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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Laneway Life

We swung by the laneway the other evening to have a look at the developments.  We found Angelito, our builder, patiently revamping the top of the stairs.  The inspector had asked that he change the staircase where it makes a 180 degree turn — from the landing just inside the garden-side door at the top of the first run to where it enters the kitchen part of the upper storey.  Apparently the way it was originally built it would not pass code.  I asked Angelito if these were the same stairs that the same inspector had been climbing every visit for the past six weeks.  He paused and said yes.

We then chatted about the next steps and how soon everything will be coming together.  Of course, to us, things are moving maddeningly slow.  We can’t always see the subtle but important steps that lead to the final product.  Angelito assured us that by the time of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation tour the place will be substantially finished.  That means exterior Hardie siding, insulation, drywall, painting, floors, cabinets, and lighting will all be done within the next couple of weeks.  We should see the home bloom before our eyes, as we did in the first weeks when the footings and foundation appeared to spring from the earth.  We are very excited, but I find I am a little anxious.  There is still so much to be done to get us ready for the move!

Every time we leave the laneway we walk down the lane, noticing yards where another laneway home could be built, adding to the lane community and to the ambience and livability of the lane.

We are very happy to be part of the laneway renaissance movement.  You don’t think that’s a real thing?  Thanks to This City Life, we know that cities around the world are taking back their alleyways, embracing them, repairing and renovating them.

Like in Seattle:

alleywayseattle

Montreal:

alleywaymontrealSydney:

alleywaysydney

Here in Vancouver Livable Laneways is an organization

dedicated to transforming the overlooked laneways and alleys of Vancouver into pedestrian-friendly civic spaces.

They recentlyheld an event in association with The Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association.  There was music, vendors, food, and even a lovely art piece made out of a fire escape:

LeeBuildingArtpieceMore events are being planned for the future.  On the North Shore, an organization called More Fun Alleys had a contest to re-name an alley in North Vancouver.  The winner:  LoLo Lane.

Alleys can be wonderful places.  And they have great acoustics:

Acoustic of a saxophone player in Vancouver’s back alley from Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier on Vimeo.

What should we name our lane?  I think Penny Lane is taken.

Densification. How is your city doing it?

Let’s face it, cities are running out of affordable housing.  To spread out into more and more far-flung suburbs is very expensive.  You need more amenities, schools, parks, hydro, sewers, transit lines and on and on.  It makes more sense that people fill in the existing neighbourhoods so more people can live there.  One of the answers is laneway homes but it would be too simplistic to suppose that it’s the only answer.  Other means of densification must be found.

the future of Vancouver?

the future of Vancouver?

Let’s look at the facts.  As we know, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.  As this article in the Tyee shows, the current “trend” toward stabilization in the housing market in Vancouver is actually a continuing crisis.

In Vancouver, nearly half of us (46 per cent) are paying more for lodging than we can afford, at least according to the official definition. But some analysts warn that even these numbers could be understating the problem.

The statistics that lie to us are questionable because

the elimination of the mandatory long-form survey dealt an insurmountable blow to accurate data collection.

So when some people refer to Vancouver housing prices, they actually mean

everything from West Vancouver to Langley and all the way down to White Rock.

But here in the City of Vancouver we are running out of affordable housing.  Fast.  And densification seems the logical answer.

But while many people complain about Vancouver’s expensive housing, to just as many “density is a bad word,” notes Anne Mullin, president & CEO of the Urban Development Institute (UDI), which represents Canadian developers. “But it’s an important discussion to have.”

She’s alluding to neighbourhood uprisings that have blossomed across Vancouver against city hall’s efforts to boost density. Marpole residents, for instance, blocked a “thin streets” proposal to allow more houses per lot. Grandview-Woodland neighbours became incensed at the idea of high-rise towers being added to the bustling transit hub at Commercial and Broadway.

The answers are out there, let’s take a look at what’s happening in other cities.  Both are sea ports.  Both are first world communities.  And both are facing the same kind of problem as Vancouver is — a lack of affordable housing.

In Sydney, Australia, families are turning away from condos and

 $2,000 a quarter in strata fees, with remodelling, pet ownership and even visible decor frequently regulated.

In Australia properties are sold in auctions, and you can bet the prices get pushed up on attractive houses, even tiny ones.

Over 70 people turned out for the auction of a one-bedroom house on a 114 square metre block in Darlington, which fetched $951,000 — well over the suburb’s median house price of $757,000.

That’s about 1225 square feet in size.

The listing for a 139 square metre space in Balmain, which sold for $825,000, suggested that buyers could maximise the floor plan by building a second level.

A 300 square metre fibro cottage in Annandale, marketed as needing “a major overhaul”, sold for a cool $900,000.

Those are Vancouver prices!  And it doesn’t really add to affordability in neighbourhoods, rather is makes it worse by driving up the prices of the homes that are available.

In Seattle some developers are building “APodMents” — rooming houses with tiny apartments and shared amenities

One aPodment development, the Solana, has units that average 170 sq ft according to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has expressed his support of the developments (some units in other building are as small as 100 sq ft). The units come furnished (with no murphy beds so far as we know) and have their own bathroom and shower. Instead of a proper kitchen, they feature a fridge and microwave, with available communal kitchens. All utilities including wifi are included.

To say these buildings are experiencing push back is a gross understatement.  People owning houses worth millions are suddenly findings these developments sprouting up along their blocks.  And they are not happy.

Anyone who can scrape up enough money for month-to-month rent can live there…I don’t think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it.

But in reality, tenants are not the usual SRO crowd

 The various articles we scanned reported of young Microsoft employees, recent college grads and divorcees on a fixed income occupying these apartments–not thugs looking for launchpads for heists.

Once again we see that if we are going to offer affordable housing for the people who pour our lattes, sell us our groceries and our clothes, teach our children and attend our universities, we are going to have to accept higher densification in all neighbourhoods.  Can we really say “Not In My Back Yard”?

Closest to the closet we want

One of the things you must talk about when hiring a builder is where the money is going to go.  And you should be putting your money where it makes the most sense — to you.

Take a look at your budget and see where you want to spend more — and where you will be more frugal.   Only you can decide how your budget will be allocated.  Of course, certain line items are going to cost what they cost — the foundation, walls, and roof for instance.  But you can have quite a say about what goes inside the foundation, walls, and roof.

We wanted a custom kitchen — and we got it.  It will be gorgeous (actually it already is gorgeous, the cabinets are nearly ready to be installed).   But in the bathroom and the clothes closet we are falling back on the standard — IKEA.

At the time we were first conferring with Laurel, our designer, about the design of the laneway house we weren’t sure what kind of clothes closet we wanted.  We had been spoiled by having a custom closet system installed in our condo, and we thought we might want the same in the laneway.  So Laurel gave us a space that would fit any closet system that fits into a 200 cm width.  And we left the item off the builder’s budget.

But after living in the rental for a while and sharing a closet, we realized that we could design our own clothing storage system ourselves, and why spend more?  Go with PAX by IKEA.

Surprisingly, pretty close to what we want

Surprisingly, pretty close to what we want except for the dress — not my style.

On an unscheduled trip out to IKEA last week (long, boring story) we saw that the PAX system was on sale for 15% off until the end of September.  So now we had a deadline.  And thanks to the Main House, we had a space to store the flat-pack boxes until the system could be installed.  So I pulled out the graph paper and we started to put together a closet that works for us.

Driving out to the IKEA on Saturday I had that tightening around the temples that means “I am not looking forward to this”.  I love IKEA and used to love strolling around and finding things that I didn’t know I wanted, and putting them into those handy big bags and then taking them home and putting them away never to be seen or used.  But this time we had to buy exactly what we needed.  We had to have it delivered.  And I was not looking forward to stalking the warehouse to find the right products and then wrangling them onto those airport luggage carts and manoeuvring through the check-out (I have terrible check-out karma) and then standing in line for the delivery desk.  It’s a big deal.

BUT when we got there and realized that part of our plan would have to be abandoned because we could see it wouldn’t work, I started to go into full anxiety-mode.

We wound our way to the bedroom section and DH found an angel of mercy in a yellow shirt, Nancy, who held my hand and walked us through the process.  First she drew up what we wanted on a computer that showed everything in a nice realistic rendering.  She printed off a list of everything we had asked for and entered the numbers into another computer that showed whether or not they had it in stock (spoiler alert! — they did) then spoke those magic words that made all the difference.  IKEA will not only deliver for a fee, but for another (perfectly reasonable) fee they will pull the items off the shelves for you.  I could feel the relief radiating off DH, who was sure he would drag the wrong box off the shelf and we would have it delivered and then we would have to take it back and then there would be a lot of hassle…..and no, that was not going to happen.  Nor would a grandmother-aged little old lady (me) have to lug huge boxes full of Hasvik doors onto those tiny carts.

That is how a trip to IKEA that we thought would take all afternoon left us enough time to go to IDSWest.

We still had a bother getting through the check-out (not IKEA’s fault — it’s my karma to get in the wrong line up and then have the cashier have to change the tape just when I get to the front) but….the items were all delivered the following afternoon.

We are looking forward to seeing our new closet in place.  And we are happy that we got it for the lowest price we could.  We have other places to put that money.

Can you make your neighbourhood better?

DH and I were taking our customary walk down the alley from the rental to transit a couple of weeks ago, and he stopped and said “That’s what I’m afraid of at our place.”  It was graffiti, and not the nice stuff, either, just crude tags and initials.  But someone had used brown spray paint on nearly all the garage doors along one part of the crescent where we live.

graffiti

Like this but more obscene.

It was plain why they had chosen that particular set of homes.  The alley does not face other garages and homes, but rather a line of dense conifers hiding the lane from a very busy street.  Further along the crescent where garages face onto a lane flanked by a busy thoroughfare there was little or no graffiti.

Plus the yards along our alley all have high fences and two- or three-car garages, virtually a solid wall all the way along. You can’t see into your neighbour’s yard.  What we can glance through the occasional gate are more parked cars on concrete slabs and one rusting collapsed metal shed.  It’s like it was built just to accommodate graffiti.

And litter.  At one point there were five abandoned sofas mouldering on the boulevard, plus cardboard boxes and discarded stereo equipment.  That’s been removed, thank goodness.

These seemingly inconsequential transgressions can actually have a serious effect on the safety of the neighbourhood.  Studies have shown that in neighbourhoods with litter and graffiti, people become more disobedient.  Some people call it the “broken window” effect.  In areas where small “incivilities” are not repaired, like broken windows or graffiti, crime like theft and vandalism goes up.

This is something we all have to watch out for and fight against.

In our laneway neighbourhood the alley is a lot more friendly.  Fences are not as high and gates are usually see-through, giving you a glimpse into the yards.  There are some lovely gardens that are tenderly cared for.  You are likely to see a neighbour out on their deck or in their yard, and interact with them.  But I hope that another factor that will lead to a safer and tidier back lane will be….us.

The laneway will be nicely painted and we will have plants by the front door on the lane side.  Windows and our deck overlook the lane, which is well-lit.  We will put our garbage and compost cans around the garden side of the house so they won’t be visible from the lane.  And we hope that will make the alley way more livable.

From an article in Houzz comes proof that just doing some small improvements can have a much larger effect on your surroundings.

Good social behavior spreads, whether we realize it’s influencing us or not. The findings, published by Kees Keizer, a behavior scientist and professor at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, confirm the belief that setting a good example can positively affect others. But this study ventures even further to show that when we observe others caring about society, we end up caring, too.

We hope that there will be no tagging on our pristine new garage door.  I think, personally, that graffiti “artists” will be more reluctant to spray paint on someone’s house than they are to deface fences.

It’s also nice to know that having a tidy house is not just its own reward, but benefits the neighbourhood, too.

A showhouse laneway!

I’m sure you’ve seen lots of model houses — all tricked out and decorated to the last cornice.  But I hadn’t seen any laneway houses like that — until today!

DH and I skipped off to the IDSWest show at the new(er) convention centre.  It’s always nice to wander around and see the beautiful finishings and furnishings, but the real reason I wanted to go was to tour the Homes & Living Laneway Feature Home.  The home has been auctioned off in support of Alzheimers research — and it was chock full of great style and features.

It was set up in the convention center, here’s a shot of the place while it was being assembled:

ISDWestLaneway1you get the idea of the home, even though you can’t see the finished exterior (dark wood) or some of the walls (sleek white).  The auction winner will have to provide a pad and heating system, plus a bunch of other stuff (permits, engineers report, lot to put the home on, etc.) but should get quite a lovely place out of it.  Unsurprisingly, I could not take any pictures, but the home had some pretty sweet features:

  • ten-foot ceilings
  • an overhang and sliding glass walls that open up for outdoor entertaining
  • completely built in kitchen so the dishwasher, fridge and freezer are behind cupboard doors
  • a hefty wooden counter top that slides over the stove and sink to completely hide them away
  • state of the art sound system that can be run from an iPad
  • beautiful furniture (natch)
  • floor-to-ceiling doors so it looks like the wall slides away or opens up
  • the Nest thermostat, pretty impressive and affordable, too

The roof is flat and the new owner must put on the torchon to finish it.  I asked twice, and no, there won’t be a living roof on the house.  You could put one on, I guess, but that’s something for an engineer and the designer to confirm.

There’s a big takeaway —  this is a real design experiment. That’s great, love to see so much talent and time going into the design of a laneway home, but just one caveat. If you are a decorating junky like I am, you know how “theoretical” designers can always come up with something really spectacular.  Of course!  They are not restricted by civic building codes, lot sizes, lot shapes, lot slopes, budgets.  Put that place anywhere you want — Narnia, Wonderland, just outside Hogwarts.  When you start with a completely clean slate you can do anything you want.  All they had to worry about was the size. A big deal, sure, but it’s just the start of a lot of big deals.

I love looking at other laneway designs, and (IMHO) the best way to do that is with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Laneway Tour.  We took the tour last year and loved it!  Lots of great ideas!  But this year we won’t be able to go around — because our house is part of it!  There will be more on that to come.

What else did I like about IDSWest?  It’s a very nice to see all those lovely examples of finishes and accessories.  And we actually saw Tommy Smythe in person!

My heart be still.

PS:  The winning big was $230,000.  The winner will still have to pay at least $73,000 to have the home installed on their lot.  Good news for the Alzheimer’s Society!

It’s a wrap!

No, it’s not a stealth house, our laneway is now all covered in a layer of, well, paper.

20130918Lane(click to enlarge)

I don’t know why, but to me it looks larger like this.  Looking at it all one colour you can see the massing of the building.  Placing the bulk of the upper story beside the stepped-back profile of the gabled roof doesn’t overwhelm the lot.  On the other side of the upper storey we have the deck and the living roof outside the kitchen window–so you have that open feeling there, too.

The big hole used by the city to hook us up to the water and sewer is gone.  And we are nearly ready to hook up to the electricity.

20130918Power

The power is going to come down that shiny tube for the laneway and the main house and run under the laneway and under the back yard to the main house.  That means that ugly line that runs across will be GONE!

And the garden side of the laneway looks all wrapped up, too.

20130918Garden

And way down at the botton, beside the bedroom window?  It’s siding.

20130918Siding

Maybe it will just spread across the outside like a wonderful, lovely, er, mold.

Five good ways to save money when building a laneway house — and one bad one.

Dropping by the build today to see the latest developments (some of the windows are set permanently with sealant) I met two of the neighbours.  They saw me poking about and came by for a chat. They are interested in building a laneway on a rental property they have in the area, and asked me if it was true that it costs $240,000 to build a laneway home, and said that they had seen one that had cost about $150,000.

I guess it’s possible to build for as little as $150,000 if you are extremely careful; I think most people would be lucky to build a laneway house for as low as $240,000.  But there are ways to save money when you want to build.

1.  Go with an “off the shelf” design.

As laneway living becomes more popular there are more laneway builders with “set” designs you can choose from.  If you have an oddly shaped lot (or like us, a steep slope) you may have to have a home designed around the physical restrictions.  But you’ll find lots of great designs out there and there are more and more all the time. This is something that should be discussed when you are choosing a builder.

2.  Don’t put in a living roof.

Or a built-in vacuum cleaner system.  Or a special AV system with speakers in the ceiling.  Or any of the (let’s call a spade a spade) luxuries that really add up.  This laneway is our dream home and it’s got to have everything we’ve ever wanted (or dreamt of).  But if you are building for a rental situation or as a temporary home, there’s no reason to include all these custom touches because they really add up.

3.  Buy box store cabinetry

Putting in a kitchen takes money.  Buying from the thousands of choices of cabinets you can find in big box stores like Home Depot, Rona, and Ikea is going to save you thousands over the cost of a custom-built kitchen.  Since the kitchen will be such a major investment, there are other places to save there, like the next way,

4. Buy regular sized appliances

This fits in well with buying box store cabinetry.  We are putting special small appliances that will save us inches — and come at a premium.  But if you visit your building centre or department store or if you order online, you can often get signifcant deals.  You could even install dented or returned appliances for more savings (installing them to hide the scratches, etc.). Along with that, you can always follow our last bit of advice:

5. Go with standard finishes

I’ve spent long hours online looking for just the right bathroom lighted mirror, the exact exterior sconces, and the perfect pendant for the hallway.  But there’s no reason not to visit the aforementioned big box stores for these finishes, and shopping the sales.  Door knobs, switches, lights, these can all be “builders’ grade” and would still look very nice.  You could even visit your local Habitat for Humanity Restore for bigger savings. Once again, ask your builder where you can save the most.

This is not a comprehensive list on how to save money, of course.  Your builder can probably help you out, and there are probably hundreds of places where you can save hundreds of dollars.  And let me tell you, a thousand dollars here and a thousand dollars there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.

There is one method for saving money that you may be tempted to use, but I encourage you not to.  The worst way to save money on any build:

1. Go with an unknown builder

This may seem harsh, particularly to those who are starting out in the construction business and are trying to get their first big project.  But I’ve watched enough television shows and heard enough sob stories from friends to know that when you are choosing a builder it always pays to have someone who has work you can go and see; who is listed with the Better Business Bureau; who is a member of the Home Builders Association; who can give you solid references.

If you have no affiliation with the building trade (for instance, you are not a builder or don’t belong to a trade) I don’t recommend being your own contractor unless you have lots of time and patience.  All it takes is one sub-trade to not show up or not do a proper job and your project will be delayed (at best) or ruined (at worst).

I hope these hints will be of use to you when you are planning your project.  Do you have any ways to save money when building a home?

 

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