Laneway houses or garden suites are compact housing options that combat urban sprawl, adding density to the city core, although there are a number of factors to consider before building your own.
Constructed as self-contained units ranging between 600 and 900 square feet, laneway houses provide a space that’s separate from the main dwelling on a lot, creating secondary rental housing stock and allowing families to live closer together.
“The most common reason I find clients are building laneway houses are for additional rental income,” said Kenny Wong of Vancouver-based PWH Homes. “Laneway houses typically rent for much more, as they don’t have shared walls like an apartment and allow tenants to have their own parking spot and private entry.”
Vancouver was one of the first Canadian cities to embrace the trend, introducing its laneway housing program in 2009 that included rezoning 95 per cent of single-family lots to allow for the construction of laneway houses. The city has issued more than 3,000 permits since then, and has set a target to construct an additional 4,000 new laneway houses by 2028.
However, while laneway houses are growing in popularity, their design and construction requires a different approach than traditional homebuilding. Here are some things to consider before you embark on a backyard transformation.
Is your lot suitable for a laneway house?
The first step is ensuring your lot is large enough to accommodate a laneway house. The City of Vancouver mandates that laneway-eligible lots must be at least 9.8 metres (32 feet) wide, have access to an open lane, and provide a clear path for firefighters in case of an emergency.
“The general calculation for sizing is 16 per cent of your total lot size, plus an additional 40 square feet of storage,” Wong said. “Another thing that could restrict someone from building is that they need a distance of at least 16 feet from the main dwelling to the laneway house.”
It’s also important to know the zoning bylaws and permit requirements for your property. While each municipality differs, laneway houses are subject to specific regulations regarding setbacks, size, height, parking, and tree protection.
Have you designed a functional living space?
Whether constructing a new building or repurposing an existing structure, such as a garage, designing a laneway house presents challenges in order to make them functional, configuring the living space to enhance efficiency and storage options.
A City of Vancouver survey found that nearly 40 per cent of laneway house occupants were dissatisfied with their amount of storage space. During the design process, implement space-saving techniques such as utilizing storage areas under the stairs, opting for smaller appliances in the kitchen, or installing an on-demand hot water system that takes up less space than a traditional hot water tank.
Another factor to consider is the purpose of the laneway house, whether it will be rented out or create a space for family members.
“We’re seeing people build laneway homes due to aging parents who they’d like to have close,” Wong said. “I’ve even had clients use it as a downsizing open as their kids our moved out and they don’t need as much space.”
Are you prepared for a lengthy approval process?
After ensuring your lot size is adequate and you have an efficient design, research the costs and requirements for sewer and water connections, electrical service, and gas installation.
The slope of the site, location of power poles and trees, and service connections to water and sewer services are common factors that can influence laneway house design and municipal approval.
Municipalities require site surveys and detailed plans for engineering, design, and landscaping. The approval and permitting process can take up to a year to complete, and making design changes midstream can result in costly and frustrating delays.
Do the neighbours know about your plans?
In some instances, laneway houses can strain relationships between neighbours, either because of construction noise, congested parking, or privacy issues resulting from two-storey structures looming over adjacent backyards.
“Make sure to reach out to the neighbours and tell them about your plans, just to help things go a little more smoothly and prevent any issues down the road,” Wong said.