Ian Robertson on Vancouver Character Homes

Ian Robertson

How ____ is your Character?

The City of Vancouver’s Character House Zoning Review proposes changes to policy which, under guise of Character Retention, will force homeowners to build in a way that is out of synch with the neighbourhood, the goals of density, affordability, inclusiveness, accessibility, life-safety, sustainability and energy conservation, and should be reconsidered before creating yet another barrier to needed new construction in Vancouver.

How Dense is your Character?

The changes would allow a Character House (defined as constructed prior to 1940 with most historic features remaining) to grow a modest 7% larger than now allowed, but would shrink the size of any new houses by 29%. The reasons given for this change are to stop the demolition of older houses, to stop the construction of ‘Monster’ houses, and to address the disparity between an un-renovated Character House and current construction. There are better ways to do this than enforce that all buildings in Character zones wear the same character’s kabuki mask.

Giving an incentive to keep existing construction is a worthy goal, as there are many ways in which the greenest building is the one that already exists. However, the proposed rules mean that a renovated existing house could soon be 1.5 times larger than a new house, which would in itself create a large disparity between existing and new construction. A recent tour by the group Abundant Housing Vancouver, visited at several buildings that are up to 3 times the currently allowed size, more than 4 times larger than the new house limit, precisely the sort of difference being highlighted as a problem.

Zoning bylaws have been updated to allow both secondary suites and laneway houses. However, the new rules mean that new houses will no longer support both 3/4 bedrooms and a basement suite. This will lead to many basement suites going unbuilt, causing an overall loss of density over much of the city, at a time when affordable and family-appropriate housing demands are greater than ever. The city’s goals to increase affordability and density are thus held hostage by the weight of ‘fitting in’ to the neighbourhood.

How Safe is your Character?

New houses have to be constructed to current seismic and fire codes, whereas a renovated house can often skip these requirements. Also, new houses must allow ‘ageing in place’, yet many Character Houses have front doors a whole flight of stairs above grade. This makes future accessibility extremely difficult to achieve, especially without degrading precious Character merit.

How Real is your Character?

A survey of the most restrictive type of Character Retention in Vancouver - those which are done through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) and become Listed Historic Houses - shows that many get stripped down to their core and rebuilt almost totally. This brings up the question - what Character is being preserved anyway?

Historic Places Canada has a manual called ‘The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada,’ which makes clear that while the goal of a sensitive historic conservation is to preserve – to keep existing elements, not to replace with something that looks plausibly old. The Guidelines state that when material must be replaced, it should be clearly distinguishable from existing material. The Zoning Review promotes neither of these principles, as it favours the retention of a look, without requiring the retention of substance, further encouraged is new construction which looks old - even if this look is inevitably achieved with vinyl and painted foam.

How Green is your Character?

In 2010, Vancouver declared itself to be the ‘Greenest City’, and just this year released the Zero Emissions Building Plan. Prioritizing existing inefficient buildings over new ones fights emissions reduction capability and the city’s stated sustainable goals.

Vancouver’s properties generally align North-South. Since a Character House’s roof peak generally follows the longest axis of the house, most roofs in Vancouver face East and West. For most of the day, the sun is generally to the South, so if one were to install solar panels on a Character House half or more would tend to face the wrong direction.

When considering cars, it makes more of a difference to make a Hummer twice as efficient, as it does to do so for a Civic. Similarly, for housing, by not substantially upgrading existing buildings, we bake in large inefficiencies for another lifetime. One could require every new building in the city to cut their power use by 80% (as would be the case if each was a Passive House) but this would not create a Zero Emissions City, if most of the city is locked into playing by Character rules.

Character buildings tend to be poorly insulated even after renovation, as by very definition, they must have retained at least 50% of their original windows. Often, Character Houses also have non-conforming grandfathered projections into required yards. The only way to upgrade insulation is to add it to the interior, which means spaces shrink, further penalizing a poor existing layout, and even a heavily renovated older house will use far more than new, and far-far more than ‘good’ new.

The retention of Character Merit is placed in direct opposition to the creation of sustainable construction. There have been projects explicitly discouraged from seeking Passive House status in favour of keeping Character. There have been projects where, once the house was deemed to have Character Merit, a planned Passive Houses retrofit has been cancelled, since the existing houses could not be altered to admit sufficient light/heat. There will undoubtedly be more of both.

How 'Great' is your Character?

Having to choose between preserving the past and ensuring the future puts homeowners between a rock and a hard place. If we are going to propose keeping existing buildings, there need to be real standards for conservation, otherwise we end up living in a Potemkin village, built to deceive the eye rather than retain history. There are innumerable examples worldwide of new construction fitting in and even enhancing old, but without some acknowledgement of this fact, we forever cast neighbourhoods in amber fixing flaws alongside gems. There has to be some room in the argument for intelligence and outstanding design merit, especially if those traits are vital to the creation of the energy efficient buildings that the future demands of us. The Character House discussion currently seems to begin and end with the statement “Make Vancouver [look] Great Again”, which is a poor argument no matter the subject.


Ian Robertson MArch
Senior Designer, ABBARCH Architecture Inc.


(Thanks to Jens von Bergmann of MountainMath; Marcel Studer Dipl. Arch., ETH, Principal of Econ Group Ltd.; D. Lucio Picciano Architect AIBC, LEED ap, dlp Architecture Inc.; Peter Winstanley, Project Manager and LEED Green Associate, ABBARCH Architecture Inc.; and Bryn Davidson, B.Eng. M.Arch. LEED-AP,  Lanefab for their contributions.)

A longer version of the above article located here includes a more in-depth mathematical analysis.

Vancouver Character Homes - A conversation

On December 2, 2016 the Vancouver Sun published an op-ed by character retention advocate Elizabeth Murphy.  After reading the piece, I felt there needed to be a response; to clarify, to disagree, and to provide a broader context. The op-ed, reconstructed as a conversation, is below.

The text of this op-ed is reproduced below in italics, with my responding commentary (in bold).

Bryn Davidson

"Opinion: City hall must act quickly to save Vancouver heritage homes"

The City of Vancouver is finally considering options to create incentives for character house retention. After years of character and heritage houses being rampantly demolished and replaced by ugly new monster houses, it is way overdue for changes to address this issue.

We are definitely overdue for a real conversation about the future of our 1 & 2 family zoned neighbourhoods, but 'character' is only one aspect of that. We also need to talk about affordability, the fair distribution of density, and climate change.  We need a broad conversation about how our leafy, pleasant single family neighbourhoods might evolve into leafy, pleasant multi-family neighbourhoods that protect the climate and provide housing options for future generations.

It's also important that we clearly separate the objective arguments for keeping old homes from ones that are based purely on an aesthetic preference or nostalgia for bygone days.  

The original heritage and character housing stock is made of high-quality Douglas fir and cedar that was built with skilled craftsmanship. These are being replaced by glue-based composite materials that do not stand up over time. The traditional wood-frame buildings like we have are similar to those in Europe that can last hundreds of years if properly maintained, rather than new construction that has a life cycle of about 30 years, sometimes even less. Over time, new materials are more susceptible to structural failure and mold than the older stock.

The idea that 'skilled craftsmanship' somehow ended in the 1940s is offensive to anyone working today who has made the craft of building their life's work.  There were cheap 'spec' houses built in 1910 along with many fantastic quality custom homes. The same is true today. The big difference is that today we are also working to improve energy consumption, accessibility, and comfort.

As for materials; to the extent that older buildings have resisted moisture damage, its largely due to the massive quantities of fossil-fuel heated air that is blown through their leaky walls and roofs every year. To say that this approach should be celebrated and protected is to willfully ignore the climate crisis and the gross inefficiency of many of these old homes.

Sustainability should require adaptive reuse of these character houses rather than demolition and putting them in the dump or grinding them up to burn as wood biofuel. 

Adaptive reuse is great, as long as it can be adaptive.  In the past homes would evolve over the decades as new additions were added for a growing family. In Vancouver - by contrast - the city's zoning bylaws limit what you can do with your house, and this challenge is compounded by character guidelines which prioritize the retention of external features and  rooflines over adaptation.

Paradoxically, our character rules often make it harder to retain and re-use those buildings with 'good bones'.

In addition to environmental sustainability and protecting neighbourhood character, the older housing stock is also more affordable than new construction on a square-foot basis. So more needs to be done with what we have.

Old homes and buildings play a key role in providing affordable housing and  supporting the formation of new businesses and cultural production, but this is true of both 'ugly' old buildings as much as 'character' homes.  An effective housing policy would remove barriers to rehabilitating old buildings, and provide incentives, but these efforts shouldn't depend only on arbitrary assessments of 'character merit'.  

Character should be part of the mix, but not the whole mix.

However, this requires a rebalancing to ensure that the economics work to encourage retention and that unintended consequences are avoided. Both changes to zoning and building bylaws, as well as how they are administered, are needed to make this work. Currently there is a systemic city hall bias towards demolition and new construction that has to change if these fine buildings are to be retained and upgraded for current uses.

There is an economic bias towards demolition and new construction that exists independently of any perceived bias by the City.  Part of this has to do with stratospheric land values which have far exceeded the value of the house, and part has to do with the necessary evolution of the city from low density suburban development toward a more 'urban' form of community. 

Some of the economic drivers are global, while others have recently been tweaked through the introduction of new taxes.  Those aside, the fact that we have high demand, limited land, low vacancy, and high land prices will continue to drive change in our neighbourhoods.

We can fight a losing battle against this change, or we can have a real conversation about how we want that change to unfold.

The intention is to change zoning to give economic incentives that favour retention of character houses in certain RS zone areas where there are larger concentrations of pre-1940s houses. But some also think that houses built during the 1940s deserve consideration as well since many neighbourhoods were built out at that time and into the 1950s. Most of these are solid and liveable homes.

There are absolutely many homes that were built after 1940 (including many mid-century modern classics) that are equally worthy of preservation efforts.  On top of that, many of our post-1940s houses have better foundations than their pre-40s counterparts and lend themselves more readily to the addition of a new top floor.

Again, incentives for retention shouldn't only be limited to pre-40s 'character' homes.

Options include allowing increased additions to floor space, additional units within the main house and bigger infills. Also under consideration is allowing these units to be either for family or rental or separate strata ownership as incentives for retention only. Incentives may need to vary by neighbourhood depending on their established character and requirements to maintain liveability. But the result should be that it is to the benefit of the retention option.

We absolutely need to bring more housing options into our 1 & 2 family zones. Ideally we would allow duplexes and strata infill in all RS 'single family' zones, and allow lane houses in all RT duplex zones. At a minimum, however, any housing options or incentives that are granted for character retention should also be granted for the retention of non-character affordable housing, or for new climate friendly homes that meet standards like Passive House or Net-Zero.

Saying that 'character' alone is deserving of these incentives is to imply that the aesthetic preferences of some community members should be valued higher than all other city priorities.

As well as adding more incentives for retention of character houses, also under consideration is reducing the size of new houses that had been substantially increased in 2009, contributing to their excessive bulk and lack of design guidelines.

In 2009 the city allowed partial basements to become full basements. There was no impact on the massing of homes 'above grade'. The idea that the size of new houses 'had been substantially increased' is simply not true. 

What did happen is that a silly and unenforceable rule regarding partial basements was removed, and - in it's place - it became easier to put in proper basement suites.  At the same time, the addition of laneway houses in 2009 allowed for even more housing options to land on a single site.

Design guidelines are so important for both renovations and new construction. Quality of design and materials that have an appropriate fit are essential to neighbourhood character, and it was a mistake to reduce them in 2009. The design guidelines in the RT 3, 6, 7 and 8 zonings designed to preserve the character of homes in given neighbourhoods have proven to be effective and they can inform what goes forward here.

Design guidelines don't lead to better buildings, they lead to a 'locking in' and repetition of the same design strategies over and over while leaving little room for innovation or diversity.  Some people don't like modern homes, but that doesn't mean that the city should be enforcing stylistic choices on individuals. Even without guidelines many people will choose to build something more familiar or traditional, but even if there are stylistic outliers, they won't 'ruin' a neighbourhood. 

In 2009 there were many who claimed laneway houses would ruin their neighbourhoods. The same is often said for modern homes, or duplexes, or multiple conversions, or anything that is an affront to the status acceded to 'single family' housing.  

Our neighbourhoods aren't that fragile. Change happens incrementally, and incremental development won't ruin a neighbourhood any more than they'll be 'ruined' by the withering of population through increasing un-affordability.

Although these proposals are headed in the right direction, much work is still required. The incentives also require systemic changes to the building and development bylaws and how they are administered.
Currently, there are many horror stories of owners even trying to do small renovations. For example, a couple who barely scraped together enough to buy a character house for their family has been in the city hall system trying to get permits for a minor interior renovation for 16 months and are still waiting for a permit to be issued. They were forced into getting separate development and building permits and to date have had 21 different staff in multiple departments involved and counting. The owners have had to use up all their renovation money on holding costs, permits, fees, and consultants, so are forced even further into debt.
Some equivalencies and relaxations have been made to the bylaws, but not nearly enough. Increased code requirements for “green” initiatives are not giving adequate weight to the environmental benefits of the embodied energy saved through retention. Many code requirements are still based on new building standards that don’t work with the older stock.

Yes, there are absolutely too many barriers and delays associated with building a single family home in Vancouver. On this we agree.

Adding character constraints, and guidelines - however - will only make this problem worse.  An RT site with character restrictions and guidelines typically takes 3x as long to maneuver through the bureaucracy as an outright RS site without those guidelines.

So larger renovations, additions or conversions to multiple strata units result in demolishing most of the existing building and replacing them to meet new code requirements rather than providing more appropriate equivalencies. This needs to change in order to retain more of the original structure, finishes and character-defining features.

Yes, many pre-1940s buildings need to be gutted and lifted so that the foundation and structure can be rebuilt, and so that the walls can be insulated appropriately.  For this reason the argument that older buildings are greener - because there is less 'embodied energy' in the materials (compared to new construction) often is simply untrue.  Most deep retrofits send almost as much waste to the landfill as a new build, and have almost the same embodied energy.

If a building is of such low physical quality that it needs to be almost entirely rebuilt, then we need to recognize that we're simply encouraging a very superficial version of fascadism; we're not focusing on true preservation or commemoration, we're simply rebuilding but with 3x the permitting delays and additional cost.  

Heritage Vancouver's Javier Campos calls this form of superficial reconstruction 'crap taxidermy'.  
We can do better.

The current secondary-suite program will need to be expanded to cover more than one unit if incentives of more units are used for retention. Remarkably, the city still shuts down unauthorized secondary suites rather than helping owners to provide additional rentals and mortgage helpers.

Absolutely. We should allow additional suites.

Overall, city hall needs to become more user friendly for owners trying to maintain and upgrade their property. Streamlining renovations rather than new construction should be the priority. One of the current proposals is to have a streamlined renovation permit process that goes through a dedicated team of staff who are specially trained for renovating character houses and conversion. Renovation applications currently go through too many hands and take way too long.
Making these changes will take time and interim measures may be required. But steps must be taken to stop the current destruction of Vancouver.
For example, solid, beautiful, heritage-listed houses are continuing to be demolished. In Point Grey there is a beautiful large 1914 heritage house at 4255 West 12th Ave. proposed for demolition in favour of another monster house. Neighbours like Clare Cullen have been trying to encourage retention of this house since it is one of three in a row that remain. Every day more of Vancouver is being lost. Time is of the essence.

We should absolutely identify the truly remarkable, exemplary, commemorative, or physically robust examples of older homes.  Where there are clusters of homes these too should be identified - and potentially preserved - through the Heritage Registry.  Let's make the Heritage Registry robust, and not limit our focus to some arbitrary age like 'pre-1940' or try to enforce character through zoning.

Retention through zoning simply layers more rules and checklists on to a city that is already struggling with the burden of it's current rules and checklists. We need a less forced approach.

Let's remove barriers and add incentives, but let's make them accessible incentives that also address affordability, the threat of climate change, and the need for more housing options.  Above all, let's have a real conversation about the future of our 1 & 2 family zones.


Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Properties Department and for BC Housing.

Bryn Davidson  (B.Eng. M.Arch LEED-AP) is co-owner and principal designer at Lanefab Design/Build. His team crafts energy efficient custom homes for both existing and aspiring residents of Vancouver. 

Carve up Vancouver housing stock into smaller affordable pieces.

Patrick Condon

A proposal for affordable housing that is context sensitive and preserves heritage homes. 

A large swath of Vancouver virtually all zoned RS-1 for single-family dwellings averaging well over a million dollars each. What if we let those homes be divided into three or more dwellings each?

A large swath of Vancouver virtually all zoned RS-1 for single-family dwellings averaging well over a million dollars each. What if we let those homes be divided into three or more dwellings each?

Right now the average single-family unimproved bungalow in Vancouver is valued at about $1.5 million (and most of that is land value). Given that the average family income in this city is around $70,000, this is about five times too expensive to buy because the rule of thumb is that average house should cost four times the average family income.

A simple solution emerges. Split that average home into smaller more affordable parts. Currently subdividing homes into separate ownerships is prohibited in RS-1 zoned areas, and RS-1 zoning covers over 60 per cent of all residential lands in the city. But if you could split a single family bungalow in Killarney or Dunbar into five units of various sizes, the purchase price would be, in simplified terms, $300,000. A figure much more approachable for families earning the average wage.

Of course there would be reconstruction costs associated with this change in tenure: new bathrooms, dormers, additions, more spacious basements, lane houses etc. But at even gut rehab prices of $150 per square foot that adds roughly $100,000 to the price of each of the five units -- $400,000 is (with gritted teeth) doable.

You need great architects

Architectural skill is required to insure such alterations respond both to existing architectural and neighbourhood context. Happily we have scores of examples of projects where this has been achieved. In the Kitsilano district between 10th and Cornwall and Alma and MacDonald, a special zoning district to do something quite similar has been in place since the mid-1990s. There, single family homes can be "stratified" into three individually owned units per parcel. The results are almost universally quite attractive. The stipulation for adding this density has been a requirement that, even while in many cases more than doubling the habitable square area of the structure, the existing structure must be reused. This tends to result in a proliferation of dormers, additions, side houses and lane houses added to the house and site.

To make room for millennials, do more of this: a Kitsilano conversion of a single family home into three condo units, two in the big original house and one new one built into the previous side yard space.

To make room for millennials, do more of this: a Kitsilano conversion of a single family home into three condo units, two in the big original house and one new one built into the previous side yard space.

I have had the good fortune of living in that area for 20 years and have made a study of these changes. The most important change? The area has become more and more alive as the decades pass. Unlike Coal Harbour and Dunbar, two districts where it seems the vampires have struck in the night, this part of Kits retains its children, and its life. The local schools are full, the resident demographic ranges in age, and in comparison to Dunbar anyway, in income. Sadly this area has also been priced out of the range of the average millennial, but it would not be such a stretch if the city took the next step of allowing four and then five strata units per site.

It's true that squeezing three units out of a 3,200 square foot lot is a lot easier than squeezing five units out of the same sized lot. But it's not impossible. Good architects can do it. And the need seems desperate. The alternative is that the next generation will not be able to compete for space in the large majority of this city, and will never have the option of locking down a share of the wealth pie in time for it to do them any good later in life.

We really need a strategy that lets our children compete with those who can afford a $1.2 million home. Today's millennials, by and large, cannot.

The fact that this strategy will reinvigorate parts of the city that seem to be losing their vitality -- with aging residents, emptying schools, empty buses and shops without customers -- seems a huge bonus as well. 


Patrick M. Condon
Chair, Urban Design Program. University of British Columbia. 

'Single Family Character' vs. Functional Front Yards

Bryn Davidson

A typical Vancouver front yard, ~24' deep.  Image: Google

A typical Vancouver front yard, ~24' deep.  Image: Google

One of the unique things about Vancouver's 'single family' neighbourhoods is the fact that we have lanes (alleys) at the rear. Because these lanes handle the parking, garbage, etc., the front yards are often relieved of having to carry any functional duty.  Instead they can be pleasantly landscaped with winding entry paths, hedges, trees, and flowers providing a picturesque setting for their respective homes.

Shared space: the typical Vancouver rear yard will be shared between the main house, the basement suite entry well, and the laneway house.  Photo: Colin Perry / Lanefab

Shared space: the typical Vancouver rear yard will be shared between the main house, the basement suite entry well, and the laneway house.  Photo: Colin Perry / Lanefab

While there is undoubtably a pleasant aspect to these yards, there are also some hidden costs that are not so obvious. 

As Vancouver's residential zones have evolved, first with basement suites, and then with laneway houses, the intention has always been to try and maintain the 'single family character' of the existing neighbourhood.

This approach has been couched as 'invisible' or 'hidden' density, meaning that the suites and lane houses need to be largely hidden when viewed from the front. This subtle approach to densification is probably a political necessity, but we can't stop there.

The result of the 'hidden density' approach is that all 3 units on a single family Vancouver lot (the main house, basement suite, and lane house) all end up competing for limited space in the rear yard, while the front yard sits serenely apart.  

This is no accident.  

The RS zoning bylaws specifically forbids a home from having a second door facing the street. The fear is that the home might start to look like a duplex (heaven forbid!) and so ruin the 'single family character' of the neighbourhood.

In practice this means that a sunny front yard can't also serve as an entry or patio for a basement suite.  Likewise it means that the main house can't have a second set of french doors opening on to a front porch, yard, or garden.

This is just silly

This is the same property as the photo above.  The large, and largely formal, front yard isn't allowed to contribute any functionality to the 3 dwellings on the site. Photo: Google

This is the same property as the photo above.  The large, and largely formal, front yard isn't allowed to contribute any functionality to the 3 dwellings on the site. Photo: Google

In 2009 it was a bold move for the City of Vancouver to allow 3 units on 'single family' lots, but now we need to go further. We need to stop pretending that multi-family housing (not 'single family') is our future.  There is no reason to compromise on the livability, equity, and energy efficiency of our dwellings simply to keep up appearances.

If you want a lovely formal front yard.    Great.    Do it.

If, however, you have an extended family that is sharing a small piece of city land perhaps you should have the option to make better use of your property.  If your front yard faces south and you want to make the most of indoor-outdoor living, you should have that option too.

In the following weeks I'll be digging into a range of other issues related to our fascination with 'single family character' but - to start with - please, let's have some functional front yards.

Current RS 'Single Family' policy: Only one door is allowed to face the street.

Current RS 'Single Family' policy:
Only one door is allowed to face the street.

Proposed policy: Allow additional doors to face the street so that basements, or main floor living areas can make better use of the front yard.

Proposed policy:
Allow additional doors to face the street so that basements, or main floor living areas can make better use of the front yard.


The "Zoned Capacity" Argument is Misleading - We need a different conversation

Bryn Davidson

At a recent event hosted by the Urbanarium, the city of Vancouver's new general manager  of planning  and sustainability, Gil Kelley, had the opportunity to introduce himself to the collected nerdy-urbanists (myself included) and to introduce us to his planning philosophy.  It was a great conversation and throughout the presentation there seemed to be a lot of nodding and agreement with the broad statements of both values and process. 

Mid-way through, however, there was one moment that stood out as a bit of a non-sequitur. Following up on the need to take on 'big ideas'  he mentioned briefly that we may not need to make any large interventions into the current zoning map because we already have the necessary 'zoned capacity' to take us to 2040.  This comment lit up many twitter feeds and garnered a pointed question from the audience at the end of the event.  

I don't fault him the attempt to temper the fears or expectations of large scale changes under his watch.  What it does highlight, however, is that the idea of 'zoned capacity' is a real trigger in the local conversation, and one that we need to explore more deeply.

How did "zoned capacity" become such a flashpoint in Vancouver? In large part it is due to the efforts of character-retention advocates who have argued that we don't need to update our zoning map (and so risk the loss of existing character homes) because there already exists enough unused capacity within our current zoning plans to absorb all of the necessary growth for the next 20 years. On it's surface the idea seems both simple and compelling, and - for this reason - it has gone largely un-challenged until recently.  

In a September 2016 article the Sightline Institute's Dan Bertolet wrote a thorough rebuttal arguing:  

"It makes for a powerful talking point, conveniently glossing over the fact that zoned capacity is exceedingly difficult to estimate correctly and is employed by planners only as a crude yardstick."

Whereas Dan has provided a very detailed and sophisticated analysis of planning methods, I'll add some simpler thoughts that stem from my experiences designing and building single family homes in Vancouver:

Um, What about re-zonings? 

Single family houses usually are built within the current zoning. By contrast a large percentage of the city's multifamily housing in Vancouver is being done through a re-zoning process.  If we have enough 'zoned capacity' why is this? 

The idea of "20 years zoned capacity" seems to have really taken flight based on a 2014 consultant report looking at multifamily zones. Buried in there is an acknowledgement that about half of that 20 years of zoned capacity will actually come from re-zonings, and there's a second acknowledgement that much of what is currently zoned might not be where the market wants to build. 

In a typical re-zoning process the city has a bit more leverage over the types of amenities, features, and development fees that it can get in exchange for the up-zone.  

This seems appealing at first, but some detractors - like Patrick Condon - argue there are downsides to this approach.

By relying on re-zoning to provide half of our multifamily capacity we're biasing the city towards large scale development while neglecting the so-called missing middle; duplexes, 4-plexes, town houses and other forms that are smaller and much finer grained. 

These 'missing' housing types work better in a context where there is 'pre-zoning' (by updating the zoning map) versus relying on spot re-zoning. 

Every re-zoning exemplifies the fact that our current zoning map, our 'zoned capacity', is either the wrong size, the wrong type, or in the wrong location.  If we need to re-zone, then we don't have enough 'zoned capacity' or the zoning that we do have is out-of-date relative to today's needs. Perhaps it's time to take another look at pre-zoning.


'Whole block' redevelopment via re-zoning. Cambie and 12th. Image: CoV Rezoning Centre.

'Whole block' redevelopment via re-zoning. Cambie and 12th.
Image: CoV Rezoning Centre.


Spreading the love (lane house style):

So, it turns out, we have an interesting example of citywide pre-zoning:  the 2009 laneway house bylaw.

The laneway houses update was unique in that density was added city-wide to the majority of the city's 'single family' lots.  Overnight some 60,000+ lots became eligible to add this new type of purpose-built rental and - in the years since - nearly 400 of the units have been built per year.  

A map of the 2000+ built lane houses shows that they are spread evenly across the city in both the richer and (relatively) poorer neighbourhoods, and in areas with higher and lower density.  

Both the benefits and impacts of this new density have been able to be spread across the city, and home owners across the city have been able to age-in-place, supplement their income, or provide housing for their extended family. 

Because the zoned capacity for lane houses is
~150x the annual number of permits issued

To put it another way, in the next 20 years if we keep building 400 lane house per year, then we'll have only used up 1/8 of the pre-zoned capacity.  

Yet another way to put it: the pre-zoned capacity for lane houses is ~16x higher than the pre-zoned capacity for multifamily housing.  This is why we're seeing lane houses everywhere, but not the other missing middle housing types.

This is also why the lane house policy has allowed individual homeowners to act as the de-facto developer.

Citywide pre-zoning can allow new dwellings to be infilled in small increments and even single lots.  This stands in stark contrast to the re-zoning approach which almost always involves lot consolidation and rarely allows existing owners to densify-in-place.

If you want the development of your city to be a more equitable process, and you want to avoid the appearance that only certain communities and corridor residents need to bear the brunt of redevelopment, then the pre-zoned capacity needs to be much much larger than the amount of housing you actually want to build each year.  

Vancouver lane house permits 2009-2013.

Vancouver lane house permits 2009-2013.

The 2009 lane house bylaw allows existing owners to act as the developer, creating new housing for their extended family.  Photo: laneway house  featured in the New York Times      

The 2009 lane house bylaw allows existing owners to act as the developer, creating new housing for their extended family.

Photo: laneway house featured in the New York Times  



New zones are great (if you can find them): 

Tucked away in the neighbourhood plans for areas like Norquay Village, Grandview Woodlands, and the Cambie corridor have been some really interesting new zones created for stacked townhouses and other 'missing middle' housing types, but - if you zoom out - it becomes clear that these pockets of pre-zoning are few and far between.  

The city has 24 neighbourhoods. Of these 24, only 6 have so far gone through a more detailed planning process that resulted in a pre-zoning map.  The other neighbourhoods (Dunbar etc.) are coasting on CityPlan vision statements from the late 90s while relying on corridor re-zonings (and the lane house bylaw) for their evolution.  

At first glance this corridor approach seems fine, but - as the lane house policy showed - there is a widespread latent demand for new flexibility and new housing options within our one and two family zones.

A pre-zoning approach (that complements our neighbourhood plans) would spread both the opportunity and impacts more equitably.  

As we start a new conversation about the future of our city, we to need acknowledge that the 'zoned capacity' argument is - at best - an argument for continuing to focus on larger scale re-zonings, and - at worst - is a misdirection aimed at channelling densification into certain corridors and communities while leaving the zoning of our one and two family neighbourhoods static. 

I think it's time to acknowledge that the world is changing faster than our plans, and we probably need to revisit our approach to 'zoned capacity'.


About the author:
Bryn Davidson lives and works in Vancouver. His team designs and builds custom homes for individual homeowners and their families.