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One of the most appealing aspects of the new Laneway House movement in Vancouver BC is the opportunity to build in a new way using low environmental impact technologies.  While ‘The Not So Big House’ book managed to bring the small house to the popular imagination in 2001, building small, efficient dwellings goes back to our first neolithic efforts to create shelter. To their credit Vancouver’s early (post neolithic) Laneway builders, like Smallworks, have made significant progress in going green by using heat recovery ventilation and many other green technologies.  Yet a truly ‘off the grid’ option has not been achieved and is not even allowed within the current by-laws.  As such, EcoDensity is more about density and less about Eco than the name implies.

To address this discrepancy the City of Vancouver must make good on the environmental potential of Laneway Houses.  A simple way to envisage this change is to treat the LH as an Urban Cottage. Like its country cousin the Urban Cottage would be designed for almost  complete self sufficiency and shoot for net zero water and energy consumption. Not only does this make the Vancouver Laneway house far more sustainable, it also addresses the high costs incurred for hook ups to city sewer and power grids.  So, as usual, environmental and fiscal sustainability are closely related. Treating the Laneway house like a Gulf Island cottage has other benefits.  As we add more and more density we need to build larger and increasingly costly infrastructure to accommodate this growth.  But if the added density is ‘off the grid’ then this endless upgrade cycle can be avoided.  It’s a proverbial win win as both the city and its citizens save money and the environment at the same time.  BUT….the current regulatory regime does not allow it.  So how do we achieve what we all agree is a worthy goal?

The sheer volume of regulations stacked against off-the-grid power, water and especially sewage treatment is very daunting.  Suffice to say it would take a massive bureaucratic effort to overcome these obstacles, but it is a mistake to think that we can overcome them one regulation at a time.  First we need to change the current regulatory mindset and create a sense of mission that goes beyond elected officialdom.  Remember, its taken a long time and a lot of expertise to achieve the health and safety gains that these regulations embody.  But it is not a  matter of falling short of those laudable intentions.  Rather it is a matter of going beyond them to include a larger vision of health and safety that includes the future of our global environment.  An off-the-grid urban cottage does just that by asking nothing for itself… literally.  That ‘nothing’ includes virtually no impact on its site while adding valuable density.  This may seem like an awful lot of global environmental weight to put on a cute little Laneway house but why not?  They’re already half way to being sustainable by being small, so let’s finish the job.

The Urban Cottage also ties in nicely with the practice of urban agriculture to further increase self sufficiency. Also, as a ‘Failure to Launch Pad’ it will at least feel more isolated from the mother ship albeit conceptually.  A Laneway version of Walden Pond or better yet a water detention moat, would also help.  At any rate, it’s hard to imagine a more snug or smug person than the new urban cottager rising each day to a cup of solar heated, shade grown, free-trade coffee before getting to work in their home based electronic cottage industry.  Zero net water, zero net power, zero net travel and zero net hassle.

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