Doll Houses: Laneway homes seen as business, lifestyle and green-living option

Laneway houses - an option in the backyard as mortgage helpers, rental income, in-law suites and even retirement homes - are sprouting in Kamloops.

Constructed over garages or as free-standing structures on lots with lanes, laneway houses are a 21 st-century adaptation to urban lifestyle, changing markets and, last but not least, environmental design values.

In recent years the compact homes have gained popularity in Vancouver, encouraged as part of the EcoDensity movement to reduce the environmental footprint while preserving single-family neighbourhoods.

Recognizing an opportunity in Kamloops, five local business owners and entrepreneurs have formed Laneways4Kamloops, a partnership to market, design and build the homes.

The group includes builder Brian Hayashi (who runs NexBuild and serves as president of the Canadian Home Builders, Central Interior), architect Dale Parkes (Project Green), Ben Giudici (Riverside Energy Systems), Jim Robinson (Optimum Air) and real estate marketing specialist Mitchell Forgie.

They see a market for an integrated turnkey service, with a custom laneway home starting as low as $115,000.

"We're doing it as a side project," Forgie said. "The hope is that people will see the possibilities. As that happens and we get business, it may become more of a full-time thing."

The City cleared the way for such homes 18 months ago by introducing RS1S zoning, allowing secondary suites in order to encourage more rental accommodation, Forgie said. That also served to legalize existing laneway housing. Still, the new group plans to get out in front of the curve.

"I think a lot of people aren't aware yet," Forgie said.

By their very nature - new homes increasing density in existing neighbourhoods - they can bring their share of issues, said Randy Lambright, City planning and development manager.

Provisions for laneway houses have been in place since the North Shore neighbourhood plan was introduced several years ago, he said.

"It's happening. We're way ahead of 'em," he said, referring to the Laneways4Kamloops venture. From a city development standpoint, laneway houses offer densification or infill and add to the tax roll while using existing amenities.

"It assists in preventing sprawl."

They're also called carriage houses or garden suites and have a maximum size of 800 square feet. Four or five such homes have been approved in the past year. Property owners must still go through the residential development permit process, though. Through feedback, neighbourhoods have accepted the concept, but with concerns expressed over height and views.

"We want to make sure they sensitively fit into the neighbourhood," Lambright said. "They don't want them peering into their backyard. These are all good issues we need to address to sensitively integrate them into the neighbourhood without issues."

Obviously, there must be some rethinking of design in an industry geared to single-family and multi-family residential construction.

Forgie describes them as "low-carbon" houses with growing appeal. Yet they can be more than just a green building, he said.

"Most power required by the house is met passively through good design as well as excellent insulation and solar hot water systems; however, the simple lifestyle choice to live centrally, near to most destinations (schools, transit, groceries, entertainment) is the greenest choice of all.

"You have your own walls and your own yard," he added. "It can be apartment-style living without sacrificing the feel of a home and yard."

Parkes will be custom designing each laneway home. There is a payback for the customer, he said.

"When you make a conscious choice to live in more space-efficient homes, you really have the opportunity to customize and splurge on high-end fixtures and appliances," Parkes said.

Laneways4Kamloops is already working on its first project. Judy and Jim Robinson - one of the partners in the enterprise - are building one on their Westsyde property. Robinson was consulted for his expertise in energy-efficient installations and offered to provide the pilot project. They have R2 zoning, not laneway zoning, so will probably subdivide their half-acre lot instead.

"You've got to get used to living in a house that's 850 square feet," he said. "It's kind of challenging because they don't make furnaces as small as we're looking at. There's not a lot of room for mechanical."

The objective is to design a home as close to net-zero energy consumption as they can get it. Robinson will integrate solar-thermal, which would enable them to feed surplus electricity back into the B.C. Hydro grid, supplemented by electric heat. As the heating and air-conditioning specialist in the group, he's looking forward to the challenge and eventually to "retiring in the backyard."

"It's kind of fun. There are a few people interested in doing it already. It has potential to be a revenue generator."

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