• Virginia Tolles

Canada's Laneway House

Mike Quigley

Laneway houses are accessory dwelling units; that is, secondary residences on the same piece of land as a primary residence. In California, they are known as backyard houses. Their distinguishing feature is that they face a laneway, or service alley, as they are called in the States.

They can be used by senior citizens who need to live close to their children, by children who have returned home and need an affordable place to live until they get on their feet, by tenants who need a more affordable place to live than they can find in the traditional marketplace, or by homeowners who need the rental income to help pay the mortgage on the main house on the property.

It easily could be said that today’s laneway house is yesterday’s guest house. Like those dwellings, they vary from one-room cabins to houses large enough for an average-size family. Most tend to be sized for one or two people.

Architectural styles vary from traditional to contemporary. Some reflect the style of the primary house on the plot of land, while others are as striking as Bauhaus designs (think mid-century contemporary houses).

It should be noted that laneway houses are only practical where lots are large enough to accommodate a second house or where garages are being converted into small houses. In fact, the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, goes so far as to specify the size of the house in relation to the size of the lot and requires that off-street parking be provided for at least one car and that a certain amount of lawn be maintained between the main house and the laneway house (City of Vancouver. Laneway Houses and Secondary Suites).

In California, some backyard houses are being built behind upscale houses as guest houses. Some, but not all. Jurisdictions are starting to allow backyard houses to be constructed in more modest areas to help provide housing for the many homeless people who live there. The cities had to step in and regulate the projects after people made conversions on their own, without proper knowledge of electrical and plumbing methods, resulting in fires.

Some backyard houses are garage conversions, while others are new construction. Applications must be filed and plans approved before conversion or construction can begin. Applications can be denied, usually when a house will intrude upon utility lines or other existing public interest.

The average two-car garage is about 400 square feet in size, while the average one-car garage is about 240 square feet. In either case, there is room for a living area, kitchenette, bathroom, and a small sleeping area.

Read more about garage conversions. Lufkin. Bryan. Garages – The New Affordable Houses: Rethinking how we use urban spaces could help tackle an unaffordability crisis in many cities. June 17, 2019.

Read more about laneway houses. Laneway House Guide. City of Vancouver.


This article from a builder of laneway houses provides information about the benefits the houses offer: Take a look at their website and see the vast range of housing styles laneways are reflecting these days.​

Mike Quigley

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