When Laurel Murray and her husband Jonathan Greaves left London in 2015 to move closer to Murray’s family in British Columbia, they could still just about afford a home in Vancouver but knew prices were rising fast. They decided to combine family resources to buy a property where they would have space to add a second home for Murray’s parents — a laneway house, as they are known.
They focused their search on the historical and artsy neighbourhood of Strathcona, minutes from Vancouver’s vibrant Chinatown.
They chose a single-level, two-bedroom postwar bungalow, but it stood out amid a row of pre-1900s clapboard houses. As they say, “it is the least attractive house in the neighbourhood”.
It will not stay that way: they are knocking it down in late Spring and replacing it with two new homes, including a modern twist on the historical house that once stood on the lot. This reverential gesture to the neighbourhood’s architectural heritage is a radical approach to modern development in historic Vancouver.
But with multigenerational living on the rise in increasingly densely populated (and expensive) western cities, theirs is also a story about finding a creative solution to combat rising costs of land and property.
Home . . . for now
The Strathcona bungalow was an estate sale (a quick liquidation of assets — for example, of a deceased person). “We were only looking at things that were run down because of cost restrictions,” says 38-year-old Murray, an analyst specialising in renewable energy and climate change adaptation. She is sitting on a concrete bench (a designer piece bought for a steal on Craigslist) in the dark living room which, due to the bungalow’s odd layout, is an extension of the hallway, leading to the kitchen.
The property had remained unchanged since it was built in 1949. “Peeling back the carpet was like going back in time,” says Murray. It took the couple eight months to move in, after spending almost every weekend on do-it-yourself work, learning as they went from YouTube videos.
Murray and Greaves went to the City of Vancouver for preliminary guidance about renovating the property, but a planner took one look at it on Google Street View and asked: “Is there anything worth salvaging here?” The planner called it the “gap tooth” of Union Street — the street on which the bungalow stands and which is subject to a preservation order.
Murray was curious how a squat postwar bungalow found itself on a row of traditional 19th-century clapboard houses. The property was also depressing the value of the houses on either side, which are both covered by the preservation order.
In the city archives she found an image of a Victorian house on the site of the bungalow. The house, in the style of others on the street, had a tall gabled roof, shiplap cladding, a generous veranda typical of the neighbourhood and intricate fretwork.
Accessing the Vancouver Water Works Registry and a British Columbia business directory going back to the 1890s confirmed the original house number and enabled Murray to research the family of local blacksmith Charles Bazley, originally from New Brunswick, who had lived there until 1917. After this point, there was no entry for the property in either source, meaning it no longer existed.
“We think fire is the most likely explanation,” says Murray. A building permit pertaining to the current bungalow — for Marie Agustino, an Italian immigrant — showed it was probably built in 1949.
When it became clear neither the city council nor the neighbours found any architectural merit in the bungalow, it made sense for the couple to look into building a new home.
“One day we stumbled on an open house day for quite a sexy, modern property — the Cube house in the highly affluent Point Grey, Kitsilano,” says Murray. There they met the minimalist house’s architect, Tony Robins of AA Robins, and hired him to design their new home.
A fan of Strathcona, Robins envisioned restoring the historic streetscape by replacing the bungalow with a contemporary interpretation of the original Victorian house. However, he suggested a twist to the original 1891 façade by giving it an aluminium finish, similar to a MacBook laptop.
Everything behind this façade will be modern, and the other exterior walls will be painted black to make them recede from view and draw the eye to the metal façade from the street. Robins calls it the “Chinatown Ghost House”.
Murray’s parents, who live in a restored 1990s stucco house on Vancouver Island, want to return to the mainland to be closer to their children. The idea of building them a laneway house at the rear of the new property came from a desire to limit costs, because land is so expensive in Vancouver.
Murray says people started building laneway houses — which are found on the unnamed, narrow back streets behind properties’ backyards — because of a housing crisis in Canada’s biggest cities. This has been caused by a shortage of land, rising prices and cities’ reluctance to approve high-rise apartment developments. “I call it ‘sensitive densification’,” she says.
The 1,100 sq ft laneway house, also designed by Robins, will match the four-bedroom main house with gable roofs and dark shiplap cladding, and have a generous rooftop garden with a view of the coastal mountains to the north of Vancouver.
The nitty gritty
The project met city guidelines on scale, mass and form, but Murray and Greaves, who works in the energy and clean technology sector, wanted to enlist the support of neighbours before making a formal planning application, “Everyone loved it, but they were telling us, ‘The city is never going to go for this’,” says Murray.
As a historic neighbourhood, Strathcona has specific, and largely immovable, design guidelines. This meant the couple had to apply for a separate development permit in addition to the usual building and demolition permits, which added cost and led to lengthy delays. The application was a gamble: if it had failed they would have lost thousands of dollars in fees.
But the biggest challenge was obtaining permission for the increase in density from one to two new homes on the same lot. “We did not have an existing historic home worth preserving and, without it, the city planners did not have the authority to [grant permission for us to] build two detached family dwellings at the necessary density,” says Murray.
With neighbours’ support, however, they took the case to the Board of Variance, a council-appointed body that allows for flexibility in the application of a zoning bylaw and looks beyond the guidelines to the intent behind the design. The couple’s gamble paid off: the case was approved in January.
Breaking new ground
Murray says the board set a precedent by granting an increase in floor area ratio under the Character Home Zoning Review, part of the heritage conservation programme designed to preserve Vancouver’s historic neighbourhoods. While historic renovations are allowed up to a 95 per cent floor area ratio to the overall plot size, new builds are only allowed 75 per cent — insufficient for the planned dwellings.
“Our two buildings take up less than 50 per cent of the footprint of the land,” says Murray, “but because they are 2.5 storeys (to match the height and mass of the other buildings on our street), they make up 92.7 per cent of the total floor surface area.” The board declined to comment.
Construction should take 12 months. While building costs were as the couple expected, the city’s fees and associated costs caused some worry as they were far higher than they anticipated. That said, Murray says the cost of renovating the bungalow and building a laneway house will be at least C$500,000 ($380,000) less than buying a historic Victorian home on the same street, which typically sell for C$1,750,000 ($1,325,000).
Murray and Greaves are saving money by building two homes on one smaller lot. “Conservatively, it costs C$1.4m to buy a modest plot in Vancouver, so that means we’d be spending around C$3m for the land alone,” says Murray. “By building on the same lot — which has additional benefits for ageing parents — we’re saving that enormous cost of land.”
She has found the project challenging but rewarding. “Perhaps necessity and money constraints have forced us to be more creative in our approach,” she says. “We have truly fallen in love with the Strathcona community and to be able to build two liveable family homes for us and my parents is worth all the hard work.”
Images: Andrew Querner; City of Vancouver Archives; AA Robins; Intarsia Design