Lanefab is making a mark on Vancouver. Bryn Davidson, the co-founder of Lanefab Design/Build and housing visionary, sits down with Matt & Adam to discuss the ways Vancouver can become both more dense and ecologically progressive through smart design and construction. The future of the Passive House in Vancouver is now!
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Bryn is the co-owner of Lanefab Design/Build (his business partner, Matt, runs the construction side). Lanefab has been operating since 2009, and they built the first laneway home in Vancouver in 2010. Currently, laneway homes are about half of what they do, while the other half consists of things like full-size homes, duplexes, and major renovations.
Bryn originally trained as an engineer and worked as one before going back to architecture school. Part of the reason he went back to school was because of his interest in how design and the environment come together. When he started his own business, things like green living, sustainable urbanism, and transportation were central to what he wanted to do. When Lanefab was started, they knew they wanted green building to be the standard, rather than the exception. They wanted to be advocates and do things like push the City and give talks, as they see these things as integral to their mission.
On how housing relates to climate change and how its carbon footprint can be improved:
Buildings are a big part of greenhouse gas pollution. Old homes use a lot of energy and add to this. Even with hydro power, we burn a lot of natural gas and oil. The indirect part is how we use energy for transportation, which is determined by the way our city is built. Suburban sprawl means everyone must drive to accomplish things, and this burns more fossil fuels. On the other hand, by building more walkable cities, people can walk, bike, or transit and reduce their pollution footprint. How good the building is and how walkable the location is are key. Many studies show that people who live in walkable neighbourhoods are 5-6 lbs lighter and generally healthier.
On changing zoning and increasing density, given Vancouver’s new housing strategy to add 72,000 new homes over the next ten years:
Density is important because it supports local services and because more people are in walkable neighbourhoods, rather than car-dependent suburbs. It also gives people another housing option to a big, single-family home. The new policy is important as it’s the first time we’ve questioned the extent to which single-family zoning dominates many North American cities. With laneway homes, you get the options of three different homes on a single property. There are often many generations of a family on one property, and this allows people to downsize and age right where they are.
On if Vancouver’s future is in laneway homes, coach homes, micro-lofts, tiny homes, and the like:
Partly. Laneway homes are a small fraction (maybe 6,000) of the 72,000-home plan, but they are not a substitute for good, medium density, mid-rise housing. If you’re re-building an entire lot, you still need these options.
On the one change Bryn would make to the way things are done in Vancouver:
He would change RS-1 zoning to RM-3 (newer, multi-family apartment and low-rise townhouse zoning that allows a wide range of different housing types). Bryn has a strong bias to buying green development, say on one or two lots—he doesn’t love whole-block redevelopment, though it needs to happen. The dis-incentives should be removed from small-lot development so we can create things like duplexes, four or six-plexes, at apartment density but on small lots. With different age and type of buildings, you can end up with something like 10th Avenue near city hall or Strathcona – a real mix of new, old, character homes, and apartments, but not too tall. This can be a good counterpoint to the larger development happening through spot re-zoning.
On the “perverse dis-incentives” for duplexes:
There is a lot of baggage from zoning over the past decade; for instance, with RS-1 (single-family), you can build a house with a basement suite but it can’t open to the front yard (only one door can open to the street, so the property doesn’t look like a duplex). So, the house, laneway home, and basement suite are all competing for the backyard space and the front yard goes unused. Zoning is so antagonistic to multi-family housing—the single-family home is seen as the highest and best use, above affordability, environment, or anything else. This needs to change. Also, apartment zones have a minimum lot size in order to create multi-family buildings. So, you can’t do a 1.2 or 1.4 FSR (floor space ratio) project on a single lot. One of the main reasons for this is so underground parking can go in, which requires larger lots. Bryn would like all of these minimum sizes and restrictions to go away—the market will provide needed parking, and some areas won’t need it. There should be much more flexibility.
On what a “passive house” is:
It’s similar to LEED in that it’s a certification system for buildings (called Passive House). There are certified Passive Houses and they use about 90% less energy for heating, as compared to a typical home. It’s the world’s best system for creating efficient buildings. Instead of relying on gadgetry (e.g. solar panels), it relies on lots of insulation, good air tightness, and a good air exchanger. It’s the “envelope first” approach where you focus on the shell of the building; it has no moving parts, lasts a long time, and is very reliable. Passive Houses consistently deliver on energy reduction over a long period of time, compared to other green buildings which are all over the map in terms of performance. This is why the City and the BC Energy Step Code is pushing towards something like Passive House.
On the kinds of costs involved in Passive House:
It depends on what you’re comparing to. There may be a 5% premium on the hard costs of apartments. There will be extra costs in the first couple of projects to figure out how to do it, but you save this on projects after that and Bryn has seen teams deliver competitive to regular market construction. Particularly with single-family homes in Vancouver, where they’re all a luxury product in a way, the cost of Passive House can easily get lost in any of the extras that go into them. Because gas and electricity in BC is still cheap (compared to places like Europe, California, and Ontario), you don’t see the cost savings over time, though it’s still cash-flow positive from day one. The big benefit is you’re getting a much better, more comfortable building – for instance, with thick walls, no chill, and quiet. If you’re building a high-end home in Vancouver without these things, you are really missing out.
On how Vancouver relates to other cosmopolitan cities in terms of building sustainability:
Vancouver is a leader in North America; this is pretty undisputed. Brussels, Belgium has had Passive House as the minimum building code for almost a decade. After a couple of years of working with Passive House, many architectural and construction firms will start to do more interesting and sophisticated things (you almost have to learn how to design from scratch with Passive House, so the first few projects may be boxy and simple). Vancouver does a good job of supporting Passive House, at least in RS-1, including using thick wall exclusion (so the wall size doesn’t count against the maximum square footage). There is now a 2% floor area bump in mechanical rooms for the air exchanger. Hopefully in the next couple of months, there will be cash incentives to offset the extra cost of design and certification. Lanefab is moving towards Passive House being the default standard for all full-size homes. This can be a tougher sell in different cities without these incentives.
On seeing a cultural shift in the city, in terms of building practices and the market:
Over the past two or three years, more people have been asking about or requesting Passive House. Lanefab is branded as a green builder, so they’re an outlier. A third of their clients come to them because they love the environmental aspect, a third are persuadable, and the rest don’t care as they just like the design. Vancouver has a long history that goes way beyond what most North American cities are doing. Building green is taken seriously here.
- Favorite neighbourhood in Vancouver: Mt. Pleasant/lower Main St. (where Bryn lives).
- Favorite bar or restaurant: Anything with a good beer menu, like the Alibi Room.
- Downtown penthouse or west-side mansion: Downtown penthouse (or loft, like he has).
- First place he takes out-of-town visitors: The five breweries within walking distance.
- Brassneck or Main Street Brewery: Brassneck (most interesting rotating collection).
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