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Vancouver learns how to make an old house pay

Vancouver’s remaining old character houses still have a lot working against them.

There are a lot of people who do care deeply about preserving the charming old houses. Author Caroline Adderson’s Vancouver Vanishes Facebook page, which archives the ongoing demolitions, has 5,131 likes.

But there are people who think old houses can never be energy efficient, and are filled with mould and rot. There are those who don’t find them aesthetically appealing, and there are others who simply don’t care about them. And then, there is the biggest impact of all – the fact that the new market demands bigger, newer houses. The more square footage, the more money for everyone involved.

As we all know, the old houses are coming down to make way for big, new ones. As a result, Vancouver’s west side, and pockets of the east side, have been completely transformed. The sale of an old house, particularly in Kerrisdale, Dunbar or Point Grey, most certainly marks the end of its existence. One Dunbar homeowner currently has an ad posted on Craigslist to sell their solid, well-built, 1,820-square-foot, four-bedroom character home for $1, if someone could relocate it before it’s demolished. The chances are probably slim.

Heritage home at 1828 West 15th Ave. A laneway home has been added to the rear of the property. All photos by Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail

Where houses are concerned, we’ve been on a clear-cutting frenzy these last several years. Somewhere in the order of 1,000 demolition permits are issued annually in Vancouver. As a city, we have been big pushers for the big and new. It’s not exactly the greenest of policies.

And so, in an attempt to abate the demolition of nearly 1,000 homes a year – a substantial number of them built prior to 1940 – the city approved a policy that restricts demolitions of pre-1940s houses deemed worthy as having character. The plan includes a requirement that 90 per cent of the materials from a pre-1940s character house that gets torn down must be recycled. As an incentive, if the house is retained, there’s an added floor space allowance.

Not surprisingly, there was some outcry from builders, realtors and architects whose business is devoted to new builds on the west side. Houses will be devalued, they argued. Seniors who own them will suffer financial losses. But really, could a solid arts and crafts house that sits on a 50- or 60-foot lot on the city’s west side really become so undesirable as to drop significantly in value? Is the only answer to Vancouver’s real estate market the big, bulky and generic new house that too often replaces it?

Could the new rules hurt such a robust market?

David Peerless, owner of Dexter Associates Realty in Kerrisdale, specializes in west side homes. He says the answer is no.

“We’ve found that demand for properties that are affected by the policy has not dramatically changed,” says Mr. Peerless. “The pre-1940 house has a slight stigma to it, but what we thought would have been a very big effect on the market, we haven’t really experienced.”

Instead, the value of a house, he says, is still based on many factors, not just the new restriction.

“I think people are trying to zero in on this one policy as [potentially] causing a really dramatic shift in prices in the city, but there are a lot of factors that make up the value of a house.”

Contrary to reports, the old house can be a winning proposition. Adding value to a character home with infill might be harder, more time consuming and sometimes more costly in the short run, but there are other benefits.

The Beaddies increased the value of their 1938 house a couple of years ago by adding a laneway house. They are long-time Vancouverites who inherited an old four-bedroom house at 1830 West 15th, just off Burrard. They already had a principal residence elsewhere, and they didn’t want to sell the house on West 15th and risk their tenants being evicted. So, they decided to build a laneway house on the lot in order to boost their income. They added a two-bedroom, 1,027 square-foot house that is now home to a young family. In the main house are tenants who’ve lived there for 12 years.

Instead of selling off the property, the Beaddies discovered that they could increase its value for the community and make it work for their pocketbook as well. As a result, the house is not only saved, but the property now offers housing for two families.

“It’s an income for us, now that we are retired,” says Mrs. Beaddie, who prefers not to give her first name. “And it also does provide housing, and we try to maintain the houses and be good landlords. If you have property, you have to take care of it, and do the best you can. And you have to provide housing where you can.”

It wasn’t an easy process, mind you. Mrs. Beaddie says there were several headaches, including the fact that they couldn’t install double-glazed windows on the main house, in keeping with the character. That meant expensive storm windows had to suffice.

But asked if she’d go to the bother again, she responds, “Oh yes. I would recommend it.”

The city’s attempt to protect character houses is commendable, albeit far from perfect. It doesn’t make sense that only houses built prior to 1940 are protected, for example, when there are many great architectural designs from the 1950s, 1960s and yes, even the 1970s.

As well, the only way to protect what’s left of the historical housing is to offer bigger incentives to boost their value. When square footage is at such an all-time premium, it’s essential that the old houses become so valuable that the development community is motivated to work with them. That’s the only way they’ll survive.

Laneway housing builder Jake Fry proposes zoning that would allow for laneway strata-titled homes that could be sold off. Such zoning has been used in Kitsilano in years past.

“Those houses are intact and more valuable because they are beautiful and old and had other value components. So it’s in everyone’s interest,” he says.

“The city needs to be credited for taking a step in the right direction. [The new plan] hasn’t been negative. It’s been neutral. But my personal feeling is it should be more rigorous in preserving what’s left of the character stock, by using bigger enticements.”

Rick Michaels, former assistant director in development services for the city, agrees that the current policy isn’t incentive enough to boost the dollar value of character homes. He says the builders and architects are turned off by the many codes and requirements they have to fulfill in order to retain an old house in exchange for more floor space.

“We can do better than the laneway house,” says Mr. Michaels, who is now a development consultant. “Put three units on the site, stratify them and look at different forms of home ownership. It may not impact the market. I don’t know. But you need to go there. There’s no choice in the matter. There has to be a reward there.

“It doesn’t punish the existing neighbourhood by its form and massing and density. It does the exact opposite. It builds the community rather than making it a bunch of strangers or whatever.”

As well, the added density will offer housing for retirees who want to stay in their community.

“That’s a healthy attribute, and it’s needed. They’ve got their doctor in the neighbourhood, family and friends, shopping. They want to stay but want less of an entity.

“You could do that in all of the small density areas.”

From Kerry Gold, Special to The Globe and Mail

Vancouver’s New Building Bylaw

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Vancouver, BC        Canada

Unlike any other city or municipality in British Columbia, the City of Vancouver is authorized by the Vancouver Charter to pass its own building bylaws regulating the design and construction of buildings as well as administrative provisions for permitting, inspection and enforcement.

On 1st April, 2014, Vancouver City Council adopted the 2012 British Columbia Building Code, with additional requirements and revisions specific to Vancouver, to create the 2014 Vancouver Building Bylaw (the “Vancouver Building Bylaw”). The Vancouver Building Bylaw was originally scheduled to come into effect on 1st July, 2014 but that date has been extended to 1st January, 2015. The current 2007 Vancouver Building Bylaw will remain in effect until that date.

The Vancouver Building Bylaw includes amendments to improve housing for seniors and people with disabilities as well as amendments to promote the City’s objectives of the “Greenest City 2020 Action Plan”. This environmental action plan contains specific goals addressing issues such as reducing carbon footprint, achieving zero waste and preserving the City’s ecosystems, which the City hopes to achieve by 2020 to constitute the world’s “greenest city”.

The Vancouver Building Bylaw may affect how professionals, including architects, engineers and building envelope consultants, design projects subject to the bylaw and may impose additional administrative requirements associated with a project. It may also impose further obligations upon professionals during the construction process in the form of field review to ensure that the additional requirements of the bylaw are being met.

Requirements of New Vancouver Building Bylaw

The Vancouver Building Bylaw covers one and two family dwellings, including single family homes, townhouses and secondary suites (buildings classified as Part 3 or Part 9 non-residential buildings), and is intended to address issues such as: accessibility, energy utilization, and rain screen cladding systems. It includes new requirements and improvements for:

  • Building permits;
  • Building envelope requirements;
  • Equipment;
  • Health and life safety;
  • Energy efficiency;
  • Adaptable housing;
  • Certified Energy Advisor evaluation of energy efficiency prior to City insulation inspection;
  • Energy modelling report prior to application; and
  • Sprinkler systems.

In connection with Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, the Vancouver Building Bylaw requires that all new buildings subject to the bylaw be designed to meet strict energy standards to reach energy reduction targets for new buildings of 20% below 2007 levels by 2020, and to be carbon neutral by 2030. A 240-volt electrical vehicle outlet is required in each carport or garage.

To address accessibility issues, the bylaw requires that all doorways and corridors be wider to accommodate wheelchairs. There are new requirements with respect to the placement of kitchen and bathroom faucets, kitchen sink drains and dimensions for bathrooms. Also amended are the requirements for the placement of outlets, electric switches and living room windows.

As part of building envelope requirements, improved insulation is mandated for windows, sliding glass doors, skylights, walls, attics and under slab insulation. There are also new requirements for air tightness.

“Noise pollution” from exterior and interior sources is becoming a bigger issue in construction and has been the subject of at least one known claim in the context of the remediation of the building envelope of a condominium complex. Explicitly addressed in the Vancouver Building Bylaw is one aspect of noise control; the bylaw requires HVAC equipment to conform to the noise-control bylaw.

No More Doorknobs

One new requirement in the Vancouver Building Bylaw has attracted considerable attention, as well as some derision. With the bylaw, Vancouver has become the first city in Canada to ban doorknobs. In place of doorknobs, all new construction under the bylaw will require the use of accessible levered handles. This is part of the minimum accessibility standards.

Other Requirements

Prior to obtaining a building permit under the Vancouver Building Bylaw, a new house plan must be evaluated by a Certified Energy Advisor (“CEA”) using EnerGuide Rating System and the “P-File” submitted with the plans.

Prior to the City’s insulation inspection, an authorized Energy Advisor must: (1) provide confirmation of visual verification of window ratings; (2) complete a Vancouver Thermal Bypass checklist; and (3) complete a pre-drywall blower-door test.

Prior to final inspection, the builder must submit a copy of the final EnerGuide Report, prepared by the CEA. Further work may be required if the home performs significantly worse than the 3.5 ACH. Also required is a completed checklist by the CEA confirming that electrical, pipe insulation, and other energy requirements of the VBBL were met.

Transition Between 2007 and 2014 Vancouver Building Bylaw

If an application for a building permit is made before 1st January, 2015, the applicant can choose to apply under the 2007 bylaw or the 2014 bylaw.

Applications for building permits under the current bylaw must be submitted to the City of Vancouver by 19th December, 2014.

Not surprisingly, the City of Vancouver has received a large number of development applications under the current bylaw and reports that applications have increased by 40% from the same time period the previous year.

As a result of the influx of applications, builders have reported increased delays in the processing of their permit applications from a time period of one week to up to three months, which builders say have resulted in construction delays and increased costs.

While the new Vancouver Building Bylaw is intended to make buildings more accessible and environmentally friendly, opponents have criticized it on the basis that the changes will result in increased construction cost. The bylaw imposes new design criteria on those professionals involved in the construction of buildings subject to the bylaw, and may impose additional administrative and field review obligations. Time will tell whether these obligations will result in new types of claims against building professionals.

Article by: Karen L. Weslowski

New Immigration Rules to impact Canada’s Housing Market

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West Side Luxury Real Estate

The Canadian government’s decision to axe a 28-year-old visa scheme for immigrants will have a substantial impact on the housing markets in Canada, especially in Vancouver and Toronto, experts say.

Canada scrapped its Immigrant Investor Program earlier this month. The scheme was particularly popular with wealthy real estate investors from mainland China.  Under the program, foreign investors with a minimum net worth of C$1.6 million (US$1.44 million) were granted Canadian residency in return for making an interest-free loan of C$800,000 (US$726,720) to the government for five years. The government returned the principal amount in instalments over five years.

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