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.