Thesis Excerpt: Coach Houses - Adaptation in Postwar Suburbs / by Elie Bourget

I. Benefits of Coach Houses

It should be apparent that coach houses provide a wholly new type of infill which is worthwhile in and of itself regardless of its prevention of, or impact on, more aggressive forms of infill. Tear-downs, land assemblies, and severances will continue unabated so long as urban land continues to appreciate with increasingly limited supply. Such developments require significant capital and are thus limited to speculative builders. They exhibit little concern for the socio-economic impact on the communities in which they operate. Though they do contribute to regional intensification efforts, this is not their purpose. They are designed to extract the greatest return on investment and therefore must maximize their footprint and massing despite their affect on neighbouring properties or streetscape character. Coach houses, on the other hand, recall the simpler patterns of unplanned suburbs in which development is owner-driven. Those who would build coach houses are local property owners whose intentions are to strike a balance of livability and affordability. They are local residents who mean to create housing solutions customized to their needs. Due to their diminutive size, coach houses may even appeal to those who mean to build sweat equity and thereby permit Canadians to re-discover the benefits of owner-building. Though it is more likely, given the decline of employment in the trades, that owners would seek out the services of architects and custom-builders. These forms of small scale development are hallmarks of early postwar suburbs, they are natural outcomes of property owners forging their own paths to prosperity. Speculative and owner-driven development will always coincide as they tap into separate and distinct markets with little overlap. Coach houses simply create new opportunities for the latter to occur.

Though secondary suites are currently permitted in all ground-oriented dwellings in Ottawa, coach houses would more appropriately address the dominant trends affecting postwar suburbs. For various reasons postwar suburbs have stagnated and faced declining population for decades. The communities and homes were designed to house the all-important nuclear family. They created a culture built upon the family unit and generated a pattern of housing which offered little accommodation to non-families: elderly people, young people, single people, or even childless couples. Unfortunately the nuclear family has a half-life. Children grow up and parents grow old. The average household size declines and once vibrant suburbs grow weary. As so many of these postwar suburbs have demonstrated a reluctance to adapt in scale, we must allow more sensitive approaches to intensification in order break the homogeneous pattern of single-family dwellings. Conversions and secondary suites add rental housing for non-families only at the expense of the existing housing stock whereas coach houses add new and synergistic rental housing. They provide the flexibility to accommodate multi-generational housing, aging in place, downsizing, or simple tenant arrangements. In this way communities may adapt to the new normal without sacrificing the homes that define their character. They not only provide well needed rental housing, they also provide additional ground-oriented dwellings in urban areas. At present the latter are built almost exclusively at the urban fringes so any opportunities to promote their construction in core neighborhoods should be encouraged. As for rental housing, many postwar communities could benefit from the diversification of demographics to balance out the homogeneous pattern of single-family dwellings. Other communities, such as Overbrook, may have high concentrations of social-housing but the mix of demographics and incomes provided by these units does not overlap with those of coach houses.

On the other hand, postwar suburbs are also subject to larger trends affecting metropolitan areas and the rising cost of housing. Though many factors have contributed to the inflated cost of housing, demand most directly impacts the regional distribution of house prices. Demand is driven by the decentralization trend pushing new households to the urban fringe and the back-to-the-city trend attracting non-families to central areas. The postwar suburbs have benefited from neither, evidenced by population, income, dwelling value data. However, larger cities such as Toronto and Vancouver are demonstrating that demand for inner-city housing will, in time, push into adjacent communities creating the conditions for $1 million detached homes. As this occurs, the cost of land outstrips the value of the homes themselves, raising its investment value for speculative infill. Longtime residents in such communities may find it difficult to afford the cost of living should the value of their homes appreciate suddenly. Seniors on fixed incomes can be forced out of their lifelong homes by increased property taxes alone. This transition from depressed postwar suburb to affluent postwar suburb is predictable and coach houses can provide timely financial assistance to both new and existing residents as they weather the transition. Conversely for newcomers, coach houses would provide a financial incentive for buyers in affluent suburbs or a unique opportunity at affordable detached housing for buyers in depressed suburbs. In any case it puts a new opportunity to build equity firmly in the hands of property owners, as coach houses would not be the most profitable option for speculators. Beyond the financial assistance for owners, the additional diversity of incomes and demographics benefits the local economy by supporting a broader range of businesses.

The tangible benefits of coach houses are numerous but perhaps their greatest advantages are imperceptible by design. Their deployment provides 'Hidden Density' which contributes to intensification efforts without impacting the dominant character of the community. In the many postwar suburbs of Canada coach houses can settle into and preserve an existing street pattern. They safeguard urban single-family dwellings, side yard parking, and rear yard access. They also uphold street parking as they do not require the new curb cuts associated with severances. The character of the streetscape, a soft patter of green yards and modest homes, is thus maintained while occupancy is doubled. The postwar was an era of small housing and, as they must remain subordinate to the primary home, coach houses will mark a return to the design of modest and discreet housing solutions. Not only will this promote the construction of energy-efficient small homes and the reuse of existing infrastructure, it may double back to promote the retrofit of existing small homes as well. Though new homes are generally built to much higher environmental standards, it is worth remembering the three 'R's: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Factoring for the embodied energy of materials, the most environmentally friendly home is an existing home and, better still, a small one. Retrofitting a postwar house for higher efficiency can be accomplished quite simply by updating the building envelope and mechanical systems, as demonstrated by the CMHC's NOW house project. These benefits to both intensification and sustainability, however subtle, can have a significant impact in the aggregate.

Finally, coach houses are a natural extension of major planning initiatives that have only begun to improve the regulation of small scale infill. Ottawa's Community Design Plans and Secondary Plans were significant first steps towards understanding the stresses placed on mature communities. The objective of these policy instruments was to devise a consensus among community stakeholders as to the scale and distribution of large scale intensification projects but they lacked the zoning revisions needed to create a lasting effect. These plans did have a passable affect on mediating community and developer conflicts but there remained a blind spot in the smart-growth policies. Small-scale residential infill, largely unregulated, was establishing reckless precedents. Thus a new zoning bylaw was passed in 2012 known as infill 1. This innovative bylaw is designed to safeguard the character and scale of mature communities without prohibiting infill projects. In order to assess the policy the first stage was limited to select inner-city and pre-war neighbourhoods which demonstrated high frequency of infill development, those in urgent need of regulation. Presently a second phase of the bylaw, Infill 2, is in the works. It would extend a variation of this oversight to all urban communities within the Greenbelt which are predominantly classified as postwar suburbs. It will be a rare instance of drafting preventative policy rather than reactive, as infill pressure in these inner-suburbs is still relatively low.

Why is timing important? The benefits of permitting coach houses ought to stand on their own regardless of timing or context. Yet, housing cannot be extricated from real estate and the financial encumbrance it carries. Consider the back-to-the-city trend as one which occurs in phases, or waves, corresponding to risk-reward evaluations of land value and desirability of location. The first such wave reaches all the way back into the city core. When property values there become untenable, this incident wave reflects back outward into adjacent communities. This second wave affects primarily inner-city communities such as pre-war streetcar suburbs. Ottawa, like other mid-size Canadian cities presumably, finds itself it the later stages of this second wave. As we inch closer to the inevitable third wave we are also nearing a crucial window of opportunity where coach houses can be broadly applied to postwar housing before its land-value rises to levels which dictate redevelopment and land assembly. If applied to post-war suburbs, Infill 2 would hinder the creeping advance of garage frontage and over-building, thereby creating a market for coach houses to compensate for restricted development. They in turn would allow existing residents to build greater equity on long-held assets and generate new income to offset rising taxes. They would also create affordable housing opportunities for new comers who would otherwise contend with inflated land values associated with more central locations. Overbrook is prime example of timing in a transition suburb. Will the rising tide lift all boats, or just some? Demolitions and redevelopments in the area are increasing in frequency and are concentrated in the area closest to the city. Without Infill 2, Overbrook may quickly turn into a community of narrow rowhouses and oversized semi-detached homes which would only benefit the few residents looking to payout on their appreciated properties. Whereas applying Infill 2 now would both protect prevailing longterm residents but retain a large swath of properties uniquely suited to the construction of coach houses. It won't halt the infill pressure of course, that's a force of nature. But it may channel intensification into more appropriate locations and building types. Community Design Plans were intended to give communities and their residents a say in local intensification as stakeholders. Yet the documents provided them no leverage on low-rise infill or the policy tools to benefit from it. A coach house bylaw, a natural progression of previous efforts to promote smart growth, would finally give owners and residents direct influence on small-scale intensification.

Any good policy should be assessed on a macro scale and yet there are countless individual homes at stake. There is an issue of perception at play. We look at small postwar houses and regard them differently based on our individual positions. A couple buying their first home in the 1950's may have seen an affordable dream home. A comparable couple of first time buyers today may see an outdated, too-small home that isn't worth the cost of repair. What's changed? There is a parallax here to consider, not of physical distance or position but one of time and economy. The urban fabric shifts in the background with the times, just as the financial point of view of the buyer adapts with the economy. The picture changes but the home is always the same. Assuming there is no shortage in supply of land for intensification, citizens will benefit from policy which best frames these homes are worthwhile investments. At the municipal level, coach houses would serve as an excellent follow up to Infill 2 in the rehabilitation of Canada's postwar housing stock. However, the effectiveness of bylaws and regulations, like official plans, is limited by the intentions of residents and developers alike. Efforts must be made educate the public on all matters related to coach house construction and regulation. Such a task could be carried out in the form of planning documents comparable to Community Development Plans and distributed to relevant communities. Yet this type of educational material could easily reach a national audience with the aid of the CMHC's publishing and distribution networks. If postwar housing was considered a national endeavor, what role should provincial and federal governments play in the advancement of coach houses and other forms of small-scale infill?

II. Designing National Policy Instruments for Coach Houses

The difficulty in providing national policy instruments to support coach houses, or other detached accessory apartments, is in mediating municipal, provincial, and federal obligations. Zoning provisions discussed in Chapter 4 are recommended specifically for the promotion of coach houses in Ottawa's postwar suburbs. Such provisions will remain the prerogative of individual municipalities and mandating the creation of these bylaws via legislation falls under provincial authority. Though Ontario is fortunate to be among the first provinces to legislate accessory apartments with updates to the Ontario Planning Act in 2011, most provinces have yet to introduce any such legislation. Some simply offer grants to promote conversions and housing affordability. If the federal government holds no authority over the regulation or legislation of accessory dwellings, how best can they promote their construction?

This thesis began with years-long research into the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Small House Design Scheme. Many factors contributed to the immense housing boom of the postwar era but this national initiative served as a profound inspiration for this thesis. It remains a shining example in the advancement of architectural design, national construction standards, and public awareness. Should the federal government, and by extension the CMHC, decide to launch a coach house program, the scheme would be a fitting model to revive. Now, as then, the construction of affordable housing is incentivized. Naturally this involves new mortgage instruments, tax breaks, grant programs or public-private partnerships. But the two strengths of the scheme were leveraging financial assistance to promote quality architectural design and enabling the Canadian people to devise their own housing solutions. They accomplished this not by implementing planning regulations but by providing design services and educational literature directly to prospective home-owners. Due to the ubiquitous site planning standards of the postwar era there exists a vast, untapped supply of underdeveloped and owner-occupied land. If we can project increasing demand for detached accessory dwellings and there is an ample supply of land, then the greatest impediment remains the cost of design services. Given the right leadership and willing cooperation of the architectural profession, the relaunching of the Small(er) House Design scheme could be a great benefit to both the architectural profession and Canadians at large. Better still, it would undercut the greatest risks associated with the construction of coach houses: bad design, substandard construction, and permit delays. The application review process in many Canadian cities is considered one of the biggest impediments to the construction of infill and secondary suites. Industry representatives have claimed as much in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, and more. In Calgary, owners wishing to build secondary suites must plead their cases directly to elected officials, tying up council meetings for entire days simply because they lack the necessary regulation. In the city of Vancouver, where over 2,000 laneway homes have been built since 2010, application reviews have bottlenecked the industry. As far back as 2012, their permit department handled as many as fifty applications a month, far in excess of the 350 permits issued that year. Though permits issued increased to 500 in 2015, many applications still face prolonged delays which severely impact development costs. An important mechanism of the Small House Design Scheme was to pre-screen selected designs for construction standards. Site plan review will remain a delicate process when issuing permits for coach houses but having designs pre-screened would certainly accelerate permit reviews across the nation.

A vetted selection process would also improve the overall quality of secondary dwellings. The opportunity to add a low-cost income property would be an alluring prospect for cash-strapped home-owners. Particularly in cities lacking proper zoning provisions, quality design may prove to be a lower priority than a profitable balance sheet. Such cases may produce cheaply constructed or undersized shacks and, worse yet, create conflict between neighbours. In the absence of nation-wide regulation, design is paramount in achieving the various goals set out in this thesis. To revive the small house design scheme service we would first need to establish parameters and eligible dwelling types with which to put out a call for proposals. In a 2014 study of accessory dwelling regulations, the CMHC identified as many as fifty names used to classify various secondary dwellings. That may seem incompatible with the original scheme's four house types but these variations include many redundancies and account for all attached secondary suites as well. In fact, many variations consist of illegal conversions resulting from the lack of building regulations for accessory dwelling units. However, limiting the typology to detached secondary dwellings alone would make a new scheme feasible. Coaches houses and laneway houses would be appropriate starting points due to the ubiquity of suitable site conditions and general similarities between the two such as size limitations or integration of parking. Their similitude and combined market demand may allow a stable framework for the CMHC to operate in.

The market for these dwellings is, of course, still in its infancy as regulations have not caught up to latent demand. In essence, relaunching this public service may jump-start a niche industry by facilitating their development. By tapping into latent demand at this early stage the CMHC will best position itself to establish site planning standards, provide a common typology within which to experiment, and monitor regional solutions as they develop to accommodate deviations in postwar development patterns. Coach houses may still remain a niche industry for some time because the scale of their development is capped. They do not lend themselves to land assemblies, severances or wide-scale greenfield development. That their construction largely depends on owner participation raises the importance of delivering services directed at end users. A new scheme should therefore consist of both design catalogues and instructive literature recalling Choosing a House Design and other publications of the postwar. Contemporary intensification guidelines and initiatives have so far neglected to address small-scale infill which has disadvantaged forms of infill dependent on owner-participation. Correcting this failure could mean re-introducing architecture to the middle-class and the timely revival of meaningful discourse on affordability and vernacular. And this dialogue is not only for the benefit a regular citizens. The practice of architecture has grown out of touch as it has gained a reputation for being a luxury service. Reviving this design competition will be a valuable make-work initiative for young architects and graduate students lacking career opportunities. Many participants in the original scheme earned notoriety from their designs which found a national audience. Some went on to have prolific careers thanks in part their engagement in public service. If Canada's architecture schools choose to cooperate, the sheer number of students in addition to graduated interns could supply ample designs to ensure the scheme feasible. The scheme could provide a meaningful leg up to a promising niche industry, support affordable housing options, and allow practice of architecture to raise a flag once more. These humble homes may yet accomplish extraordinary goals.