5 difficulties when building an infill house in Vancouver

What we've learned while Building an infill house in Vancouver

The idea of building an infill house in Vancouver seems very appealing, especially for people who have lived in their existing home for a long time. If you have the right zoning, it’s possible to stratify your property so that you can build and sell an infill house. You can keep your home and free up your equity for other things. The income from selling the infill house could pay for your retirement, your children’s education or maybe help someone in your family buy thier first home. 

Infill houses could also be a part of the solution to Vancouver’s housing availability problems by densifying parts of the city that currently have single family homes on very large lots. 

We have been pursuing the idea of building an infill house to share with our extended family. We were warned that there would be many hurdles to jump through along the way, and it’s true. We haven’t encountered any major roadblocks yet but have found the following five challenges to building our infill house in Vancouver.

1. The Permitting Process

Everyone knows the challenges of getting a project approved in Vancouver in a timely manner. Building an infill house in Vancouver is no exception. We have been in the permitting process for over a year now. The earliest we expect to hear back from city hall is sometime in July 2022. We don’t expect approval at that time. Rather, we are expecting feedback on our latest revision which we submitted in April. 

One of the frustrating parts of the process for us is the vagueness of what is expected at each stage of the process. We found it very difficult to understand just what changes were being asked of us as we went through the proposal and revision process. We’re thankful for an architect who is very experienced in working with Vancouver City Hall. He was able to read between the lines and make educated guesses about what changes they were looking for. Without his experience we would be stuck. 

2. Preserving our large trees

We have two beautiful Douglas Fir trees in our backyard. We are very committed to protecting them and keeping them healthy. They have extensive root systems that have to be protected during construction. As well, our infill house has to be designed in such a way that it minimizes impact on the current root system and it’s future growth. This requires that the infill house be built mostly above ground, sitting on top of pilings. The pilings must be placed so that they avoid major roots. 

We’re also facing the possibility that we will have to leave some of the current concrete pads in place to protect existing roots that are underneath the pads.  These pads aren’t part of the new project and will detract from the aesthetics of the finished home. There’s a requirement that we provide two parking spots in the back of the property, but there’s also a requirement to protect the root systems, and these two requirements are in conflict.

3. The Cost of Building a Vancouver Infill House

As of June 2022 Canada’s inflation rate is a whopping 6.8% and still seems to be rising. This is pushing the cost of building materials and labour higher and higher. We don’t really know what the cost will be by the time we break ground. Add to this the intense labour shortage in the building industry and it looks like our project is going to be expensive. The expense has to be balanced against our future gains to get a better idea of our real costs. 

Once the project is complete we will be able to stratify our property and sell the infill at some point in the future. The likelihood is that we will get more for our property by stratifying than we would by selling the entire property with just a single home. Vancouver continues to be a popular place to live so demand should result in a future sale price that makes the project worthwhile in the long run. 

4. Preserving our Character Home

Because we are applying to build an infill house the city requires that we preserve the look of our existing house while also requiring certain upgrades. Similar to the permit process for the infill house, it’s been difficult to figure out exactly what changes are required. It’s possible that we will have to put in sprinklers and upgrade our insulation to a higher R rating, but it’s difficult to know for sure. 

If we were proposing to fully renovate our house then I’m sure we would be required to meet all the newest high standards. However, since we are only proposing one exterior change and a slight increase in overall interior area we may not have to make as many upgrades. We’re not opposed to making upgrades but it would be great if we could get a clear picture of what is required before sinking a lot of time and money into proposals and designs.

5. The Design Process

Building an infill house in Vancouver requires a lot of design and revision. It take a lot of time and consultation. Numerous Zoom meetings with our relatives and architect have been needed to sort through the large number of bylaws and requirements and how they impact our desired design. We’ve also had to try several designs to find out what fits in our backyard in a way that maximizes the usable space and retains a usable backyard. 

This was another area where we felt that the city’s requirements were vague and the feedback from them didn’t really show us the solution they were looking for. Again, we found ourselves very thankful that we’ve chosen our architect. His experience and knowledge has made it possible to continue. Despite the design challenges we feel like we will get a final product that we like and that satisfies our needs.

Is building an infill house in Vancouver worth the effort?

If you’re looking for a quick process with a minimum of uncertainty you don’t want to build an infill house in Vancouver. It requires large amounts of patience and planning. 

I’ve been critical of city hall in this article so I want to take a moment to look at it from their perspective. They have an immense number of factors to consider when deciding whether to approve a project or not. Vancouverites want a liveable city with comprehensive city planning that controls the way neighbourhoods are developed. We also want to be a modern city with great ammenities, and we want to be a green city that prioritizes sustainable development. 

We are also deeply committed to our own personal rights and freedoms and we don’t like it when governments reach into our affairs and impose restrictions. Imagine for a moment that it was your job to try and balance these things, and to do so in a way that produces quick and efficient results. 

When I think about it, I gain a sense of thankfullness toward the people who are trying to make it work, while also knowing that we need to fix some of the things that are really broken in the Vancouver housing market. Overall, I think that building an infill house in Vancouver can be part of the solution by allowing increased density in neighbourhoods where single family homes remain the primary form of housing.

I’ve written a couple other articles about our infill house experience:

Our Vancouver Infill House: Hopeful First Steps
Infill and Laneway House Construction in Vancouver

Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash

Other articles in this series