Flocking together | Squamish Chief

Flocking together

How cluster housing project Hummingbird Lane has spread its wings since its inception and what it means for the future of such housing in Squamish

Nested on Finch Drive is a pocket community unlike other neighbourhoods in Squamish. It’s been five years since Hummingbird Lane, a joint venture that saw a two-acre property divided into eight lots, came home to roost.

The Chief caught up with Deborah McQueen, the original creator of the project, to talk about how the residents of Hummingbird Lane have landed.

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Won’t you be my neighbour?

Four founding families came together to start the pocket community through rezoning, then added two more during the subdivision stage.

The final two lots were sold later. Many of the owners initially learned about the project — which was done without the help of developers or realtors — by word of mouth. One family were the McQueens’ former neighbours, and another heard of the pocket community from McQueen’s massage therapist.

Currently, 30 people live on the two acres, including McQueen’s daughter’s family. McQueen and her husband haven’t built on their lot yet, due to an illness in the family. Their plans have since changed so that their son will build a house on their lot, with an in-law suite for the couple. When The Chief visited Hummingbird Lane, McQueen was waiting for the family’s building permit to be approved.

While the idea of a pocket community or communal living is not new, Hummingbird Lane is the first of its kind in Squamish. The families wanted to be able to have their own homes, but in a more affordable way. They each own their lot, as well as one-eighth of the property, sharing in the communal spaces.

“The idea is that you buy one lawnmower instead of eight and you share the work that needs to be done on the property,” McQueen said.

Ruffled feathers

When it was first proposed, the project ruffled some feathers, with a few nearby residents worried that the rezoning would open the floodgates for densification and change the rural nature of the area. McQueen said a petition against the subdivision once gathered around 200 signatures, but she said many of those signatures came from outside of Squamish. One of Hummingbird Lane’s main opponents in the neighbourhood, McQueen added, has since moved away from the area — selling when the market prices increase.

“I get it. They really didn’t want their neighbourhood to change,” she said. “But, the downside was, it was going to change. It was just a matter of time and who would start that change. We had hoped — can’t guarantee that this is going to happen — we had hoped that this kind of lower density model might kind of inform planning that there are gentler ways of densifying an area, without saying ‘Wham, we’re going to put in a subdivision and put in 33 homes,’ like they did down on Kingfisher. We were saying, why can’t you have a mix of models in this area as it becomes more densified?”

McQueen said they don’t feel opposition from their neighbours anymore.

“From the perspective of trying to respect and honour nature, I think we’ve done a fairly good job,” she said.

Bird’s eye view

The original vision statement for Hummingbird Lane included nine key objectives: Affordable housing, enhanced riparian and green space, reduced building footprint, lower density community living, increase District tax base, no District maintenance of service, energy efficiency, progressive building models and food security.

“I think we have achieved all but that one point of food security,” McQueen said.

While four of the homes have gardens on their lot, the original intention was to use the area between the properties as a garden to grow food for the eight families and then some. McQueen said the green area along the front of the property could also become a food garden.

“It is a wonderful place for kids,” she said of the strip of green between some of the homes, “but so are gardens. I am hopeful that that’s still to come.”

Each home is distinct, McQueen said. “In the early stages, pretty much everybody valued uniqueness. We didn’t want it to look like your typical subdivision where these are the three building schemes you have, and you get two choices of colour.”

A local architect who lives in Hummingbird Lane designed four of the homes, including his own.

“Even though he did the designing, each house has employed its own various things to make it more efficient.”

One is a structurally insulated panel house, its thick walls cutting down heating costs. Another home is a cross-laminated timber frame pre-built in Europe. For green building measures,  several have heat pumps or a wood stove, and all have a metal roof. None of the homes have air conditioning.

“Any more progressive ways of building green were encouraged, also based on budget. For some people, they did the best that they could.”

There were some changes to the original plan, including District requirements such as the riparian buffer around the property and a rain garden that replaced trees that had to be removed.

The perimeter road is larger than McQueen would like, and was originally preferred to be more like a meandering country road rather than the paved version they have now. 

“We have all of our own stormwater management, just as if it was a municipal road. All our own services — the District does not have to do anything here, which we thought was a huge benefit as well. No extra costs to the District. In fact, the opposite: increased revenue for the District because there was one house here,” McQueen said.

She said if there was anything she could change, it would be how large the homes could be. All were given a maximum of a 1,600 square foot footprint, but McQueen said they didn’t consider the impact of building a second storey or suite. She said those are the most divisive issues Hummingbird Lane residents have had to deal with.  

There goes the neighbourhood

If other people in Squamish are considering cluster housing options, McQueen said she wants them to see it with open eyes.

When asked what advice she would give to others exploring a similar housing option, McQueen said, “I think I would be really clear on my own values. Super clear, upfront. Do I have an expectation that this simply can’t fulfill for me?”

She’d also recommend finding a good setting and keeping an eye on what it may look like in the future.

Plans for the Loggers East neighbourhood are now before the District council, as the sub-area plan determines the layout and uses of the area.

“You’re going to see more of the change to this area, as we get through the sub-area plan. I think it’s really important to keep some of the charm of this area. The fact that, two properties down, it’s industrial,” she said. “Everybody seems to be able to coexist.”

Usually people pick their neighbourhood, and not necessarily their neighbours. Not so for Hummingbird Lane.

 “I always knew it would be also a social experiment, and it was,” McQueen said.

“I still truly believe it works and can work.”

 

An introduction to cluster housing

This term generally refers to houses that are grouped close together. In the case of Hummingbird Lane, a plot of land was subdivided into individual parcels, which allowed for several homes to be grouped close together.

In smaller towns that still have rural areas, such as Squamish, cluster housing can be a way to maximize the use of larger plots, fitting several houses on land that may have previously only had one home on them. Often, they have a common greenspace.

This form of housing closely resembles villages of old that had common grazing areas for agriculture, so it's not a new idea.

There are a number of potential gains that can be had from this type of housing.

Shared open spaces in these developments can be good for conservation and wildlife or agriculture. In the case of Hummingbird Lane, the goal was to have a community garden that would allow residents to grow their own food. That dream hasn't been realized yet, but a long open space in the development still could be used for that idea one day.

Grouping homes together could potentially save on infrastructure costs. Their close proximity could mean a reduced initial investment for items like roads and utility lines.

From a cultural aspect, the closer proximity of the houses and shared common areas implies that people will be spending more time with their neighbours. Assuming everyone gets along, this could enhance the sense of community in the area.

In the case of Hummingbird Lane, Deborah McQueen spoke of how children in the development were able to play together in a safe environment.

A cluster development may take some extra work and co-ordination, however.

During planning, there may be more effort required for the lot and home layout to ensure the houses are closer together while still ensuring open-space goals are met.

There must be buy-in from all the neighbours on how to manage and maintain common space and the management of wastewater must be carefully designed for smaller lots.

Aerial view

Jonas Velaniskis, the District’s director of planning, said that Hummingbird Lane didn’t quite measure up to the municipality’s expectations of affordability.

This, he said, was due mainly to the size of the houses that were eventually built. He also noted the greenspace proposal didn’t come to fruition either.

“The Hummingbird Lane vision that we had when this rezoning was going through didn’t actually materialize,” said Velaniskis, who started working at the District during the tail end of this project’s rezoning process.

When the rezoning came in, the proposition was for small manufactured homes with a large greenspace community garden in the middle.

“What we got was — if you look at the home sizes in that area, the homes are fairly large. They are by no means affordable. And the greenspace hasn’t been built yet….This development on Hummingbird doesn’t strike me as at all unique or something that we would want to replicate.”

However, that doesn’t mean cluster housing developments are out of the picture for the municipality.

Velaniskis said that the future Loggers East subarea plan may pursue cluster housing in that area in the form of small cottage-style units.

“If we were to do it again, we would be looking at limiting the house sizes.”

Adding centralized parking would also be a key consideration in the future. That way it could fit more housing units and be more affordable, he said.

He said that the Amblepath development is a better example of one using cluster housing principles, as its housing units are cheaper, the area is more compact and it has a centralized daycare.

The relatively undeveloped rural character of Loggers Lane East gives room for a diversity of housing forms to exist there, he said.

He noted the municipality has an interest in encouraging alternate forms of detached houses, as the traditional single-family home becomes more and more unattainable.

Flying the coop

Former mayor Patricia Heintzman told The Chief in an email that the project didn’t live up to its expectations, but was a needed pioneer.

“Yes — we need to encourage this housing choice. Yes — it is better for the environment, yet still produces more tax revenue than single-family homes per inch of infrastructure. Yes — it will require a different mindset and leadership from [the District of Squamish],” said Heintzman, who’s now working with a company to try and bring a cottage cluster housing development to town. 

“No — Hummingbird lane did not succeed in becoming a pocket neighbourhood, but it was a learning experience and a necessary first step.”

Heintzman was mayor at the time the development proposal was being deliberated on by council. However, she recused herself from the discussions, as friends of hers were behind the project.

Like Velaniskis, she said Hummingbird Lane is in many ways a typical strata-type subdivision.

In addition to noting the large housing sizes and lack of common gardening space, she observed there is a paved road passing through the development, which is contrary to the character of a pocket neighbourhood. 

By her account, a cluster housing development should have small houses, no roads, gentle density and shared spaces.

She noted that municipal staff in charge of fire rescue, engineering and buildings can sometimes have trouble adjusting standard protocols to accommodate this novel housing method.

For example, Heintzman said that District fire requirements forced Hummingbird Lane to build a road throughout the entire lot, when the property owners preferred a country lane.

“This absolutely kills the vibe and intention of a pocket neighbourhood,” she said.

“What will really kill developments like this from happening in the future are building, fire and engineering. These developments will require a different way of thinking than we have done in the past. It will require engineers and fire rescue to come up with different solutions.”

She recommended that the District develop a specific cottage cluster zone to help guide these types of developments in the future.

Flying forward

Squamish isn’t alone in trying out cluster housing developments.

SFU professor Meg Holden says while the model isn’t popular in Canada, this housing form is popping up in Vancouver, Delta and a few other places on the West Coast.

She pointed to the Southlands development in Delta, which has townhomes, cottages and condos, as one prominent example of what some are calling “agricultural urbanism.”

“It’s a model where you want to minimize your footprint on the land in order to maximize other kinds of uses,” said Holden. “You want to maximize the possibility for...co-use...of the common lands.”

She said cluster housing is one way to come up with the look and feel of detached homes, but still be easier to pay off. However, it will never match the affordability of, say, a micro-unit, which is housing of about 350 square feet or less in size.

“You need to have something in common with your neighbours,” said Holden, adding one of the main challenges is to find agreement on how things like common spaces are used.

Holden said adding diversity to housing types, such as cluster housing, is necessary as real estate prices rise.

“Adding in a diversity of housing types, including things like cluster types — which have appeal, because they’re something that’s not so common to see — is a good move while a municipality still has the land to do it. Because, pretty soon... high rise developments are going to be the standard even for a community like Squamish.”

Diversity is necessary because several novel housing types are being piloted as the single-family home becomes out of reach, she said. It’s unclear which ones will work in Canada in the long run.

“There’ve been trials with skinny towers,” said Holden. “Those lead to some growing problems as we’re seeing now in Vancouver with insurance companies being unwilling to insure older condo buildings now.”

That can be one reason why it may not be best to blanket a community in one type of housing that’s perceived to be affordable and spatially efficient, like high-rise condos.

“Maybe it’s efficient in one order of calculation, but in the lifespan, maybe not,” she said.

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