Building a better city the tiny way
Clarence Street project makes use of Hamilton’s network of laneways to provide affordable living
EMMA CUBITT HAS BIG DREAMS FOR LITTLE HOUSES IN HAMILTON.
The 37-year-old architect has emerged as the city’s leading advocate for small and tiny house construction on underutilized land beside laneways.
It all started with her 2007 master’s thesis at the University of Waterloo — that examined the potential for laneway housing in Hamilton — and now she is designing the city’s first laneway/small-house/affordable housing project.
The development on Clarence Street off Queen Street North by Good Shepherd Hamilton with the Social Planning and Research Council (SPRC) plans to be a unique community of 26 small housing units — in duplexes — for single women who have experienced homelessness.
While the average newly constructed house in Canada is about 2,000 square feet, these new homes will be less than 600.
Organizers of the project on cityowned land hope to have a shovel in the ground by next year.
Cubitt believes that’s just the start of a potential construction boom that could develop into thousands of small homes on land beside an estimated 70 kilometres of underutilized laneways in the city — if the City of Hamilton changes bylaws like many other North American cities have done.
Last week she was in Vancouver and Portland, Oregon, scouting out laneway houses that have been built in those communities in recent years.
“It’s crazy in some neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Almost every block has one, two or even four laneway houses. It’s really interesting how it has developed,” she said.
And while economics stemming from overheated housing, land and rental prices in that city are playing a role in the trend, she noted that Portland — an American city with housing prices more similar to Hamilton — is also seeing a huge influx of laneway housing as well.
The key issue is that both municipalities developed bylaws that allow construction along laneways and alleys, she says.
And that’s something that is being worked on in Hamilton.
Edward John, a senior project manager in urban renewal with the city, has been developing a plan to present to councillors later this year or early next year that would make recommendations about laneway housing.
He says the major obstacle is fire department access because laneways are often too narrow to accommodate fire trucks.
But sometimes other measures can counterbalance that problem, said John. Laneway houses can be built of noncombustible materials and have sprinkler systems. That’s what the Good Shepherd development is planning to make up for limited access through a narrow laneway.
Alan Whittle, the director of planning and community relations with the Good Shepherd, says, “these kinds of things will address the real concern of the fire code to prevent people from dying.”
Renée Wetselaar, a Social Planner with the SRPC, says the affordable housing development for single women — built on city owned land that used to have regular houses on it before they were demolished — is a case of dealing with a “very challenged population and a very challenged piece of land.”
She says the hope is that tenants of the small houses will feel “more of a sense of pride and feel more connected with their environment than if they lived in a highrise apartment building. And because the houses are smaller they will be easier to manage.”
Cubitt believes smaller houses put people on a footing that is more sustainable. People don’t need to live in monster houses. They can get by with much less, she says.
Cubitt herself lives in a 700-squarefoot, century-old house near Hamilton’s core, with her husband.
“It works great,” she says. “No space is wasted. There is less cleaning, less energy bills. Our heating bill for the year is under $500.”
Dave Kipp, a teacher at Westdale High School, had students construct a 100-square-foot tiny house over the past few years.
It was built to encourage discussion about tiny houses, sustainability and give students hands on experience working in building trades.
While 100 square feet is small, he notes the size isn’t all that different from shacks and cabins that early settlers lived in.
“Today it’s a romantic notion about simple living, but back then there was no choice. I guess it’s come full circle.”
Models that architect and tiny home advocate Emma Cubitt created (this one depicting the St. Clair area) incorporating tiny homes into back alleys and lanes. The darker cardboard homes indicate tiny homes among larger existing homes.
Above, Emma Cubitt in her 700-square-foot home. At left, Westdale High School students under the leadership of teacher Dave Kipp built a tiny house.