in a 8x30 foot trailer in a camp in Ontario. Seemed good size to me, especially because the interior furniture was all built-in and more compact. Modular and mobile homes are really the way to go, and with the newer mobiles made for very cold climates, they are very efficient as well as space-saving, and being mobile, their locations are flexible. Newer mobile homes are ideal for families - in spite of bad planning bylaws that denigrate them. Also, for the hard-to-house street people with issues of violence, drugs, risky smoking practices or pets, small mobile homes could be much better than apartment-type buildings.


A housing group in the DTES is building container houses on one of the empty lots.

It was on Global yesterday.

These units, 12 in all, will be used to help get women off the streets.

The mock-up of the design was very nice.

The structures themselved, all finished (drywalled inside etc) came in at $85K/each finished.

We already have the ability to do not just triplexes, but quadraplexes as well in Vancouver: 1 main residence + 2 basement/attic suites + 1 lane house. Admittedly they are not quite what I presume Michael has in mind, but @ 4 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10, that is definitely densifying the hood. Another way would be to loosen the subdivision regs to allow 2 - 50' lots to become 3 - 33's or 4 - 25's. We could also relax the setback requirements to allow zero lot-line deigns on smaller width lots.

There are no shortage of ideas that architects already have or can create if we were allowed to. The combination of 'we'll do again what sold the last time' real estate industry mentality, politicians and beureaucrats afraid to rock the boat and neighbourhood resistance

your last paragraph bothers me, primarily because it is so true. Leaders lead, and I think it is high time we get back to some housing principles to lead the city out of this morass.

I know that architects have designed hypothetical 33' Vancouver special umpteen times, with some innovation, but without enough traction. I think it is time that leaders of the housing industry (leading housebuilders, interested developers) as well as the architectural community, the planning community and the community at large take one grand crack at studying the regulations with an eye on change.

I'd like to propose the following for consideration and comment now and hopefully FOR ACTION Nov.20-

Let the housing industry start off by spelling out the parameters they need met in order to build profitable housing for the future. Add some comments /constraints from energy/sustainability groups (such as 'Light House'). Out of this derives the design problem. From here provide a charette for the architectural community, to meet the demands specified by the industry on a typical Vancouver lot. (Nothing new about this proposal so far- I think we see the same movie every 10 years or so). However, lets take it further - let the community, in tandem with urban planners, judge the charette on its various merits.

The 'winning' results (term used loosely), instead of gaining fame, fortune, publicity, prize money (the usual lame perks of design exercises), get instead taken back to the City of Vancouver planning department, where the successful design elements are analysed and broken down as best they can. Once the successful elements are understood, plug them into new design guidelines to be reviewed by the various communities and ultimately implemented in the zoning bylaws.

This would represent progressive input from the residential and design community into the physical fabric of the city, while combating spot rezoning on at least one level. The idea needs a LOT of work, input from others (anyone still with me feel free to pipe in, comment, criticize, what have you) , and some $$$ put towards it (I am sure that better members of the building, development and design communities would be intrigued), and political support for it to gain traction.

Just thought I'd take one chance to plant this seed.....

Sorry, somehow this was posted before I finished, so to continue--

There are no shortage of innovative housing ideas that architects already have or can create if we were allowed to. But, the combination of the 'do again what sold the last time' real estate industry mentality, politicians and beureaucrats afraid to rock the boat and neighbourhood resistance does not create many opportunities for change. However, there are innovative examples just off the top, including:

The 1st lane houses I encountered were in London when I worked there in 1965-66, they're called mews houses or mews flats, and they'd been around for a while. My good friend and U of Manitoba classmate, Rick Jackson, won the Pilkington Prize in 1967 for his North Winnipeg lane houses design thesis. I received a Canadian Architect Design Award in 1979 for +/-1800 sf Zero Lot-line Houses on 33' x 69' lots in Victoria's James Bay (density including cul-de-sac was 11.4 u.p.a. compared to 3 - 5 u.p.a. for typical sub-urban single family). Peter Wardle built a narrow house on a West 15th, 14' lot in +/-1970 while still a UBC architecture student. More recent attempts have been thwarted. I am sure others can add to this list.

The other side of this coin's discussion are the thousands of uninhabited tiny sub-standard condos which are being flogged to off-shore buyers. How energy conserving is that when +/-30% of the cost is for the construction energy. An average 500 sf / condo divided into the 2500 sf typical new single family = 5 units x 1.5 = 7.5 people compared to the above single family amended 4 + 1.5 + 1.5 + 1.5 = 8.5 people actually houses fewer people per built habitable square foot. But, how many waitresses and couriers are there out there to live in these places? And, now that the cheap sites are gone downtown, developers are looking elsewhere -- Marine Gateway and Shannon Mews are examples of putting to many energy consumptive high-rise construction dwellings in locations not in close proximity to sufficient numbers of jobs. And, to add, at Shannon Mews 2500 people are going to have to get in their cars to get a litre of milk. How environmentally responsible is that?

You've raised interesting questions about the 'big' houses Mike. And perhaps we also need to look at the whole housing / workplace picture as well. This needs to be done carefully in a way that maintains healthy, sustainable neighborhoods while fostering an equally healthy development industry, where incidentally, there are jobs for all those people living in those dwellings of whatever ilk.

Great thoughts Bill. Thank you. My only addition would be that this is too important to be left to the architects, developers, urban planners and regulators - the process needs to include other people (and some of them not wearing 'hats' or claiming to represent or speak for others) and it needs to include them from the beginning.

Hope you run for council, get elected and can drive discussion of this forward.

Why are we in such a race to densify Vancouver? I can think of a couple quick actions that would "separate the wheat from the chaff" so to speak, and lay bare what the housing needs of Canadians living in Metro Vancouver really are:

1) Follow the USA's lead and tax offshore income.
2) Follow Australia's lead and restrict foreign ownership of real estate assets.

You're so right Bob. It's time something happens to restrict the craziness of offshore money buying up our real estate and creating this absurb real estate bubble. Plus then we wouldn't need deal with the horrible 1.5 story laneway houses that are part of the initiative to help densify.

I think restriction on offshore ownership is something that should be seriously considered.

Part of our affodability problem is due to offshore owners buying on speculation - and at no unit limit.

At some point down the road, Vancouver is going to look very different than how we know it now.

Sooner than you think Max. A family member is a real estate agent, he was putting an offer on a house a few nights ago--a bungalow near 20th and Main I think...listed at 1.1 I believe.

His client put in an offer at 1.2 but there were 9 offers and the winning offer was 1.6 million with NO conditions, payed in cash by an offshore owner. Expect that house to be demolished asap.

Growth is part of city life. Its a part of country life too. Its in fact, just a part of life. Places grow and change. Some embrace the changes, some lament them. My father grew up on the outskirts of this city - 8th and Alma. Its no longer the outskirts. He left to go to war, and did not return for many years. When he did, he had kids in tow - myself included.

At that time Vancouver had 700 000 people, Kits was a greek part of town with a hippie subculture, and no one had heard of the word 'condo.' Now our city is big - somewhat expensive (there are worse) - and, as this city always has been, is attractive to Canadians and others who migrate for the weather, the natural beauty, and in the case of many foreign migrants the relative stability of the society.

I lament comments that suggest we close the doors, lock the barn, restrict the rights, ration the goods we are so fortunate to have. I don't share the sentiment that restriction of ownership is going to somehow result in more accessible prices for the rest of us. It will still cost the developer upwards of $250 - $300/sf to build a house or tower, and he/she will still have to account for the land purchase, the soft costs, the infrastructure costs and levies.

In short the price of new housing won't really change here - it has been the same boom cycle since I came in the 1970's and I can't see the fundamentals affected by proposed restrictions (the reasons behind which I am always suspicious of). And until Vancouver flattens the mountains and infills the sea, it will still be an attractive place to migrate too as well. One can try to cope with the change and hopefully influence it somehow, or one can move to another city or out to the country, only to learn how it undergoes its own pangs of growth.

douglas, I have zero problems with people moving and living here. The issues I have are with offshore ownership, or, people that buy up property and do not move here.

It does drive up prices.

Supply and demand, and it is only going to get worse.

I would like to see a cap on the number of properties offshore owners can hold.

No different than what China has in place on foriegn ownership.

Max - agreed it is supply and demand, and it is a cornerstone of our economic system. If privately a strata or publicly the city, through some form of penalty or taxation, want to deter or at least garner income to defray costs directly associated with absentee status I have no problem.

But I am VERY WARY of societies that place any kind of restrictions on individuals. Its one of the things that makes this a nice little corner of the globe (and a most fortunate one, too). I do not want to see laws passed just to limit demand to a certain class of people, not in a global economy.

Following the logic of restricting foreign ownership to its ultimate end, we'd also expect our neighbours to impose the same restrictions. We as Canadians would then lose out in the US big time - as Canadian businesses and individuals own so much commercial lands in major US cities (ie LA and New York). Dominoes would continue to fall as several large tourist destinations in Mexico would cease to thrive. Cabo San Lucas is one example of a place that only became viable to many when restrictions on foreign holdings by Mexico were eased in their 'zone of exclusion'. We're an interconnected world now.

Interesting discussion. Condo prices are affected to some degree by supply and demand. The +/- breakdown is as follows:

• 30% land
• 40% construction
• 15% fees, admin, interest, etc.
• 15% profit

The variable is land, which also increase soft costs and profit if it goes up. But Douglas is correct that off-shore speculation will increase the land component, but assuming Vancouver land prices will rise with or without off-shore investment, it will have a less important affect on prices.

However, single family is a different market. Arguably, off-shore money has distorted these prices significantly. When you get boo's $1.6m teardown, affordable single family domestic bliss for the average Vancouverite does not come to mind.

Vision Councillors are wrongly trying to justify the to high spot rezoning densities they're approving willy nilly all over the City in large part because they think that it will result in more affordable lower prices. It will not in any significant way for 3 reasons:

1) the above development cost breakdown, and
2) the demand side has been very strong with few exceptions since 1970 with or without off-shore money,
3) higher single family land prices tend to drag up the land component for multi-family as well.

The fallacy of Vision's argument is proven by the fact that if a developer can sell at higher prices than those above require, he/she will. It's called the free market. The same thing happens in the resale market. So, since due to Vancouver's unique characteristics supply will continue to exceed demand for the product not just the land component.

The only way Vancouver will have any new 'affordable' housing is if creative non-profits like the 'Y', the odd developer like Gillespie (although does anyone know how he proposes to control the resale prices of his condos on Hastings?), and the Provincial and Federal governments find ways to finance it.

Intriguing. there are two separate items here in my mind and judging form all the posts -
1. lack of affordable HOUSING
2. lack of affordable HOUSES

The first can be addressed creatively, albeit through hard work and only when developers, authorities having jurisdiction, authorities with funding capabilities and non-profits really work together. Not easy - but possible.

The latter - affordable single family houses - are in my mind extinct in Vancouver, and have been my entire adult life here. I'm not upset about that- just see it as out of my reach.

I personally would be content to see the evolution of various housing types on small lots to address variety and affordability, and would not really be bothered if there wasn't another single family housing start in the city. And I agree fully with the sentiment that spot rezoning hasn't served anyone well (save the odd developer)

Alice Zhang, who moved from Hangzhou, China, to Vancouver two years ago, now lives in one of six properties that she and her husband have purchased in Vancouver since moving here.

Zhang, who has two children, is waiting to move into a new home they're constructing on a Shaughnessy lot that they bought for about $3.1 million. The house is expected to cost another $3 million, which Zhang believes is a good deal.

"We moved from the most beautiful city in China to Vancouver, which we consider more beautiful," said Zhang, whose family owns hotels and a real estate development company in China."

Read more:

Now ask yourself, how can someone working in Vancouver compete with a Chinese millionaire, earning all of their money in China, and paying no Canadian taxes, other than property tax?

That's why either limiting residential property purchases by foreigners, or taxing the offshore income of "astronaut" Canadians is the only way to ensure a balanced housing market for those who live and work here.

Bob, once again you're right on the mark. I just wonder when enough will become enough for Vancouverites and what will it take for politicians to stand up and do something about all the offshore money buying up property like it's going out of style.

housing proposals for under $300 - an exploration for anyone interested in progressive solutions to housing for the poor and homeless

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