Opinion: Geller’s Affordable Housing Solutions #2 – Laneway, Modular Homes

Now that laneway homes have been embraced, it's time to take the whole concept a significant step further, and bring in modular elements, argues local architect and planner Michael Geller

Vancouver architect, developer and planner
May 17, 2016

Laneway apartment housing is now approved as part of the West End Community Plan
Now that individual laneway homes or coach houses have taken off, what about laneway townhouses, or "mews houses"?
Modular housing doesn't have to be boxy or ugly, as these modern examples show
This infill development on a wide lot in Seattle is known as a four-pack, with four three-story townhouses and a central driveway

The following article is an extract from the audio transcript of "Twelve More Affordable Housing Ideas" – a presentation by local architect and planner Michael Geller to a sold-out audience at SFU's downtown campus on April 6, 2016, and reproduced here with his permission. The lecture was the second of his SFU presentations on the topic, and many of Geller's ideas from the first talk can be found in "Related to this Story" below.

I’d like to talk about another form of infill housing.

Is it time to say the laneway housing program has now been successful? At first people thought it was terrible, but now people are getting to like it. Indeed, some people are even moving into these laneway houses.

Now I can see opportunities where somebody might assemble, say, two or three or four lots, and build a row of laneway townhouses – or mews houses, as we call them in England.

Another thought is modular laneway housing. LaneFab is a very good local company that is building highly insulated laneway housing. They came up with the idea that you could build a modular infill unit, and it reminded me of one that I saw in Seattle.

In Seattle, they’re doing a lot of things quite differently. Some people may like it, some people may not. But one of the things they do is what they call “six-packs” or “four-packs”. You take a lot, you run a driveway up it, there’s a little motor court in the middle that serves the garages, and you’ve got four or maybe six three-storey townhouses on one lot.

Read #1 in this series: Better use of lots

I did my thesis on modular housing, and I’ve always dreamed of seeing more and more modular housing being realized. I had this idea of modular housing that you could set up on parking lots around the city, and because it didn’t have a land cost, and because you could move it, this would be a very affordable housing approach.

I’m delighted that the City has now issued a call for expressions of interest from companies who build modular housing, because there is potential there. As we try to build permanent housing, we need some stop-gap solutions and modular housing could play an important role.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you think modular housing is ugly, or containers are modular housing, and they are. But there is a difference between the reuse of containers for modular housing, which I love, and building brand-new, highly efficient, well-constructed homes in a factory.

A private tour and photo gallery of Jillian Harris’ Vancouver laneway home

Great laneway home examples from last year’s Vancouver Laneway Home Tour

I had another idea. Why don’t we take modular units and stack them in the back yards of apartment buildings, creating laneway apartments? That was an idea that was put in the City of Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Task Force report. I was delighted when City planners said maybe this was an idea that could have some application, especially in the West End. I think it could have some application in Kerrisdale as well, and in other areas of Vancouver. In some suburban areas, where you have large parking lots, where parking demand is decreasing, you could simply stack modular housing units.

The City has come up with guidelines on how we can do this in some very tight spaces, and I was pleased to see a story that Frances Bula wrote in the Globe and Mail, talking about one of the first projects to come through under that program. 

Next time: Using industrial land for both industry and housing

Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.
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