March 8, 2019

Let’s Get Small: Jake Fry on Building a New Housing Typology

This is the creation story of laneway housing in Vancouver…and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the Bartholomew era of restrictive zoning.

The protagonist is Jake Fry, a self-proclaimed — metaphorical, mind you — child of Trudeau, who grew up in small-town Ontario and attended a one-room schoolhouse. His real education might have come half a kilometre underground; coming from a family of miners, this is where Fry learned hard skills, carpentry first and foremost among them. This ultimately led him to Toronto, and a career in construction in film and television. It also afforded him the means to travel.

So when he and his family eventually moved west, his world view was informed by an intimate knowledge of older, denser places, and an appreciation for living light. He began to work in housing construction, and then one day it all came together. As Fry tells it, he literally lay his tools down in the middle of a job. No more. Time to do something different. Something small.

“Small is Beautiful” was the name of a book by British economist E. F. Schumacher which may be unfamiliar to an entire generation of young people who, nonetheless, live out its values today. The idea that ‘small works’ informed an ethos for Fry, which fomented into a vision of a new type of housing. Small housing, a type that suggests a home can be just enough to meet your needs. Not necessarily a restrictive, one-size-fits-all checklist — ‘just enough’ could mean something different to everybody — but the idea that we might need to start building homes differently.

Fry founded SmallWorks, and speaking the language of EcoDensity, the sustainability strategy created under former mayor Sam Sullivan’s administration, he softly, steadily, surely began to lobby Vancouver City Hall. The objective? To change the rules restricting the building of secondary housing forms — additional density — on lots with existing primary residences.

It worked, and in 2009 laneway housing was legalized. In the decade since, Fry has developed an entire portfolio of laneway homes, co-founded non-profit Small Housing BC (with Bob Ransford of developer Century Group), and is about to release a study showing the economic and environmental advantages of small homes. There’s almost literally nothing standing in his way.

Except, maybe, politics.

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