House Beautiful: Laneway home allows three generations to live on one lot

Two brand new, modern-farmhouse-style houses, tucked into an older residential neighbourhood under a canopy of trees, are now home to three generations of Victorians.

The family of four has discovered a creative, cosy way to live together in one larger home that faces the street and a smaller garden suite in the back.

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Theirs is the first purpose-built property of its kind in Victoria.

Barely noticeable from the street, the smaller building has its own access via a laneway and is separated from the main house by a fence and connecting gate.

Both were custom built by Maximilian Huxley, who says the project marks an expanding desire for infill housing and something he says is ideally suited to the demands of modern relationships such as this one.

The family consists of a grandmother, two grown daughters and a grandson, who were looking for a property where they could enjoy happy companionship while benefiting from a degree of privacy.

The grandmother, single mom and grandson live in the larger house, while the other daughter has the laneway home.

While the trio declined to be interviewed, the builder noted the arrangement is ideal for them — especially as the two homes are not only a stone’s throw from each other, but also from the son’s school, Glenlyon Norfolk.

“It worked out very well for them,” said Huxley, who points to a trend toward small homes, saying he is discussing similar projects with other clients who are currently looking for the right properties.

“I personally like the idea behind these more efficient, compact homes on smaller properties. It seems everyone I talk to does, too,” he said.

In this case, the property is 5,500 square feet and the development permit allowed Huxley to build a total of 2,583 square feet, split between the two homes.

He built slightly less: The 600-square-foot garden suite has 400 on the main and 200 upstairs. The larger home has 1,730 square feet on two floors.

Building a cute, compact duo like these two homes is not inexpensive, even though one is tiny. Cost per square foot for a small house is just as much as a large one because all the basics are the same, from foundation to roof.

“And we’ve had a 50 per cent increase in construction costs since 2012, when prices were $200 a square foot,” said Huxley. Costs have rocketed to $300 a square foot, thanks to spikes in the price of everything from lumber and metal products to drywall.

In April 2017, the City of Victoria made it easier, however, to build garden suites, eliminating the requirement for a rezoning application and delegating approval authority to staff. That has reduced the time and cost involved, said Bill Eisenhauer, the city’s head of engagement. Projects are now regulated by development permits, which can take as little as a couple of weeks for approval.

Under the previous system, only 19 applications were approved from 2004 to 2017, compared with 52 since April 2017, out of 71 applications.

“It’s a really good way to add new homes for folks,” said Eisenhauer. Garden suites do not require additional parking, although the primary dwelling must have a minimum of one stall. Additional parking depends on lot size and general layout of building and trees, he said.

How do the neighbours feel about this new infill project?

Huxley said one neighbour was concerned about so much building on a small lot, but most have been positive. “Lots of people have stopped by to talk and we take them on tours, because it’s their neighbourhood. They like this idea.

“And personally, I’ve always liked the concept of laneway houses, so when Victoria implemented the change, I was excited.”

He was eager to construct two new homes from the ground up, so they would blend stylistically. Victoria staff told Huxley the project was the first of its kind in the city.

There are a few challenges, he said: “You either need a large lot, or you have to reduce the main house size, as the total square footage for these two homes is the same as is allowed for a single home.”

And there are no economies of scale, because the project calls for double everything, from kitchens to heating systems.

“You have a lot of duplication of big items, such as water, gas, storm and sewer mains. More materials mean the square-footage price goes up compared to a single building of the same total.”

While a laneway house costs more than a basement suite, however, it has higher rental value. “The end product is nicer for the owner, residents and community,” said Huxley, noting it’s become a popular option for retirees who want to travel, as they can live in the garden suite and rent out the big house, or vice versa.

He said designing a small and efficient house forces builders, architects and designers to be more creative, “and you never want to mix too many materials.”

As a result, the two homes have a clean, uncluttered look, with eight-inch-wide shiplap on interior walls, oak saw-cut and wire-brushed flooring with a flat finish, matching stair treads, quartz countertops and butcher-block-topped islands.

They each have a combination boiler for in-floor heat and on-demand domestic hot water, “an all-in-one system that runs at 96 per cent efficiency, compared with 60 to 70 per cent for a conventional water tank.”

Laneway houses or garden suites are not yet allowed in Oak Bay or Saanich, although that may change, since those areas have more laneways and larger lots than Victoria.

“We took some Oak Bay planning staff through the houses recently and they loved it,” said Huxley.

Carly Neal, who designed the homes’ interiors along with Jodi Foster, said many people say they don’t need grandiose McMansions — “they just want something small and sweet with high-quality materials and good function.”

Neal said they designed and planned the two homes with as much natural light as possible, keeping them bright by playing up different textures in white-on-white, with white drywall, shiplap and quartz counters.

Wooden floors, stair treads, mantels and more prevent the houses from feeling cold, she said, and doing mock-ups with real-size furniture ensured windows were well positioned and walls had room for art.

The designers chose drawers over doors in the kitchen — “upper cabinets tend to feel visually heavy in such a beautiful but small space” — and created a pantry under the staircase, backing into the mechanical room.

“The trick is to think about how an owner will use the space, not what looks beautiful in a magazine,” said Neal.

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