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A Dozen Gentle Density Ideas for the New Year

From compact homes to parking to porches, an urban design gift for each of the 12 days of Christmas.

Michael Geller 16 Dec 2021TheTyee.ca

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant, retired architect and adjunct professor at SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management. Read his blog here.

[Editor’s note: Every year Michael Geller, the Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant, retired architect and adjunct professor at SFU, shares a holiday card with an urban planning theme. We loved this one and share it here.]

Gentle density. Missing middle. Call it what you want. For years it has been featured in my annual holiday greeting cards. 2022 is an election year. I therefore expect many politicians to promise more affordable housing using missing middle and gentle density solutions. So, in the spirit of holiday giving, here are 12 gentle density ideas for the 12 days of Christmas.

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On the FIRST day of Christmas SMALLER HOMES ON SMALLER LOTS. Why not build 1200 square foot detached houses on 25-foot-wide lots? They are being offered elsewhere. Sometimes at 12 to 15 units an acre!

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On the SECOND day of Christmas SEMI-DETACHED HOUSES. Not to be confused with duplexes (which are a form of strata) semi-detached houses each sit on their own legal lot. One of the most generic forms of housing in Toronto, England and elsewhere around the world, they are rarely built in Metro Vancouver.

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On the THIRD day of Christmas a triplex, or three-lot corner subdivision. While this may look like one big house, count the doors! There are three separate legal suites in this Kitsilano triplex. These 60 x 120 foot corner lots have been subdivided into three 60 x 40 foot lots. Yes, they’re small. But much more affordable!

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On the FOURTH day of Christmas four strata homes on one lot. These West Vancouver developments each comprise four strata dwellings on a single lot. Approved under the Heritage Revitalization Agreement, there is a single-level unit below the heritage house and two infill units at the front and back. While there was some initial community concern and opposition, today both developments have been well accepted by their Ambleside neighbours.

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On the FIFTH day of Christmas FEE-SIMPLE (INDIVIDUALLY OWNED) ROW HOUSES. Throughout the world, row houses, townhouses or terraced houses (as they are sometimes called) are rarely condominium tenure. This recent five-lot West Vancouver proposal also includes "lock-off" basement rental suites. A gentle form of density!

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On the SIXTH day of Christmas SIX HOMES ON A LOT. While I don’t always agree with Mayor Kennedy Stewart, I do agree that with good design it is possible to locate six homes on a single lot while fitting into an established single-family neighbourhood. Here are two different approaches from two other cities.

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On the SEVENTH day of Christmas STACKED TOWNHOUSES. Given all the stairs, stacked townhouses are not for everyone. But each home has a front door at the street. While very popular in Toronto, we are starting to see more in Vancouver. A key issue is where to put all the parking. But I have a solution. Reduced parking standards.

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On the EIGHTH day of Christmas EIGHT HOMES ON ONE LOT. Built in the 1950s and '60s, small, plain, eight-suite apartment buildings on 50 foot lots have provided some of the region’s most affordable rental housing. Let’s start building them again — but keep the designs simple. The land cost alone can be $250,000+ per unit!

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On the NINTH day of Christmas NINE HOMES ON THREE LOTS. Hollyburn Mews in Ambleside, West Vancouver replaced three single family houses with nine duplexes and coach houses. Once so very controversial, today even those objecting now consider this a form of sensitive infill development to be copied.

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On the TENTH day of Christmas REDUCED PARKING REQUIREMENTS. Parking adds considerably to housing prices. Moreover, today’s parking requirements will inhibit many innovative missing middle housing concepts. It’s time for every municipality to convert its minimum parking requirements to maximum requirements.

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On the ELEVENTH day of Christmas LANEWAY APARTMENTS AND TOWNHOUSES. Now that laneway houses are accepted in many Metro Vancouver municipalities, with reduced parking requirements it will be possible to develop more infill apartments and townhouses on parking lots behind existing apartment blocks.

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On the TWELFTH day of Christmas MORE USABLE PORCHES, DECKS AND BALCONIES. As missing middle outdoor spaces shrink, it’s important to make them usable year-round. Retractable glass panel systems can reduce wind, noise and pollution on decks and balconies and improve energy performance inside, without impacting floor space ratio calculations. These “convertible balconies” are usable year-round. Lumon is one of several European companies manufacturing fully retractable glass panel systems.

Only through creativity, partnerships and adjustments to the existing rules can we make Vancouver’s housing more affordable in the years to come. Best wishes for a happy, healthy and safe holiday season and a more affordable 2022!  [Tyee]

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