Mar 31, 2015

All You Need is Less

They are popping up in blogs, trade publications, newscasts and magazines, particularly the trendy ones. Just Google micro units and you will find a wealth of ideas, styles, locations and opinions for and against.  But are they a new idea? Nope.

One of my first rezoning cases was on Isabella Street in Toronto. It was a turn-of-the-century Victorian, two halves of a semi under one ownership.  For years unbeknownst to authorities, it had operated with 36 self-contained dwelling units, averaging about 235 square feet each, some below 220 square feet.  There were about six parking spaces on the rear lane. The occupants were single men, most working for a small salary. From the neighbours, there were some of the usual complaints about density and potential parking problems, but at this end of the downtown at the time, there was not much opposition.

Council adopted my report to legalize these small units.  Had we known calling them “micro” would make this form of housing trendy, we would have been pioneers. Today, the micro craze covers sizes smaller and a bit larger. And there is interest here in Calgary, not surprisingly, considering the cost of housing. In fact, micro units are a feature of the housing market in any city with an affordability issue.

The original micros come from Japan, where units feature beds coming out of walls, kitchen cabinets disappearing and living rooms converting to the single bedroom. The micro units can be in multi-unit buildings, where the interest is in Calgary, or as stand-alone units located in the backyard. And they come in different sizes and names.

Micro housing has spread around the world. This video shows how a small unit is converted from
one space into another. A living room into a bedroom, the TV sliding away to reveal shelving, etc.

Cottage housing for example, popular in the Pacific Northwest is still relatively unknown here in Canada. In St. Louis there was a wonderful example from the 1920s where the small houses fronted a walkway, neighbours separated by small front lawns only, the walkway leading to the sidewalk along the street. Cars were parked behind in a common area. Today we see examples south of the border in new urbanist communities, an old idea like wide ties coming back in style. This is a positive rebirth given the more efficient use of land in both Greenfield and infill scenarios.

This is around a 1930’s housing development in centre city St. Louis, clustered 
housing, small houses and lots with parking amalgamated at one end. A simple 
walkway off the street leading across several front yards with almost no rear 
yard up to the adjacent multi.  The activity all occurs in the common area along 
the front. Today this is called cottage housing, a trendy name for an old house 
model that is timely with such efficient use of land, housing size to meet 
current smaller household needs and it works on small infill sites, of which 
Calgary has many.

I worked on a multi project with over 150 small units about 20 years ago where most of the buyers were single professionals, nurses, office workers, looking to secure housing at an affordable rate. The average size in that building for a one bedroom was just over 400 square feet. Those buyers would be called Gen Y today.

 In Calgary, our bylaw allows for cottage housing, although there have been few takers.  Perhaps there might be more as housing costs continue to increase. Smaller spaces not only sell well, they hold their value, as was discovered during the recession in the States. For people looking to enter the housing market, they offer a real alternative.

This Global News Vancouver clip is from a few years 
ago showing a B.C. builder offering small houses for a 
fraction of the cost of a new house. This is the type 
of dwelling that could easily fit along a laneway.

People entering the workforce today will average 14 jobs by the time they are 35, put off marriage and delay buying real estate. In the meantime, they rent smaller units because they have fewer possessions, including cars, and spend less time at home and more time in the coffee shop.

City Council will shortly have an application for the N3 Condo in East Village, with no parking for the units. Granted, the lower demand for parking will be met by the LRT station and the potential to rent off-site parking in a future garage, but the die is cast and just at the right time.  For Calgary, this is a big step.  I am confident the builder, who has brought us some transit oriented projects and is leading in innovative housing for the growing younger market, will be successful.

In St. Louis where there was little market downtown for new construction, the 6,000+ units we put in converted historic shoe factories meant parking was a premium, with little space below grade leading to parking stackers and few spaces.  In one building, scooters were provided to every purchaser. I understand the developer will be providing bikes for the N3 Condo project buyers.

Joe Starkman who is building the N3 careless condo
project in Eau Claire is offering each new buyer a Bira
Urban Bike, This is a commuter.  Not having a car
parking space reduces construction costs about
$70,000 per stall, and saves the car-less resident about
$8,500 per year in car operating costs. 
And now there is the 3D printer house. Wow, unimaginable a year ago, the video clip below highlights two efforts to building the 3D printer house. Both efforts use a different construction approach but certainly indicate the potential to create efficient, lower cost housing options due to time, construction savings, and uniform building materials and assembly. Can our local building regulations and zoning laws keep pace?  Will communities accept these types of building forms?

The first 3D printed houses. Source: Business Insider

There is a lot happening in YYC on this front. Secondary suites can be micro units. I lived in four secondary suites in Toronto and had one in my first house. The four I lived in were all around 300 – 350 feet sq., micro units. If we change the name of secondary suites to micro units, will it make a difference to their acceptance?  This week Council endorsed a report to provide a development permit holiday to help illegal suite owners in an effort to legalize them and make them safe. In may we have a report coming to expand the suite permission in some areas of wards 7, 8, 9 and 11.

Also, we are beginning to get more laneway housing applications and I will write more about that in the near future.  A proposal is in for approval of a new lane way house in the west end along the river. We  are documenting it’s progress as it moves through the permitting process. We have been looking at this application comparing it to YYC zoning standards as well as the laneway housing guidelines in Vancouver. This has been useful in showing how our standards are more permissive in some areas than Vancouver and vice versa.

So stay tuned. And who knows, maybe someone will come in with a container housing building soon.

Ikea has since it started been the go to place for small unit living. This video highlights the small 
unit display unit they have in many of their stores and presents a very attractive living space for 
many people. More units like this allow for our younger population to get into the housing market 
at a more affordable price both for purchase and rental.

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