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Frances Bula on building a laneway house
What it's like to be a developer, on a small scale
Frances Bula and her husband decided to build a laneway house for family. It was about three times as long, and twice as expensive, as originally planned: it took five years from signing the design-build contract to move-in. She wrote up an in-depth series of articles about what it was like, published in the Globe and Mail in January and February 2021.
People like my husband and I are increasingly common in Canada’s expensive cities: rookie private developers who don’t really have a clue about what we’re doing, thrust into a strange new world of construction management as we try to find new housing in the city for children, parents or even ourselves.
This was a heritage revitalization project, which allows up to 0.85 FSR.
Part 1: The city decides to change the rules midway
Part 2: Two years of tussles over buildable space, sidewalks, trees, much more
Part 3: The part where I pay all the bills and the construction happens
Part 4: Do you have the stamina, interest, location to make this doable?
Timeline. The first two years, from October 2015 to October 2017, appear to have been largely wasted. There’s no provision for “grandfathering”: there’s a long and arduous pre-application process, with a lot of micromanagement, but if the city decides to change the process before you’ve submitted your application, you basically have to start over.
October 2015 - sign design-build contract with builder, builder begins pre-application negotiations with city staff
Spring 2016 - city is planning modifications to process
December 2016 - city stops responding to pre-application questions
January 2017 - city is planning full-scale rezoning
October 2017 - council approves rezoning, builder resumes pre-application negotiations with city staff
July 2019 - builder submits application
January 2020 - city issues development and building permits
February to September 2020 - builder builds the laneway house
October 2020 - move-in
What developers do: navigate the approval process
As Matthew Yglesias explains it, a big reason that developers exist, as opposed to just builders, is that navigating the approval process is so difficult.
You don’t need a “developer” to convert your garage into an ADU, you need a contractor. And if you drive out to a rural area, there’s no such thing as a “developer;” there are just housebuilders.
The second article in the series describes the kinds of regulatory risks that Bula encountered: being asked to remove a basement suite in the main house (where family was living), being asked to change the location of the garage (which would mean removing a large maple tree), counting storage areas under porches as part of the total floor space allowed on the property.
This is a barrier to entry: it helps a lot to have a pre-existing relationship with the city.
I assumed that our builder Jake [Jake Fry of Smallworks], who is well known at city hall, was quietly at work to ensure that logic prevailed. It’s one of the reasons I’d gone with his company. (Yes, he said later, he was, quietly asking “Is that really necessary?” when needed.)
In the final article in the series, Bula discusses whether homeowners should attempt this process at all, given how difficult it is.
Meanwhile in California
How does this work?
Behind the quick turnaround time is a pre-approval process that was first rolled out in San Jose, Calif. and came to Los Angeles in recent weeks.
Abodu began installing homes through a pre-approval process back in 2019, when the city of San Jose created a program that allowed developers of alternative dwelling units to submit plans for pre-approval to cut the time for homeowners.
That approval process means that ADU [Accessory Dwelling Unit] developers like Abodu can be permitted in one hour. Other ADU developers pre-approved in San Jose, Calif. include Acton ADU, the venture backed Connect Homes, J. Kretschmer Architect, Mayberry Workshop, Open Remodel, and prefabADU.
Units in the Bay Area cost roughly $189,000 as a starting price, compared to the $650,000 to $850,000 it takes to build units in a mid-rise apartment building, or $1 million per unit in a steel-reinforced highrise, according to the company.
Abodu’s FAQ has more details.