Laneway Houses Make Home Ownership More Affordable

Architects, designers and builders have big plans for little houses, coming up with innovative features that aim to make small-space living as affordable, comfortable and sustainable as possible

Credit: Jon Benjamin Photography

At just 220 square feet, the L41 prototype laneway house is small but smart

Laneway houses prove that “living large” no longer has to mean taking up a lot of space

Ever since Vancouver city council passed a bylaw in July of 2009, laneway houses – detached backyard dwellings meant for rental or family use that measure up to a maximum of 750 square feet in size (depending on lot size) – have been popping up behind “standard-sized” homes in designated single-family neighbourhoods across the city.

Now, two years later, architects, designers and builders have big plans for these little houses, coming up with innovative techniques and features that aim to make small-space living as affordable, comfortable and sustainable as possible – not just in Vancouver, but around the world.

L41 is Affordable

The sofa folds down into a bed, shelves offer storage and double as a desk.

“It’s 2011; it’s time we started to take a closer look at how we’re living on this earth,” says Vancouver architect Michael Katz, who, along with his wife, designer Janet Corne, created a prototype of an “ultra-compact, affordable, sustainable, high-design” house that was on public display during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Dubbed L41 (a nod to the notion of “all for one and one for all”), the original objective of the factory-built unit, which has since been tapped for laneway housing, was “to play a part in 
mass-producing houses that are so affordable that, before the end of this century, all the people in the world can have proper shelter,” says Katz.

As such, he and Corne concluded that, in order to make a house affordable, they had to make it small. At 220 square feet, the L41 demonstration unit certainly fits the bill; but don’t let its diminutive dimensions fool you.

The kitchen dazzles with deep counters, smart appliances and natural light.

“Simply making a house small isn’t good enough. It must be highly livable and delightful,” says Katz, adding that L41 laneway homes – the first of which is currently in production – will range from approximately 250 to 750 square feet in size and include up to two bedrooms in one- and two-storey configurations.

In the meantime, the single-occupant demonstration unit is sleek, stylish and includes many comforts one wouldn’t expect to find in (much less fit into) such a small space.

The kitchen, for instance, is full size, and boasts the latest in space-saving appliances: a convection oven that serves dual-duty as a microwave; refrigerator and freezer “drawers” tucked below the counter; and an Asko washer that doubles as a dryer.

“Quite often, small-space designs will sacrifice the kitchen in favour of other rooms or features,” says Corne. “We see the kitchen as a main gathering place that’s often considered the heart of the home, and we wanted to incorporate that into our design.”


Adjacent to the kitchen, a bathroom with a dual-flush toilet, sink and shower stall offers privacy via a sliding door. Toward the back of the unit, a bright live-work space features a pull-down sofa bed, a built-in computer desk and ample closet space along the wall. A three-panel glass door slides opens to reveal a generous balcony and outdoor storage shed, creating an opportunity to extend the living space outward as the seasons allow.

“Many of the people who saw this unit during the Olympics had hockey on their minds, and were particularly preoccupied with watching the gold-medal game,” Corne recalls, smiling. “We showed them how the window blind in the living area can be pulled down to become a projection screen, so they could still have their friends over to watch the game.”

As for green features, the L41 doesn’t disappoint: triple-glazed windows, energy-efficient appliances, LED lighting, solar heating and even a rooftop garden figure in the plans. “This building, being so small, requires much less energy to run it: fewer lights, less heat,” Katz points out. “It is truly a home designed for a generation that understands the principles of ‘small is beautiful.’”

Making the Most of a Small Space

Bryn Davidson’s interest in small spaces comes from a pretty personal place: the 400-square-foot condo he shares with his wife.

“When I heard that the city was thinking about passing the bylaw back in 2009, it was just around the time that we were completing a renovation on our own home, so I was literally immersed in small-space design,” says the Vancouver-based designer and sustainability consultant. “We were interested in seeing how small we could go in terms of our footprint and still live in a very comfortable way.”

Once the bylaw did pass, Davidson and builder Mat Turner saw a unique opportunity to serve a new market. Forming Lanefab Design-Build Ltd., the duo started signing up clients for laneway homes throughout the city. In early 2010, they completed Vancouver’s first laneway project: the 710-square-foot Mendoza (McGill) Lane House located on the city’s east side.

Built on a standard 33-by-122-foot lot, the Mendoza house, according to Davidson, has “the same footprint as the garage it replaced.” This, he adds, has much to do with its unique “inverted” design.

Pot lights, pendants, a large mirror and the skylight work together to flood this home with plenty of light even though it’s hidden in a lane.

“A lot has to fit into these very tiny buildings, so it’s a question of how do you make the most of a limited space,” he explains. “We have two variations: the more traditional layout, with the kitchen and living room on the ground floor and the bedrooms upstairs, and the alternative, which is the bedrooms and bathroom downstairs, with the living room, dining room and balcony upstairs.

“With all these projects, we’re trying to really limit the amount of circulation space and trying to make every other space have a number of different functions so that there isn’t any one space serving just one purpose.”

Besides being space savvy, Lanefab laneway homes include “everything that goes into a normal house. They have all of the same finishes, appliances, their own sewer water and electrical connection, sprinkler system – everything,” says Davidson, adding that every project is “well beyond the code requirements for energy efficiency.” 

Bryn Davidson stands in front of a home built by Lanefab.

As for customization, “the sky’s the limit,” he says. “We’ve added solar panels and hot tubs to laneway homes. Because they’re all custom, there’s a big range in price, from as low as $220,000 or, in the upper end, $300,000 or $350,000. Many of our clients are homeowners who are looking to move out of their main house and into a lane house, so it’s nice to know that for the price of a condo you can get a really nice laneway home that’s built to suit your needs.”

Modern Sheds

Modern Shed similarly produces prefabricated “home additions” that range from basic storage sheds to structures with window awnings, sliding glass doors and maple plywood walls. While these have yet to be used locally as laneway housing, Geoff Baker, the company’s Canadian dealer, says it’s only a matter of time.

80-square-foot shed converted to an ultra-compact home

“These structures are being used as backyard offices, garages and cabins,” says Baker. “They range from 80 to 800 square feet in size and from as low as $10,000 to as high as $200,000 in price. They’re delivered to your front door as a shell that a local contractor can then provide certain components for, like plumbing and electrical.”

The so-called “sheds” go up very quickly, he adds, in as little as 14 days, and their beauty lies in the fact that each structure “comes in one shipment as opposed to hundreds from different suppliers. There’s no running to Rona to get this and Home Depot to get that. It’s a simple, smart way to fill this growing interest we have in Vancouver for laneway housing.”

Kitchen by Modern Shed with 10-foot-high ceilings.

In fact, Modern Shed does produce larger, more residential-looking units called “dwelling sheds,” which can be customized to include such features as 10-foot-high ceilings, wraparound decks and mix-and-match siding.

Says Modern Shed founder Ryan Grey Smith: “When you actually have a solution and it’s very functional and very practical, then it becomes purposeful. And what we’re really trying to show people is what you can do with them – all these different uses, all these different possibilities.”

Lighten the Load 

Three ways to ease your home’s footprint

Warms walls
: Create comfort and peace of mind by stuffing your walls and attic with new, formaldehyde-free EcoTouch™ Pink™ Fiberglas®, which is made with more than 70-per-cent recycled content.

Toasty toes
: Warm your feet – and your room – with in-floor electric heating systems. Nu Heat’s energy-efficient zone-heating system 
can be used under tile, stone, laminate 
or engineered wood floors. The new seven-day programmable Harmony Thermostat lets you customize your system for weekdays and weekends.

Light from above: Internationally renowned designer Ross Lovegrove has harnessed the power of the sun and pressed it into service as an innovative “bulb” that diffuses the light in Velux’s Sun Tunnel skylights. Adjust the angle of this designer lamp that generates as much light as a 60-watt bulb. – Janet Gyenes

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.