HOMEFINDER: Smaller homes aren’t necessarily better

Saanich Peninsula architect weighs in on small unit concept.

Plans for a three-storey multi-family residential building on First Street in Sidney show the inclusion of a micro unit (above

Are small — or even micro — residential living spaces the answer to the affordable housing debate?

That was the question posed to Silvia Bonet, an architect with the Saanich Peninsula’s Finlayson Bonet Architecture Ltd. They are currently proposing to build a two-and-a half storey multi-family residential complex on First Street in Sidney. Its 14 units include smaller condos (of around 600 square feet) — and even a micro space of 300 to 400 square feet.

While downtown Victoria has adopted zoning rules that allow small and micro units — with plenty of developers considering them in their plans — Bonet says it’s taking longer for the concept to catch on on the Saanich Peninsula.

Nor should large numbers of micro units be all that’s talked about, she says.

“The Peninsula is starting to recognize that there’s a need to diversify housing typology,” she says, referring to the traditional single family homes on medium-to-large size properties.

For Bonet, introducing smaller living spaces is about sustainability.

Asked what she means by the term “sustainability” in this context, Bonet says it’s the way a health communtiy will develop over time.

“Where do they live, compared with where they work, the availability of existing resources like infrastructure of transit? Large lots equal larger, spread out spaces that impacts those considerations.

“Micro units have their role in this when you think of diversification.”

Bonet says diversification in the type of housing in an area can result in more people, from different walks of live, having better access to housing — and that’s what creates a complete community.

Finlayson Bonet’s proposed Sidney condo building on First Street includes one micro unit of 360 square feet-plus. It’ll be surrounded by small units in the range of 600 sq. ft. There are also larger, two-and-three-bedroom units in the mix.

Will this project and others like it — and micro units — help meet the demand of lower-cost housing being asked for by local industry lobbyists?

Bonet says it’s part of the answer but admits there’s no one single answer to this complex issue.

“Typically, families look for a place with a back yard, space for the kids to play. In Vancouver, that’s limited for many people and you see more people living in condos.”

Larger lots here generally cost less than in Vancouver, she says, meaning single family houses will always be in the mix.

However, the cost of land is still a big issue. For developers to raise the money to buy it, Bonet says they have to seriously consider maximizing the living space — number of units — to turn a profit. On the Peninsula, she says, there has been some growth in smaller, fee simple homes — for example, the Canora Mews project in North Saanich. Strong sales of those homes, she continues, is an indication of need in the area and a case of the right project, built at the right time.

Challenges to diversify housing continue to exist in North Saanich, where much of the Peninsula’s industrial activity takes place.

In Sidney, and to a lesser extent Central Saanich, Bonet says those municipalities have has embraced increased density to provide a variety of housing types that reflect market diversification.

“They have been a leader in this change in attitude on the Peninsula,” she says. “It’s one attempt for a community to be more flexible.”

Yet, while Bonet says she’s in favour of diversifying the types of housing in the region, she’s hesitant to say that micro units alone are the answer to workforce housing issues on the Peninsula, or elsewhere.

With economic drivers already in place in the industrial area, Bonet says infrastructure improvements are being sought that could, inevitably, lead to a broader scope of housing types.

“Micro units are more appropriate in Victoria’s downtown, but they can exist in places like Sidney, where the focus is on getting people to spend more time outside, in the shops and enjoying their neighbourhoods.”

Bonet says the car-centred aspect of the 1950s is giving way to living spaces that encourage people to, well, live.

“There are good things happening,” Bonet says. “We’ll get a good dialogue going and actually see some of the change.”