Do you know what architectural features give merit to a character home? If you’re not sure, don’t be embarrassed. You’re not alone.
Last November, I wrote a column about the City of Vancouver’s Character Home Zoning Review that was just getting underway.
Two weeks ago, I wrote how the city’s desire to retain character homes seemed somewhat at odds with its desire to make Vancouver homes more energy efficient.
I subsequently attended a planning department “practitioners workshop” for architects, designers and home builders specializing in projects that include character home retention, or new home construction in Vancouver’s older residential neighbourhoods.
At the workshop, participants were provided with a workbook containing photos of five pre-1940s houses and the city’s “Character Merit Checklist.”
The checklist included items such as overall massing and roof form, whether there was a porch or veranda, the type of exterior materials, window openings and trim and whether there were period details or decorative elements.
We were asked to determine which houses should be classified as having character.
It quickly became apparent that there was considerable disagreement on what constituted a character house. City planners thought many more houses should be classified as character homes than the invited experts. We were told that 80 per cent of the approximately 800 assessments carried out by staff in recent years resulted in homes being classified as meriting character classification.
While I support zoning changes to encourage the retention of character homes, I, and most of the attendees at the city’ workshop, were alarmed by some of the city’s latest proposals. Let me tell you why.
The city has numerous single-family zones, each with regulations related to house siting and appearance. The key regulation is the Floor Space Ratio or FSR, which determines the size of a house in relation to lot size. Currently the outright FSR is 0.7 in many single-family zones. In other words, on a 5,000-square-foot lot you can build a 3,500-square-foot house.
However, it is not such a simple calculation since the city also regulates how much of the area of the house can be built above or below ground, and whether the design should accommodate a basement suite. In some zones, existing houses can be a bit larger than new houses.
Where laneway houses are permitted, the area is in addition. The permitted FSR is 0.16, equating to 644 square feet on most 33-foot lots or 976 square feet on a 50-foot lot. Laneway houses must be rented.
To encourage the retention of character homes, the city is considering offering additional density to allow construction of an addition, or a separate coach house which could be rented or sold.
So far, so good.
However, city planners told the audience they have been advised this might not be a sufficient incentive to retain character houses. They are therefore proposing that if a character house is demolished, the allowable floor space for any new house be reduced from 0.7 to 0.5. On lots over 8,000 square feet, the FSR would be further reduced to 0.4.
In practice, the city cannot pre-determine which lots have character houses, so the planners are proposing a total FSR reduction for all single-family properties in Vancouver’s older residential neighbourhoods.
This would result in a maximum above grade area of 1,400 square feet for a house on a 33-foot lot and 2,100 square feet on a 50-foot lot.
Now some might say, as the city planner at my table did, surely this is sufficient space in which to live comfortably. After all, who really needs four bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom?
The answer, of course, is many people currently buying new homes in Vancouver.
To my mind, there is another important issue to be addressed. If we are going to make more zoning changes in Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods, why aren’t we addressing both retention of character houses, but also construction of smaller duplexes and townhouses?
Gil Kelley, the city’s new chief planner, made a brief appearance at the workshop. To his credit, he told the audience he is not deaf to the conversation about housing affordability.
I just hope he listens to the many workshop attendees and Vancouver residents who believe the latest city proposals are heading in completely the wrong direction.