Vancouver’s laneway house pioneers Bryn Davidson and Mat Turner are driven by the belief that every home is a sanctuary, and the company builds communities with a cohesive sense of style, and a symbiotic relationship to the city.  As the company has grown and evolved, Lanefab Design/Build has built an impressive portfolio of bespoke custom and laneway homes, including passive houses and duplexes.

We got a chance to catch up with Davidson to talk about bringing the first laneway house to Vancouver, the importance of passive house building, and the journey to find the missing middle.

From the foundation to the final touches, what is the best thing about your job?

I run the design side of the business, and since we are a design build company, I look forward to designing projects from conception to completion.  Since every project is unique, I enjoy implementing sustainability, innovation, and design solutions that help our clients get the most out of their space.

How did you and Mat team up?

I was always interested in using prefab building systems, so I started talking to a local supplier about SIP panels (Structural Insulated Panels). SIP panels have fantastic insulation, can be made to any custom size, and are structurally superior to traditional wood framing.  Mat is a general contractor and project manager, and I was told that he was the only builder in town at the time who was using them.  We chatted a little bit about and a year and a half later during the global financial crisis in 2008, both of us were suddenly without any work.  

The City of Vancouver introduced the Laneway House program in August of 2009 to provide opportunities for more rental housing options in neighbourhoods across the city.  This new policy would allow 65,000 lots in the city of Vancouver to become eligible for this new type of housing, and Mat and I decided to brand the company around this new of small, affordable laneway houses while integrating this prefab idea.

Lanefab built the first laneway house in Vancouver, can you let us know how that came about?

Mat and I started Lanefab in March of 2009, however the laneway housing bylaw wasn’t formally approved by the city until August so those first several months we weren’t even sure if we were going have a business or not based on how the vote went.  The new legislation would permit the construction of 500-1000-square foot homes in place of alley-facing garages that were on most existing properties.  We were still running around trying to line up potential clients, and we got five different sets of clients on board.  

One of those clients had a nice corner site that had great design sensibility, so we decided to push hard on their project and get it completed.  It was a two-storey, single bedroom, 710-square-foot home that opens on to an alley on McGill and Slocan Streets in East Vancouver.  We worked a lot of long hours, and we were able to have an open house on Mother’s Day in May 2010.  There was a huge interest in that first project, and we had lineups literally up and down the block for two days because people were so curious about what these laneway houses were.  

And Lanefab also built the first Net-Zero Solar Laneway House in 2012 correct?

We did. It was a 1020 square foot, one bedroom, 2 bath infill project that was on an existing lot.  The house was built using SIP panels, 95% LED lighting, a 500 gallon in-ground rainwater tank, heat recovery ventilator, with 12 solar panels installed on the roof.

Can you tell us about your Prefab Building System & The Lanefab Hybrid Wall?

Our hybrid wall system balances the best benefits of cost and performance.  The system also works well on urban sites with restrictive zoning codes, and with a wide range of exterior and interior finishes.  Our standard hybrid wall has an insulation value of R38 and is a combination of two walls, the outer structural wall and then the inner service wall.  The outer wall is build using our SIP panels which can be cut to custom sizes and the inner wall that holds the homes electrical and plumbing.

How do you work with clients throughout the project?

Almost all our projects are our custom builds and clients will come to us with a piece of land, and some general design ideas and concepts.  We start off by listening and discussing what they’re needs, and goals are.  We take a lot of things into consideration and then I’ll generate several conceptual ideas using 3D modeling until we arrive on the right design approach.  After the zoning permit is issued, we provide a fixed price construction contract, and the project gets handed over to Mat and the build team where we’re always in communication with our clients at various stages of the build should they have any questions.

Can you tell us about your key team and how you work together to deliver a project on time and on budget?

We have a dedicated team of residential designers, project managers, interior designers, and carpenters who work closely together to get the most from the design and the quality of the build, and a great team of skilled subcontractors and trades that we work with such as our windows, electrical and drywall partners. 

What are the benefits of a passive house? 

Passive House is a certification system administered by the PHI (Passive House Institute) in Germany and is the only internationally recognized performance-based energy standard in construction.  It’s a standard that achieves five passive house principles: thermal bridge free design, superior windows, ventilation with heat recovery, quality insulation and airtight construction.  It’s the only global system for energy efficient buildings where the goal is to create a home or building that uses 90% less energy for heating compared to a typical house.  We decided that we wanted green building to be part of our brand and wanted to build better than standard code.

What type of architecture inspires you?

We like to bring together a blend of West Coast modernism with some elements of Scandinavian modern and traditional Japanese design and bring those passive house elements which is about compact massing, and super airtight construction.  Our preference is to use thick walls, efficient windows, and solar strategies. We really love the mid-century modern case study houses that were done in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s. They were well designed, but they weren’t very efficient or well adapted to a cold climate. We’re always trying to keep some of those ideas about indoor and outdoor living while combining those ideas that come from passive house building.

How are you embracing innovation and new technologies into your projects?

One of the reasons we like being a design build company is the business is sort of like a rolling R&D process and we’re always trying out new things whether it’s prefab systems, drain water, heat recovery, or rainwater.  We’re always working on trying to optimize that we converse with a kind of global network of designers who are also working on passive house, and we share ideas, and we’re also working with the city on their incentives and removing barriers so we’re always trying to work with the city to make the process better for everybody.

What are some of your current projects and what’s in store for Lanefab in the future?

Currently in Vancouver were doing a lot of passive houses and net zero duplexes. A lot of them have suites in them so essentially, it’s a four-plex. But what we’re really excited about is that the City of Vancouver recently adopted a new plan for the city to allow as many as six homes to be built on any residential lot in the city as part of its plan to find ways to make more housing accessible so we’re building a lot of prototypes for small multi-family passive houses. 

We’ve been at it for thirteen years now and we resisted growing just for growth’s sake. We got into this because we really enjoyed the processes of designing and building and if we went into a growth mode than we then we would basically just be doing project management and there are other companies that have gone that route and they tend to lose some of the focus on green building, innovation, and design.  I think we will continue to just do interesting work; however, I would like to grow into more of this multi-family housing because it is the future of where we need to go with our cities if we want to deal with climate change and affordability.