Opinion: Basement Suites in Duplexes and Townhouses, and For Sale?

Michael Geller
May 12, 2015

I grew up in a modest three-bedroom post-war bungalow in North Toronto in the 1960’s. Many of my classmates lived in similar homes, although some were quite reticent about sharing this fact.

That is because they did not live in the house. They lived in an illegal basement suite and constantly worried their family might one day be evicted.

Years later, after joining CMHC in the Architecture and Planning Division, my colleagues and I often discussed how basement suites could be better designed and legalized, noting they were an effective way of providing affordable housing.

It is therefore with considerable pleasure that over the past decade, I have watched municipalities across Canada legalizing basement suites.

In Vancouver, the City Council has relaxed a number of building code regulations to make the approval of basement suites easier. The city now allows a reduced ceiling height and relaxed sprinkler system requirements. Other municipalities from Abbotsford to West Vancouver have also revised regulations to permit legal basement suites.

Vancouver now permits suites in every detached single-family home in Vancouver within the RS, RM and RT zones, noting they are an excellent way to reduce our carbon footprint and expand affordable housing choices.

While I applaud Vancouver and other Metro municipalities for these changes, I would urge them to go a few steps further.

Firstly, I would like them to permit more basement suites in new duplex and townhouse developments.

While lower-level suites are sometimes permitted in heritage conservation projects, especially around Kitsilano, I see no reason why they should not be allowed in most new duplex and townhouse projects as long as fire-safety provisions are taken into account, along with parking requirements.

In some cases, where housing is not close to transit, additional off-street parking should be required. However, where there is good transit and car-sharing programs available, parking standards should be relaxed.

While some might wonder how you can have basement suites in townhouses, I would invite you to think about the many terraced housing developments you have walked by in London where lower level suites, often accessed directly from the street, are quite common.

These were once the servants’ quarters. However, today, they provide well located and oftentimes surprisingly high-priced accommodation.

Basement or “lock-off” suites are starting to be permitted in some new Vancouver townhouse developments such as those along Oak Street. These suites generally have their own separate entrance from the street, and a second locked entrance from within the unit. The resulting design is very flexible.

Similar units can also found in Toronto, Calgary and at SFU’s UniverCity where some apartments even feature secondary lock-off suites. A newspaper journalist once referred to them as “mortgage helpers in the sky.”

To date, most basement suites are rental only. However, in some instances it would be both desirable and feasible for new suites to be offered for sale.

Examples of basement suites for sale can be found in new developments in Kitsilano and other Vancouver neighbourhoods.

While some might question why anyone would purchase a basement suite, these are not sold as basement suites; they are sold as “garden-level” suites.

In most cases, they feature large windows and a walk-out to a private outdoor space, making them a very attractive and more affordable housing option. Fire and sound separation can be achieved in the same way as in conventional apartment buildings.

These units are a far cry from the damp basements many of us have experienced in older single-family houses.

At a time when we are seeking more affordable forms of housing, I can envision basement suites contributing to the “gentle densification” of existing single-family properties. By combining a new duplex with garden suites on each side and a laneway house, it would be possible to replace a single house on a 50-foot lot with five new dwellings; some for sale, some for rent, or all for sale.

The overall density and site coverage need not be significantly greater than what is currently permitted. Moreover, the result would be smaller, more affordable homes appealing to both first-time and move-up buyers, as well as empty-nesters ready to downsize.

Michael Geller
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.