Cottage homes hold some answers for aging boomers

This style of development, found in Washington State, provides homes more in keeping with the reduced size of most households


By Bob Ransford, Special to The Sun November 5, 2011



What kind of innovation is needed in housing in Metro Vancouver to address the forces of change that are impacting all of us?

The biggest change that none of us can avoid is aging. The aging of the massive baby boom population bulge is beginning to impact everything: income, health, physical mobility, the workforce and a long list of other issues. It's also impacting household size.

Like most of the rest of North America, the size of household makeup in our region size has shrunk over the last 35 years. Metro Vancouver's average household fell from 2.86 persons per dwelling in 1976 to 2.56 in 2006. At the current rate of decline in household makeup, 30 years from now the region will require 1.38 million dwelling units - close to a half million more dwellings than exist today.

Where are we going to build these homes? What type of homes are appropriate for what areas?

Over the last three decades in Metro Vancouver, we've seen a huge shift in the type of new housing that was built, with the proportion of single-family housing declining and multi-family housing increasing.

Meeting that demand has been relatively easy up until now. Much of it was met with high-density development in downtown Vancouver and in what I call activity centres in the suburbs. A lot of the land for higherdensity development came from the conversion of industrial land to residential use. Meanwhile, traditional single-family neighbourhoods have largely been left untouched.

That is about to change for two reasons.

The first is the reality of the aging baby boom. Those at the older end of the baby boom are already thinking their large single-family homes are beginning to become more of a burden, rather than a comfortable refuge. Those of us who are at the trailing end of the baby boom and have now passed the 50-year mark are beginning to think 20 years and more ahead, predicting that we will face the same reality.

The second reason single-family neighbourhoods are going to change is that we are going to need some of the land within them to build some of those half million new homes that will be needed over the next 30 years. Apartments and row townhouses built along the arterial streets at the perimeter of our single-family neighbourhoods might be able to meet the numbers required for new housing, but apartments and row townhouses alone won't fully satisfy the need for diversity in housing.

So how do we provide this type of housing? The answer is the cottage home and pocket neighbourhoods.

Cottage homes are not unlike the laneway homes that are now permitted in Vancouver, a number of which have popped up in rear yards around the city. However, cottages are usually built, not as an accessory home to an existing traditional single-family home, but in clusters as a small development known as "pocket neighbourhoods".

The cottages are generally designed as one or one-and-a-half storey detached housing units, usually no larger than 1,000 to 1,200 square feet in size. Cottage houses are often thought of as compact and cosy, but design features like open floor plans, convertible space, built-in furniture and storage and large windows make the homes appear larger.

A good cottage development is a pocket neighbourhood that has at least 500 square feet of open space per cottage, most of it provided in a series of large common areas around which the cottages are typically clustered. Most pocket neighbourhoods range in size from four cottages to no more than 24 homes. The best example of this kind of housing innovation is in Kirkland, Wash., a suburb across the lake from Seattle. Four years ago, the City of Kirkland introduced a new zoning that allowed innovative housing demonstration projects, including cottages in pocket neighbourhoods.

Basically, they allowed cottages to be built as infill housing in single-family neighbourhoods with no more than two cottages per each existing singlefamily home.

They reduced parking requirements to one stall per home for cottages up to 700 square feet and 1.5 stalls per home for cottages from 700 to 1,000 square feet. The parking is usually clustered on the site in a small parking lot within a short walk of all the homes.

Kirkland wanted to increase housing supply and choice of housing styles while promoting affordability by encouraging smaller homes, all in a form compatible with surrounding development.

Wouldn't it be smart to try to meet the same goals in Metro Vancouver? For more information visit:

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: ransford@ or Twitter @BobRansford

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