Vancouver

Opinion: “Stacked Towns” an Emerging Form of Housing for Vancouver

With detached homes now unattainable for many, there are innovative alternatives such as this housing form found in Toronto and Montreal, says Michael Geller

By
Vancouver planner, developer and real estate commentator
March 30, 2015






This stacked townhouse project on Jarvis Street in Toronto has been built at the same density as the neighbouring highrise
A new Toronto stacked townhouse project targeted at families with children
A recent stacked townhouse project in Vancouver

My parents' first home purchase was a detached single-family house in Toronto. My first home purchase was a detached single-family house in Ottawa. However, I do not expect either of my either of my daughters to buy a detached single-family house as their first home. Indeed, it is possible they may never be able to afford a detached single-family house in Vancouver.

Instead, they will likely live in various forms of multi-family housing for most, if not all of their lives. In so doing, they will become like the residents of most world cities outside of North America where multi-family living is the norm.

Today, most Vancouver area first-time buyers choose to purchase an apartment in a low-, mid-, or highrise building. While they may not like having to enter their suite from a shared corridor, they really do not have a lot of choice since Vancouver seems to be a city of detached houses or apartments, with little in between.

However, those living in other Canadian cities often have a greater variety of choices. These include Montreal-style maisonettes, which place single- or two-storey units stacked above another, accessed by exterior staircases. In Toronto they can buy stacked townhouses, or “stacked towns” as they are often called. What distinguishes these units from traditional apartments is that everyone has their own entrance from the street via a front porch.

Another distinguishing feature is the stairs – often lots of stairs, which can be challenging for those with baby strollers, luggage and grocery buggies, and a real obstacle for those in wheelchairs. However the experience in other cities demonstrates that many first-time and move-up buyers are willing to trade off the additional stairs for direct access from the street.

Essentially, stacked townhouses are two or three separate dwellings stacked on top of each other, but all contained in a single structure resembling traditional row houses. They all have separate entrances, but only the ground-level unit can enjoy any private yard space. However, the upper units often have outdoor space on the roof.

In Toronto, stacked townhouses tend to be infill developments on land that is zoned for residential development, but not for high-density buildings.

As a result, stacked townhouses can often be found in neighbourhoods with established schools, parks and community centres.

While stacked townhouses are not common in Metro Vancouver, there are still some examples around the region. Both cooperative and market condominium units were built in the 1970s and 1980s within the City of Vancouver’s innovative community development along the south shore of False Creek. There are also many creative examples in the nearby Fairview Slopes neighbourhood.

More recently, Adera Homes has built some very fine examples in Burnaby and North Vancouver. Adera president Norm Couttie often jokes that their name is a misnomer since nothing really stacks, especially the plumbing. However many first-time buyers have been attracted to Adera’s communities and the company is to be congratulated for its willingness to experiment with this type of housing.

One of the design challenges for architects and builders is how best to accommodate the parking. While the easiest solution is to put it underground, this can be costly. Furthermore many homebuyers would prefer not to have to park in an underground garage if they can avoid it.

While these developments have “through units” with windows at both front and back, similar to a conventional townhouse, some higher-density stacked townhouse developments are sometimes built in a back-to-back configuration. The resulting suites are not unlike apartments in that their windows generally face in only one direction, except for corner units.

The advantages of this arrangement are even lower prices and the potential to achieve densities in a four-level building equal to a highrise apartment building.

Another key design challenge is achieving adequate sound separation between the suites, since there are often living spaces above or beside bedrooms, and bathrooms all over the place.

When comparing a stacked townhouse to an apartment it is important to note that the stairs can consume a fair amount of area so that a 900- square-foot stacked unit may have less usable space than a 900-square-foot apartment.

Notwithstanding all these shortcomings, I believe stacked townhouses could offer another housing choice, especially as small infill developments in established neighbourhoods. They are not for everyone, but they may be just right for you.


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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