A Home Renovation That Led to a Fight With City Hall

There was no siren, but right away I knew I was busted. I could see the special parking stickers on the SUV as it bounced down my charming pothole-strewn Cedar Cottage laneway. I stood, covered in white house paint, as district building inspector Mike McDiarmid parked, walked up, and said, as nicely as if he were asking for directions, “Are you aware that you need a permit for the work you are doing here?”

“Yes, I am,” I said, trying my best not to throw up on him. He handed me the stop-work order with its severe red type, and took a picture of the back of my house, just days from appearing finished. “Where do we go from here?” I inquired. “You apply for a permit, and if everything is as it should be then you’ll get one.” I bid him good day and sent my carpenters home.

If everything is as it should be. So simple. As simple as taking money out of the bank.

Originally, I figured it would cost me $20,000 to add a 93-square-foot nook to the back of my 1912 Edwardian home, where I could sit and look at my new kitchen cabinets. And the City of Vancouver’s rules and regulations would add, what, another $10,000? So when my dream carpenter Robert and his affable partner Joe told me they could start Monday, I said sure.

That wasn’t the only reason I chose not to apply for a permit. There was the time the city shut off my water while I was having a shower, and the time street tree roots caused a major sewage backup into my basement suite and the city tried to charge me for the cost of determining it was their fault, and the time a city backhoe caused my water supply pipe to burst and they threatened to cut off the service if I didn’t fix it immediately. Once, they rezoned my property without bothering to tell me. When my neighbours applied for a permit to restore their house, the city tried to take 5.5 feet off the end of their lot such that, perhaps a century from now when they’ve done the same thing to everyone on the block, they can widen and pave the alley.

Of course, there is also the fact that I am a lazy, cheap, procrastinating, anti-authoritarian control freak.

After Joe called, I drew up the plans in one evening—clear, to scale, nothing fancy. It’s a kitchen nook with a wee covered porch to one side and a deck on top. It would replace a sprawling, ugly fire escape and deck built in the 1970s when the house was a ramshackle rental property. It would be smaller and smarter.

I showed the plans to my next-door neighbour of nearly 20 years. I call him Newman, although his real name is Third-Grade Ratfink. “Any problems?” None, he said. “Now, Newman,” I persisted, “the fence between our houses is falling down. Let me build a new one. My dime.” He nodded. “And while I’ve got a crew here, your front fence…it needs some work. We’ll fix that up for you.” A blank stare. I looked at his backyard: the cherry tree he hacked up to improve his satellite TV reception; the heap of rotting lumber that harboured skunks and rats. “I’ve got a chainsaw, and I’ll be hauling debris away. Let me clean that stuff up for you.” Okay, he said, and went back to building a shanty-style storage shed against the far side of his house.

In Vancouver’s game of real estate makeovers, I am Monopoly’s Marvin Gardens sandwiched between Baltic and Mediterranean avenues. In 1989, I was one of the first gentrifying influences on my street. On one side was a senile, belligerent old lady. On the other, a crack house with a Rottweiler. Today, my neighbours are the last holdouts against the wave of West Side refugees. Ducktail Bob, I’ll call him, is a former plywood mill employee and heir to an East Van real estate million who spends his days collecting beer cans and feeding peanuts to the seagulls, crows, pigeons, raccoons, squirrels and other vermin. Yet he occasionally reveals the wisdom of an idiot savant. “You don’t own your house,” he told me after the inspector arrived. “You just bought the right to use it the way the city tells you to.”

On the other side I have Ratfink. The day after the stop-work order, I caught his attention across the partly rebuilt fence. “So,” I said. “The city shut me down.”

“Already?” he replied. Then he nervously said the word again and again, as though the repetition might undo the giveaway.

“Why would they do that?” I asked.
“A neighbour phoned to complain,” he said. “Not me. I would never complain. But remember, on Saturday, you were sawing? You shouldn’t work on a Saturday.”

So was my attention turned to the greater authorities at 12th and Cambie, who in due course sent notices and instructions and requests for lot corner elevations, tree drip lines, an energy utilization statement…

The city website’s maze of zoning guidelines, building code rules, and policy update bulletins was both incomplete and impenetrable. How do you calculate the square footage of your house? Measure to the outer extremity, they say. Do eaves count? Depends. Gutters? I’m still not sure. Is the house’s outer extremity the foundation wall, the siding, the corner caps, or the flower boxes? No idea. Yet the boards that cover the siding on the corners add 22.5 square feet to my three-storey house. Include all staircases, they say. Not exterior staircases, but don’t expect them to say so where it might be helpful. When is a covered porch not counted as a covered porch? When it’s the four-by-eight-foot area generally considered a landing. But I caution you, that’s just hearsay. 

Then there are the provincial building and fire codes and their updates, which you’d think would in the public interest be free. Want to build to current standards? Good news! The provincial government has the codes on sale for just $250, with a peek on the Internet going for a mere $75. My computer provides a bootleg of any popular song you can name, but I could not find a free B.C. building code.

So mostly I went with “ask a friend.” Architects, carpenters, planners, the head of wood frame construction for a major Vancouver developer—I am lucky to have such people at my disposal. I squeezed the numbers on square footage (measure to the foundation wall was a key piece of advice) and found myself a whopping 50 feet under the limit. I contemplated various disaster scenarios, worked out lines of plausible deniability, and gathered my papers to visit the city’s Enquiry Centre, where I explained my predicament. “Oh dear,” the young man at the counter said with a troublingly nervous laugh. “I’d better get Shelley.”

Shelley looked at my paperwork, and some photos of the addition, which was expensively attentive to historical detail. “It’s so cute,” she said, and then she said it again. She disabused me of my fear that I’d need an energy utilization assessment. Then her smile disappeared. She pointed at my rendering of the ground, the dirt that lay four feet and a few inches under the seven-by-twelve-foot box. “That,” she said, “is floor space.”

Yes, the area with no walls around it. If the ground were inches closer, it would be fine. Shelley also told me that while my hand-drawn plans were good, I really needed to get professional drawings. “Pay close attention to the grades,” she said. Not with a wink, but I knew what she meant. I would find a way to make a few inches disappear.

I ordered lot elevations from engineering, which the city’s initial instructions required. They wanted $1,400. Of course, my basement suite had never been authorized. The city’s suite inspection team, which examined the whole house,  provided a list of 46 conditions to be remedied. Replace the hydro line to the power pole. Modify the furnace and the hot water tanks. Install three wall plugs in the basement kitchen, and hard-wired smoke and CO2 detectors on every floor. Fix the light in my bedroom closet. Adding just two inches to the height of the basement-suite entry door, so that it almost conforms, required replacing several joists with structural steel, an engineer’s certification, and nearly $3,000.

On the day I submitted for approval my beautiful oversize AutoCAD plans, which cost me rather too much at $2,500, the effervescent and kindly Shelley cocked her head and said, “I didn’t say that you needed professional drawings, did I?” Turns out I didn’t need the elevations either.

So I paid just $900 in development permit application and inspection fees and went home to wait. Then the rats so carefully nurtured by my neighbours moved in, precipitating a wave of noisy killings under my kitchen sink.Six weeks later, I collected my building permits—a mere $700 worth, and just half of that a fine for disrespecting public process. Then Shelley sent me to the engineering office down the street. Something technical, I assumed. When I arrived, I was confronted with the sight of a five-handled shovel, a gift from construction heavyweight Ledcor, mounted on the wall behind the counter. I was asked for a refundable $2,000 deposit against potential damage to city property. But the construction is already finished, I said. It only took me, an employee, and his supervisor to agree that I didn’t need to pay the fee.

Once Robert was back on the job, the carpentry was completed with remarkable efficiency. Inspector McDiarmid came back and continued to prove himself a most straightforward and helpful gentleman. Others were equally practical and generous with good advice.

The renovation is now functionally complete. The kitchen is beautiful, maybe even worth the wait. The addition cost about $23,000, and the city’s involvement cost a little more than $10,000 (about half of which was money well spent). But it’s been two years since I got my permits and I still don’t have final approval. This time, I have only myself and some tradesmen to blame. It took many months to lay the salvaged Commodore Ballroom flooring, and attend to kitchen finishings. My electrician has been to Thailand twice since he started the job. I hope he’ll wrap things up before winter.

Newman is building new piles of debris in his backyard but still occasionally brings me soggy onion rings after mopping at the A&W. Bob has a new family of raccoons, and I still have rats in my attic. Every few months I get a letter from the city that gives me 30 days to conform, but I’ve learned to ignore them, too. I’ve learned to forgive overworked city hall planners and staff hamstrung by poorly stated, incomplete, and often wrong instructions, policies, and procedures. I now understand that when the rules are most annoying—I lost a lovely window for reasons too obtuse to explain—it’s fire risk that ties everyone’s hands.

I’ve also met some new neighbours—a couple down the street to whom I sold a vintage O’Keefe and Merritt stove I’d once intended to restore. I gave them a deal, with the promise that they’d cook dinner for me when it was working again. I helped Tim and his father-in-law load it onto the back of an old pickup.

I learned from their neighbours that Tim is a planner. My planner. The one who overlooked some minor deficiencies in my addition but also took my window away. Perhaps we’ll have dinner if he gets around to restoring that stove. I’ll ask him about his renovation, which includes a laneway house. I heard tell that all did not go well for him with city hall.