New-house bylaw leads to waste and loss

This older 2.5-storey house is 7.7 metres high. The white chevron shows the height limit for new Richmond houses, 9 metres. The red chevron shows “phony height,” an actual 10.5 metres that counts as 9 metres. (As well, a new house could have a higher site grade and 75% more floor area.)

This older 2.5-storey house is 7.7 metres high. The white chevron shows the height limit for new Richmond houses, 9 metres. The red chevron shows “phony height,” 10.5 metres that counts as 9 metres. (As well, a new house could have a higher site grade and 75% more floor area.)

There’s a quick way to assess council action on development. Just ask, “Does it help Richmond to be the Garden City?” Yes = Pass. No = Fail. The “half-assed house bylaw” fails. That nickname (from Coun. Carol Day) refers to proposed rule changes to alter how new houses affect their neighbours.

The future of our neighbourhoods depends on the house bylaw. If fixed, it can rescue hope. If not fixed, it can stifle the Garden City dream.

On council, only Carol Day and Harold Steves have looked ahead and cared, and we need them to keep it up. The rest are good people too, and we need them to wake up or step down.

The worst flaw is easy to fix. Simply define house “height” in the obvious way. In bylaw terms, it’s the vertical distance between finished site grade and the highest point.

The flaw came to light when a 2008 bylaw that was supposed to curb house height began to spawn taller houses instead. Citizens found that the bylaw had changed “height” to mean the distance to halfway up the roof. Mind-boggling!

With phony height like that, houses are built 1.5 metres taller than their supposed height. Neighbours are robbed of their sunlight.

It seemed the 2015 house bylaw would finally measure Richmond house height to the top of the roof, as in the rest of the world. But no, the details reveal that phony height still applies to “2.5-storey houses.” That turns a low-waste concept into high waste.

The photo shows an older home of 2.5 storeys. The big window below the peak, along with a skylight, lets the small half-storey fill with natural light. It was designed as an art studio.

With half-storeys like that, builders create living space—within the height of a 2-storey house—where there might have been attic voids. The building is also likely to have a smaller footprint, since the floor area is split among three floors. That can leave more of the lot area for nature and gardens.

A true 2.5-storey house tends to be affordable and eco-friendly, taking less building material, upkeep and heating. By nature it suits medium-height ceilings, although the house I’ve shown has a high vaulted ceiling in the front.

I’ve added a white chevron to the image. It shows a roofline at the stated house height limit, 9 metres. That’s enough for 2.5-storey houses, but the bylaw still adds an uncounted 1.5 metres.

The red chevron shows the effect. Besides being far higher than the stated limit, it puts the structure outside the concept of 2.5-storey houses.

But phony 2.5-storey houses would excel as trophy houses, imposingly tall and self-indulgent. Sooner or later, they’d be looming above our neighbourhoods and killing them.

We’ve pleaded with regressive council members to stop the phoniness. We’ve implored them to respect our homes, the Garden City and our quality of life. It’s high time to be heeded.

The public hearing is on September 8. The “house bylaw” it addresses has been split into Bylaws 9280 and 9281.

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A version of this article was published as a column in my “Digging Deep” series in the Richmond News on August 12, 2015. The title there is House bylaw’s phoney height is a real waste.”

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