What does .15 feet mean?

I know I promised that my next post would be about the process of tree removal in the City of Vancouver, but it is taking even longer than I thought and I don’t want tell an unfinished story. Instead, I want to share my experience with getting permission to build a laneway house on a slightly irregular lot.

First off, there is no such things as a regular lot.  As anyone familiar with a survey knows, the actual measurements of your lot can be a few inches off at all points.  When you are building a house in the City of Vancouver those measurements matter and can get confusing.  My lot size is done in feet – 32 x 121- according to the City of Vancouver VanMap program and the BC Assessment Authority.

(For our out of town readers, I should point out that we often think of a 33 x 122 feet (4026sf) lot as a “standard lot”, so most of the rules and examples provided by the city are based on this.)

About 10 years ago, under the leadership of Sam Sullivan, the City of Vancouver embarked on a program called EcoDensity which, among other initiatives, started allowing small laneway houses to be built in the back yards of houses with lanes.  The purpose was to help increase rental stock, allow families to age in place and reduce our overall living footprint.  These laneway houses have become quite popular as additional rental suites given the high cost of housing in Vancouver.

My plan is to build a laneway house in my back yard and rent it out to help pay for my exorbitant mortgage.  If I go too far over budget, I might have to move in myself.  When I was originally enquiring with the City about whether or not a Laneway house could be approved on my lot, I was given usual non-committal assurances that it would be fine.  But when it came time to invest money in planning and designing a laneway house, I wanted to make sure it could happen.  I’ve seen laneway houses on narrower lots and and shorter lots, but I still wanted to make sure it was allowed on MY LOT.  The extra rental income that will be generated from the laneway house is a key part of how I will afford my new home.

I went to the City Website and found this where it says, You can build a laneway house on any lot 32 feet or wider in any RS single family zone. Perfect!  After reading this, I went ahead and secured the land, financing (based on laneway rental income) and paid my designer to develop plans.

www.Vancouver.ca says you can build a laneway house on any lot 32FT or wider within zoning restrictions.

www.Vancouver.ca says you can build a laneway house on any lot 32FT or wider within zoning restrictions.

After last week’s meeting at the with counter guy, code guy and 3rd guy, panic set in.  It turns out that the City of Vancouver’s website is not as accurate as it needs to be.  The laneway housing guidelines book is slightly more specific and says that you may build a house if your lot is 32.15ft – not 32ft like the website says.  POINT 15 FEET!

The LWH Guide says laneway approval is only guaranteed for lots 9.8M or wider.

The LWH Guide says laneway approval is only guaranteed for lots 9.8M or wider.

Are you kidding me right now?!?!

My entire development plan is being called into question over .15ft.  OH NO!  More panic set in. During last weeks meeting with the City, counter guy told me to email planning and re-zoning to set up a separate meeting to see if what I want is possible.  “It shouldn’t be a problem”, I was told.

So, I emailed the address I was given and waited for a response so I could have another meeting with another planner to determine if I could build my laneway.  In the meantime I started to do some math conversion to see if I could magically find .15ft.

You’ll recall from my earlier post that city requires a barrier free washroom on the main floor of a new home with 750mm x 1200mm of clear space.  That’s correct, they measure things in mm.  Except for lot sizes, which are measured in feet and laneway minimum site widths which are done in metres.  Metric and imperial are used in equal measure when building in Vancouver – no pun intended.  A minimum site width of 9.8M is required for outright approval of a laneway house to be exact.  Which roughly translates to 32.15ft.

LETS DO SOME MATH

According to my Macbook Air conversion calculator it looks like this:
9.8M = 32.152231ft
When I take 32.15223ft and put it in the google converter back to metres I get 9.799999704 Metres.

At this point, I realize I have already done more math than I have done in the 15 years since I graduated High School and walk away from the computer.  Satisfied with my discovery that a few simple conversions can make my lot requirement smaller, I assume that If I just keep doing the math through multiple websites and calculators, the minimum lot size will be down the .15ft I need by the time I build.  My designer prudently advises me to get proper approval and not rely on my terrible math conversion logic.

On Monday February 23 at 3:30pm, I sent an email to the City of Vancouver outlining my request for a Laneway House Approval on my 32 x 121 lot along with preliminary plans and a draft site plan.  An auto reply immediately came back telling me to expect a response in up to 5 business days.  Less than 48 hours later, on Wednesday at 12:57pm I received an email from a Senior Development Planner saying that someone else would be in touch within 2 business days.  Within the hour an member of the Planning and Development Services team contacted me to set up a meeting for the next day, Thursday February 26 at 3:30pm, which I immediately accepted.  I was very impressed with the speed of City of Vancouver on this issue!  Planning and Development Services seem to have their act together.

In the meantime I picked up my Topographic Survey  and Post Plan (Cost $1979) which shows my lot size to actually be 32.07ft wide in the front and 32.27ft in the rear.  “Victory” shouted!  My width is fine in the rear of the property where the laneway house will go and and the overall average width is just enough to qualify.

On Thursday February 26, I went back to the City offices for my 2nd meeting.  The woman at the counter took my name, called upstairs and sent me off to the elevator to go to the 2nd floor.  When I stepped off the elevator, I was met by Patrick who shook my hand and took me into one of the meeting rooms. He came prepared with print outs of my laneway design, notes on my property and a binder with all the applicable zoning bylaws.  He was patient, answered my questions and offered his thoughts on my previous week’s problem about the accessible washroom.  He event went and printed the applicable code about installing a main floor washroom that I had previously been unable to find.

We talked through the plan for about an hour and he said approval shouldn’t be a problem (given that it is only a few inches) and he would have approval to me by the end of the day.  “THE END OF THE DAY!”, I thought.  Its 4:30pm on a Thursday and your offices are already locked to the public, there is no way I will get an answer before the day it out.

But, to his credit, Patrick emailed me back at 5:02pm.  Here is the text of that email:

Here’s some feedback/answers to the items we discussed.
 
For the lot width:
Yes, we can allow your site to be developed for a laneway house. The Director of Planning can relax it for sites down to 24’ width.
 
For the accessible bathroom (still a tricky one without a clear answer):
was advised that this is ultimately a Vancouver Building By-Law issue that goes beyond the jurisdiction of development planners (who mostly look at urban design issues). The ultimate decision still lies with the Building Code group.

One option we can try is to put in a door (e.g. pocket door) between the washroom and the future shower area (the closet). That way the washroom and closet-shower is one contiguous space.

The door from the hallway to the closet can still be there.

I will ask around next week to see what other options are there.

NOTE: I was informed that the accessible bathroom (introduced in the new building bylaws) is intended for ageing-in-place rather than for disabled persons, otherwise everything will be have to be built at grade, have ramps or wheelchair-lifts.
 
Hope that helps for the moment.
 
Cheers and have a great weekend ahead!
Pat  

Panic again!….go back and see what Patrick wrote about my laneway approval…..”Yes, we CAN allow your site to be developed for a laneway house”

I know you can!!!  But will you?!??!  That was the whole point of my meeting.  It reminded me of the entire Barack Obama presidency, “Yes we can!” But, mostly, “We didn’t.”

Within 10 minutes Patrick and I had this email exchange:

FROM KEITH TO PATRICK:
Thanks for the quick reply! I just want to clarify something…
 
Yes, we “can” allow a laneway or yes, we “will” allow a laneway.
 
Thanks again.
FROM PATRICK TO KEITH:
We will allow in this circumstance. Your site is just under an inch off at the front, and the back is within the range.
 
The “director of planning may…” wording in Section 11 is more intended to caution against sites which may be closer to the 7.3m (23.9’) width and may be oddly shaped or have grade changes that will cause the potential LWH to have negative impacts on neighbouring sites.

Phew!  The laneway is allowed!  And, equally important, my faith in the City of Vancouver as my partner in building this home has been restored.

Here are some early drafts of my laneway house for you to consider.  Let me know your thoughts.

 

LWHouse_main floor plan

LWHouse_upper floor plan

2 comments on “The Laneway House Approval Process

  • Keith,
    The upper level of the floor plan is the kitchen and living room and the main floor is the bedrooms??? Is that common to enter at the bedroom level for this style of house?

    Sounds like an exciting project you are embarking on. Congrats on the new house and further on the new adventure of being a general contractor!

    There’s a recent article in Toronto life that focuses on a knockdown and build in Forest Hill where the owners, unlike the adherence to by-laws that you are complying with, simply builds what they want and after the fact fights their neighbours appeals at the OMB. Not the direction I would condone, but it provides great contrast and a bit of a chuckle when I read your blog on the heels of it.

    Look forward to seeing the final pictures!

    Geoff

    • For the laneway house, it is very hard to make the floorplan work with 2 bedrooms on the top floor. The top floor can’t be more than 60% of the size of the main floor, so it ends up too tight for 2 bedrooms. I really want 2 bedrooms in there for the rental income to pay for all the other expensive things I have to do.

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