Small Spaces Photo Credit: Janis Nicolay

Step by Step: A Laneway House with Big Dreams

How this petite modernist space offers oversized inspiration. 

Jake Fry, principal of Smallworks, is no stranger to dreaming big on a small scale: about a quarter of the houses his design-build firm makes are laneway homes. “We encourage people to approach laneway as a unique form,” he says, “not just take a big home and make it smaller.”

So for his latest project, a laneway for Vancouver homeowners Janet Willson and Chris Zuberec, Fry teamed up with architects Marianne Amodio and Harley Grusko (MA+HG Architects) to push the boundaries of what living small can be. The result is what Fry calls “a little jewel”—though others see the striking modernist building in another light: “The neighbours call it an iceberg,” laughs Amodio. Here’s how this small wonder came together.

laneway house

STEP 1: FIND SOME SURPRISING INSPIRATION

Homeowner Janet Willson practises a form of movement education called Feldenkrais, which provided an interesting jumping-off point for Amodio. “I realized that Feldenkrais is all about structure and bones…so it was a bit of a no-brainer for this laneway house to reveal the structure with a literal spine down the middle,” says the architect. To create it, she installed an oversized Douglas fir glulam beam with fir glulam joists that stretches from one end of the building to the other.

laneway house

STEP 2: KEEP IT CLEAN

The white-on-white finishes create an extremely minimalist space, but it’s one designed to feel “soft and peaceful,” says Amodio. The millworkers at Momentum crafted built-in storage to line the room, so everything is easily tucked out of sight. “You walk in and feel like you can breathe and expand into the space,” says Willson. “It just has a really good feeling.”

STEP 3: TAKE IT TO THE EDGE

Willson wanted a laneway house that could accommodate plenty of visitors—whether for Willson’s annual wreath-making party or the couple’s wine and cheese fundraiser—so Amodio and Fry took advantage of a bylaw allowing one-storey laneways to take up a larger footprint and pushed the square footage to the limit. Then they took the function to the edge of the building to create a wide-open space inside with plenty of flexibility: a kitchen was installed on the perimeter, and a compact washroom and Murphy bed are hidden behind sliding doors when not in use. Tall ceilings help visually expand the room, too, playing on a traditional gable structure to show off the beautiful beams.

laneway house

STEP 4: …BUT DON’T FORGET TO NOD TO NATURE

The laneway is enveloped in the garden, with plants peeking through every window to bring a hit of nature in. The shrubs also help create some separation from the main house: “We wanted it to feel private for everyone,” Willson explains.

laneway house

STEP 5: ADD THE FINISHING TOUCHES

“People visiting the space are surprised that although it is modern and completely white, they almost universally walk in and say it feels nice and comfortable and inviting,” says Willson. A concrete floor features in-floor heat and is coated in white epoxy with a mottled finish, and a Marimekko bench in the bay window adds just a hint of colour to the otherwise all-white space. They’re small details but ones that add a sense of warmth.

STEP 6: EMBRACE THE ART OF LIVING SMALL

The complete laneway acts as a guest suite right now, but its primary purpose is to give the couple flexibility for the future. “At this stage of life, when your kids are sort of leaving the nest, there’s a freedom in the idea of having less stuff, less to look after,” says Willson. “My friends walk inside and a lightbulb goes on.”

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