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COVER STORY: Laneway living on the North Shore
Putting up just a shed in the backyard won’t do it for Josh Henderson.
The small, self-contained house he’s building off the lane has vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors and two bedrooms. It’s completely separate from his family’s home at the front of the yard and will eventually be taken over by his mother-in-law.
Like several other homeowners in North Vancouver, Henderson is opting for a coach house (also known as a granny flat, laneway or carriage housing) instead of a basement suite.
His 1,000-square-foot coach house on East 10th Street began to take shape in just one day, the base put in quickly and prefab walls nailed together. Nearing completion six months later, the house’s style mirrors the original house which, according to city bylaws, helps it blend into the neighbourhood better.
“We wanted [design] symmetry between our house and the coach house, but it’s still a completely separate place to live,” says Henderson, who hired North Van-based Ajia Canadian Building Systems to design and build the house and is doing some of the smaller work himself.
The open concept kitchen, dining room and living room make the space feel bigger than it actually is, he tells The Outlook on a tour. Dark hardwood floors and kitchen cabinets are being installed, along with fixtures in the downstairs washroom and laundry area.
Upstairs, the finishing touches are being added to the master bedroom and a smaller room that could be used as either a nursery or a den.
Henderson predicts building a coach house like this would cost around $250,000.
“We had to put in a bay window and an overhang to add weight,” says Henderson, referring to City of North Vancouver building codes that regulate everything from the size of coach houses to their location on the lot to the colour of the trim.
“It can be a long process, you just have to be organized and provide everything [to council] that’s needed so there’s no confusion,” he says while scanning his website northvancoachhouse.com, which chronicles his experience and provides tips to anyone looking to build their own.
For Henderson, building a coach house is an ideal way to maximize use of his land.
“I used to live in a 400-square-foot apartment downtown. When I moved in here, I knew I didn’t need all this space. Why not use it for something useful?”
And, following the lead of Vancouver and other Lower Mainland communities, that’s exactly what the City of North Vancouver is hoping will happen.
With the ever-increasing cost of houses in North Van and the dwindling number of rental units, coach houses are meant to provide alternate, affordable places to live. So far, around 25 have been built in North Van, with more on the way.
“It’s a good investment for us too because it will allow my mother-in-law to move in and be close to us, and it increases our house value,” says Henderson, as landscapers and carpenters maneuver around him on the busy construction site.
“I’m lucky to live in a community that allows coach homes to be built.”
Not just a cheap box
It took 13 months for David Crawford to get a permit and go through a public hearing before construction of his coach house could begin.
Patience is required for the long application process, he says, but the end result is worth it.
“You can’t just build a cheap box in your backyard,” he warns, adding the city of North Van is involved in every step of the process.
“It’s a good investment, but be prepared to spend about $30,000 before you start building for things like architect fees, building permits and upgrading water and sewer supplies.”
Like Henderson, Crawford is building a Level-B Coach House which, unlike Level-A houses, requires a long application process and approval from council. Level-B houses are bigger than Level-A houses (up to 1,000 square feet) and can be built 1.6 storeys high.
But these requirements aren’t set in stone. Council approved a 1,490-square-foot coach house in March, the additional space being in the cellar to house a 10,000-gallon rainwater collection tank. Plans for the coach house faced criticism from the public, some of whom thought the size, which is 490 square feet larger than the guidelines, was too big for the area.
But Crawford’s 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, 1.5 bath coach house near Grand Boulevard fits within the guidelines and, he adds, was supported by his close neighbours. It took nine months to complete at a cost of $250,000. He is renting it out for $1,900 a month and plans to have his son eventually move in, he tells The Outlook, while standing in the lane by the front door.
With shrubs lining the entrance way, complete trim and moldings and a carport, the coach house looks very similar to the main residence, only smaller.
“If you think you can build one easily, you can’t. It’s a long process, but still we’re very lucky to be able to build one,” says Crawford, admiring the finished project which fits into the city’s plans to create more alternative housing options.
Waiting for approval
Not all homeowners on the North Shore, however, are allowed to build coach houses. The City of North Vancouver is the only municipality that allows coach houses at this time, so residents in the districts of North and West Van are out of luck.
But this could change in the coming year. North Van district is looking into allowing coach houses, but on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis.
Compared to the city, the district doesn’t have many lanes to build beside, which is a criteria for building in the city. There are many large lots to build on, however, which the district is considering, says Brian Bydwell, the general manager of planning, properties and permits.
The district’s Official Community Plans calls for a diversity of housing to increase affordability, naming coach houses in particular. By next year, guidelines are expected to be drawn up in response to a number of people who have shown interest, Bydwell adds.
West Van’s Official Community Plan also mandates more affordable housing options.
“There are either houses or apartments, nothing in between,” says Stephen Mikicich, a senior community planner for the District of West Vancouver.
Two pilot coach house projects were planned but construction never began because of site challenges, a neighbour complaint and personal reasons of one the homeowners. Despite setbacks, community planners expect to present a policy option to council next spring, adds Mikicich, a move council would like to see happen quickly.
“We really need the development community to step up with some projects,” said Mayor Michael Smith, following a unanimous council vote in June in support of exploring coach houses in West Van. Since public consultations have already been done, Smith and other members of council would like coach houses approved as soon as possible.
Henderson and Crawford, the owners of the two coach houses in the City of North Van, are happy to get a head start.
“It’s not cheap to live in North Van, land alone can easily cost $800,000,” says Crawford, flipping through photos of the construction. “Coach houses are a good utilization of land without putting too much strain on the neighbourhood, if they’re done well.”