Post-War Bungalows - 6 Reasons Why They Are Perfect For Adding 2nd Suites - by: Andy M Tran

Circa 1950 single storey post-war bungalows (PWBs) - a defining feature of mid-century's new suburbia. These nondescript, mostly craftsman style structures were an affordable home ownership option for factory workers and returning veterans across North America. Their baby boomer children, often 5 or more of them, were for better or worse living in under 1000 SF with no more than 2 or 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. You heard right, 1 bathroom.

Since the late 60s, the popularity of these homes have diminished in favor of much larger homes, with a focus on interior square footage as opposed to greater yard space. However, in the past decade, a resurgence of interest in PWBs has occurred. This is a result of a redefined demarcation line between the major city cores and the suburbs. For example, in the city of the Toronto, the amalgamated cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough are no longer considered to be the suburbs, which is likely only reserved for the 905 area code.

This new found popularity have resulted in massive new homes being built in these PWB communities. The houses are often torn down and turned into mini-mansions because of their generous lot sizes. I think it's a shame to demolish these well-built homes strictly in favor of more floor space. Alternatively there are ways to intensify these neighborhoods with the addition of second or even third suites. This can have massive positive social and economic impacts, which I will discuss in another article. For now, I'll put on my building science hat and explain 6 compelling reasons why they're great for adding second suites.

One Mini-Mansion coming right up!

One Mini-Mansion coming right up!

1. Water Management  

One of the biggest obstacles to healthy and comfortable basement living spaces is water leakage and potential mold buildup. Although PBW basements don't come wrapped in a waterproof membrane like many homes built in the last 30 years, their generous lot sizes allow for proper water management from the source. 

Known to have sizable setbacks from the property line, swales surrounding the house are easily landscaped to properly drain rain water and melting snow. Water from downspouts are directed several feet away from the property, thereby reducing the chance of basement water leakage.

This is perhaps a better strategy than many post 1980 subdivision homes where neighboring properties are in close proximity and water leakage is addressed essentially by turning the house into a boat with a membrane wrapping the foundation. It's even worse with many pre-war urban construction, with dense homes and foundations built with brick and stone without waterproofing.

In many new homes, water from downspout are directed away using concrete splash blocks, since there isn't enough space between neighboring houses

In many new homes, water from downspout are directed away using concrete splash blocks, since there isn't enough space between neighboring houses

2. Larger Lots

The typically wider and deeper lots of PWBs provide several advantages for basement suites.

First, single dwelling intensification is bound to create some animosity with neighbors who only have say, 2 occupants and a dog. The extra few feet of distance may do wonders to mitigate tension with the folks next door.

Second, a larger yard space is ideal for two families, whether they decide to use the space communally or divide it up with a fence. What's left over is likely bigger than what you would get in a new subdivision townhome.

3. Sewer Systems

In many PWB communities, often the sewer systems had been separated for storm (rain) and sanitary (household waste). This meant a more robust sewer system that could easily support a greater density of residents. (1)

Separate sewers also have greater resilience against many of the flash storms we've been getting more of lately. In many of the core urban areas where they are typically combined sewers (shared between sanitary and storm),  heavy downpours have resulted in sewer backups, bringing into the home not only rain, but raw sewage. This is why many cities have asked residents to direct their downspout above grade. They don't want to add more stress to sewers, pay to treat rain as sewage, and risk getting sued from the homeowner for a back up problem. 

4. More Floor Space

This one is simple. PWBs (or any bungalow for that matter) have a large footprint because you need to design all the living spaces onto one floor. This invariably creates more floor space in the basement and therefore makes the space more comfortable and easier to achieve the spatial code requirements of a basement suite.

Contrast this with a 2-storey home where your main living space is divided between the main and second floor. In a bungalow your usable basement space is about half of the total floor area, whereas it would be about a third in a 2-storey home.

5. Side Entrances

PWBs generally have side doors which provide easy access to the main level or the basement. This is conducive to creating a suite that meets the egress requirements of the local building code.

This eliminates expensive basement walkouts that need to be dug out to create a separate entrance. More importantly perhaps is eliminating the awkwardness of sharing the same entrance/foyer with the folks upstairs. Or even worse, having to go through the main unit above, common in many new homes where stairs leading to the basement are in the center of the house.

6. Solid Masonry  

My personal favorite feature of many PWBs of the late 40s to late 60s is the solid masonry construction (aka double brick). This feature is more prevalent in the GTA and other parts of Ontario. 

The fact that many PWBs are solid masonry doesn't have much to do with benefiting basement suites, but rather 2nd storey additions. Generally speaker, the chance of being able to put a second storey on a solid masonry home without having to do expensive foundation work is higher than a wood-framed bungalow. The reason is that the foundation/footing was engineered to withstand the immense weight of the brick structure. This is not true with wood framed bungalows where there is a greater chance of having to spend extra tens of thousands underpinning the footing if you ever wanted to add a second floor.

Half bricks are "headers", placed 90 degrees and used to tie the 2 wythes of brick together - and typically indicates solid masonry

Half bricks are "headers", placed 90 degrees and used to tie the 2 wythes of brick together - and typically indicates solid masonry

The Final Word on PWBs

Of course nothing is perfect, and PWBs are no exception. They have issues, such as poor energy efficiency (2), potentially hazardous materials (3), and generally older systems. But these issues can typically be addressed easily. 

In general PWBs are among the great homes built in the past 100 years. They're don't have many of the big issues associated with century homes (4), nor many of the shoddy construction issues of newer homes (5). These suckers were made to last. You can say they're the Goldilocks of home construction. Not too old, not too new, but just right; especially for adding in a second suite.

Are Post-War bungalows the Goldilocks of construction?

Are Post-War bungalows the Goldilocks of construction?

Thanks for reading! What is your opinion on Post-war bungalows? Tired old houses or revolutionary method of urban intensification? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Notes:

1. Combined sewer diagram and Separated sewer diagram

2. Energy efficiency measures can be achieved in older homes with good attic insulation, double glazed window, and a good amount of wall insulation in the basement

3. Hazardous materials such as asbestos is common in construction older than 1980. Proper abatement must be undertaken during demolition work - in many cases, it may be better to leave in place without disturbing

4. Pre-war homes generally have more issues such as knob-and-tube wiring, potential lead service pipes and galvanized steel pipes - common also are foundations prone to leak

5. New construction often uses many inferior products compared with older homes (e.g. OSB sheathing compared with solid planks, or PEX plumbing vs copper plumbing)