May 2017 3

The (Inevitable) Future of Housing in Vancouver

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As the city with the highest density rate in Canada, Vancouver architects and city planners need to find new ways to increase housing density to make way for the population growth, which is expected to reach 3.1 million over the next 14 years. Local architect Michael Geller has looked to Europe for inspiration.

Downtown Vancouver by The West EndDowntown Vancouver by The West End
Geller recently wrote about some European concepts for urban homes that he believes would fit in well with the Vancouver scene."Throughout Europe whenever they build townhouses or row houses they are not part of a condominium. They are individually owned just like a single family house is," Geller told Vancouver Homes. One of the attractions of this, he explained, was the freedom to make the house your own.

If you want to paint your door a different colour or plant vegetables in the garden you don’t need the approval of a strata council.


There was another innovation of European-style housing that Geller said would work for Vancouver: stacked townhouses.

The idea is that you may have a row house above another row house but each has a front door at the street. So, you can create housing with prices comparable to an apartment but you don’t have to go through a lobby and corridor and elevator to get to your home.

According to Geller these are not only high density buildings but also an attractive option for residents.

Certainly that is something that would be very attractive to a lot of people who can’t afford a row house and really don’t want to live in an apartment building.

He said stacked townhouse style homes were very popular in Toronto and Montreal, who have a higher population than Vancouver.

There are a couple of examples in Vancouver but normally the zoning prohibits them.

They are not unusual to Vancouver, in fact, the Katz company developed the first stacked townhouses in the province on 8th and Cyprus in the 70s. As part of their design the units have a garden and the upper units have a roof garden. There is a communal courtyard and playground incorporated in the design.

However, the assistant director for Urban Design with the City of Vancouver said there may be more of these types of buildings coming on to the market. "You are starting to see them getting built now," Anita Molaro said. "There are more and more applications that are coming on stream."

Some of these projects include Norquay Village and Little Mountain There are also stacked townhomes located in Mount Pleasant. The 16East development was done by StudioOne Architecture. The units are 2-3 bedrooms and include hardwood flooring, rooftop patios and underground parking.

Vancouver by Randy TarampiVancouver by Randy Tarampi


Geller said a unique aspect of stacked town houses in Europe was that they were narrow and could be up to four storeys.

When you are starting to get into four storey townhouses, you are getting a density that is comparable to a much higher building,

Geller explained, adding there were some examples in Vancouver.

"Those buildings along Commercial Drive or Fourth Avenue or Broadway they have what we call a floor space ratio or FSR, which is the ratio of the size of the building to the size of the land, of around 2.5. The 12-storey high rise buildings in Kerrisdale or South Granville are less than that." 

"People invariably associate high density with high rise. It is just not necessarily the case." Geller said that in Toronto often the stacked townhouses were situated back to back in an effort to further increase density. In other words, they only have windows on one side, like an apartment would, but you can get very high densities with this type of housing.

According to Geller the urban dwellers would be attracted to these sorts of buildings because they offer freedom that apartment living doesn’t, as well as some special features. "A lot of the stacked townhouses or row houses will have a roof terrace," he said. "A backyard might be better but if you can’t afford a place with a backyard there is another option especially in the city."


In the quest to make affordable, high density homes attractive to urban dwellers in Vancouver, Bjarke Ingels, an architect from Denmark, has created a unique residential building, the Beach and Howe Tower near Granville Bridge. The building, which was reported about by CNBC, will stand 151 meters and provide a view of the beach and mountains to attract residents. Its unique, twisted shape was designed to avoid unsightly views of the nearby highway.

The building has brought to the Vancouver housing market an extra 600 units, including 180 that are market value. There is also a plan to create an outdoor art gallery on the underside of the Granville Bridge, which will give a modern feel to the neighbourhood.

Vancouver House by BIGBeach and Howe Tower by BIG


Geller said another concern he had was the size of homes being built in the region: "Most new houses in metro Vancouver tend to be 2,250 square feet or more." 

When I was growing up we all lived in houses of less than 1,000 square feet. I think there is a need and demand for small houses of under 1,000 square feet both for empty nesters who want to downsize but also young households who really want a house and are just getting started.

Molaro said the City did not have a say in the size of housing that developers build: "Our zoning in our single family neighbourhoods allows for the majority of the city a floor area of 0.6 times the site area."

That is what the zoning will allow and that is what the zoning has been in place for, I would say, at least 30 or 40 years.

"It is true there is a lot of construction going on in the single family neighbourhoods and they are optimizing their full density potential," she said. However, Molaro also said that a lot of older homes have been built smaller but it was at the discretion of the builder.

What people chose to build on that property is their choice up to that limit.

She said that although the homes were large, most often there was a basement suite being developed on the land as well, all within the square footage.

Vancouver Canada by Nick KenrickVancouver Canada by Nick Kenrick


According to the report by CNBC, the World Health Organization has predicted the world’s urban population will be 6.4 billion by 2050. Thus, city planners around the world need to take into consideration how to obtain higher density spaces in attractive buildings, and how to make them affordable.

It has created a demand in cities around the world, including London, for thousands of new homes. In fact, the London Councils has said there is a need for 809,000 new homes in the next four years. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made a commitment to provide 200,000 affordable houses over the next three years. Molaro said that Vancouver was going to be a part of that change.

Ground-orientated type residential units and stacked townhouses are part of that sort of portfolio of typologies under consideration.



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