Calgary to test seniors' laneway housing in New Year

The University of Calgary, the city and Alberta Health Services will begin testing a pilot project in January that could help seniors age in their own communities instead of hospitals or long-term care facilities.

Tiny, backyard houses are touted as cheaper alternative to hospitals and long-term care facilities

An artistic rendering of the laneway home designed by University of Calgary environmental design students and researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine. (University of Calgary/YouTube)

A pilot project that could someday alter the lives of many Calgary seniors has been given the green light by the city.

In January the University of Calgary will place its first temporary laneway house behind an inner city home.

An older individual or older couple will reside there for several months while information is collected about the impact that this aging-in-place unit has on the surrounding neighbourhood.

Then a test unit will be tried in a different area of the city later in 2017.

Affordable and portable

The 460-square-foot living quarters behind a family home is touted as a cheaper alternative to a hospital or long-term care facility.

"They share a backyard, they can look after some informal childcare, they're able to just walk across the lawn to get to dinner. Family members have the peace of mind to know that if somebody is ill, that they're just right there," John Brown, one of the architects involved with the pilot, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday.

The homes could be self-contained or have an above ground "umbilical cord" that could tap into water, heat, electricity, cable and internet from main home.

John Brown an architect with Housebrand and a professor with the University of Calgary's faculty of environmental design. (Submitted)

Senior students from the U of C's faculty of environment design and researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine have been working on prototypes for the last three years.

"Right now the feedback is very, very positive. It outshines most apartments and certainly all long-term care facilities," Brown said.

If the pilot project goes well the plan is to lease future laneway homes to families — similar to other medical equipment such as a wheelchair or heart-rate monitor.

When the unit is no longer needed it can be moved to another property and used by another senior.

"So you're amortizing the costs of not only the structure but all of the sophisticated medical and monitoring equipment that are going into that house over a much, much, longer period of time," Brown said.

The prototype was designed with senior residents in mind. (Junette Huynh/University of Calgary)

Temporary medical housing

The first laneway house will likely be located on a property where a backyard suite is already allowed. In this case a development permit will be required, followed by building and trade permits.

However if there was ever a situation where a unit was requested on a property that  does not allow backyard suites, the homeowner would have to apply for an amendment to the land use bylaw.

Coun. Andre Chabot says the city is glad to support the project by finding a way to make it work as a temporary use designation.

"We may need to create a second or a unique land use designation for this sort of medical type housing because it is in essence a medical type housing."

Not intended for snowbirds

According to the report that went before a city committee on Monday, seniors make up 10 per cent of Calgary's current population. That number is expected to double by 2026.

However Brown said the laneway homes being built by the University of Calgary are not intended for healthy, independent seniors looking for affordable housing solutions.

"It's something that is going to require a physician's signature in order to even be considered. We're not looking at older individuals that jet off to Florida for the winter," said Brown.

"This is about a loved one who is old and frail and needs some community support."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener