They are not your granny’s flats. When Toronto approved the rules for building homes on the city’s more than 300 kilometres of laneways one year ago, the new housing was frequently described as secondary suites, a term that suggested the homes would be the above-ground equivalent of a basement apartment.
That is not what Joel Leon of Denegri Bessai Studio envisions.
He thinks laneway homes create an opportunity to build exciting new streetscapes along city alleyways that are currently used mostly for parking and service vehicles.
Leon led a tour of three laneway homes and an infill house Tuesday, organized by the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), the home construction industry group.
“The whole point is that one day laneways would be beautiful, narrow streets with a European flavour,” Leon said.
Although many homeowners include parking in their laneway home plans, there is no requirement for car space. Instead the city requires two bike parking spots, he said.
The rules are, “very much guided towards a more pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly Toronto,” he said.
Leon says the lanes themselves will become wider as they are increasingly used for housing because laneway homes have a 1.5-metre setback from the property lines, compared to a one-metre setback for the garages that are there now.
Most homeowners considering a laneway house are looking at it as family space, and are often parents concerned their children won’t be able to afford housing in the future, he said. Many laneway homes have a connection to the main house, sometimes through shared garage space.
But they are also being built as investments for rental and, in some cases, can be bigger than the street-facing house.
No one has yet asked the city for a lot severance so they can sell a laneway house separately from the main house, Leon said. That would require applying to the Committee of Adjustment and the owner would have to make the difficult argument that the laneway home fits with the character of the surrounding neighbourhood.
But, “Who knows what council will vote for in 20 years,” he said.
Seen as low-hanging fruit in the fight to address the city’s housing shortage, laneway housing represents “very gentle densification,” said Leon, whose company is in the permit process for two laneway homes, with another six on the way. But the strict technical requirements, mean they aren’t feasible for every lot.
Laneway homes can be up to eight metres wide and will, in some cases, be bigger than the street-facing house. In the case of a skinny lot, the eight metres could cover the full width of the property.
For fire access, they require at least a one-metre-wide passage from the street or be within 45 metres of a main street — so toward the end of the laneway.
The space between the two houses has to be 85 per cent “softscape,” such as grass, plants or gravel that are porous for rain water.
“By the time you do a walkway to connect the laneway house to the front yard, you have probably eaten your 15 per cent of (allowable) hardscape,” Leon said.
Decks are considered hardscape which presents a challenge because in older Toronto homes the doors can be several feet off the ground.
“It requires a rethinking of how we use our backyards,” Leon said.
The city has issued only 12 building permits for laneway suites but another 25 applications are in the permit review process. Those are among 102 preliminary project review applications and 36 minor variance applications to date.
Three laneway homes and an infill house
Owners Jeffrey and Shelley Lim live with family and rent out their street-facing home. They expect to do the same with the two-storey, 1,400-square-foot laneway house that is supposed to be complete in October. Although it will have a basement, the laneway house rules prohibit that space being used as living quarters.
“The new home is quite massive but it could have actually gone another metre into the yard,” said architect Michael Baytman, who on Tuesday was on-site where there’s currently a hole in the ground, in a laneway near Bloor and Keele Sts.
Because the rules don’t allow a carport, the second storey will be cantilevered over a minimally sized parking spot. The Lims are going to the Committee of Adjustment so they can put a canopy above the entrance and the parking spot. Baytman says there are generous windows on both the yard-facing and the laneway-facing sides of the new home.
The lot, which has more than a metre of clearance between the neighbouring house, is ideal for laneway construction, Leon said. But, because of the softscaping requirements, the deck on the back of the main home will likely have to be torn down.
The antithesis of a granny flat, this 1,500-square-foot family home is virtually indistinguishable from the garages and other buildings facing this east-end alley. Access is through an exterior corridor that opens into a bright, modern great room with a spacious office area to one side.
“This project was the transformation of an illegal, one-bedroom apartment into a two-storey unit,” said Sarah Donaldson, an intern architect with Craig Race Architects, which completed the home last year.
The project, which went to Committee of Adjustment back in 2013, predates the new laneway rules and would not conform to all the current requirements.
The master bedroom is on the second floor of the home where there is also a laundry and bathroom. The second bedroom on the first floor is outfitted with bunk beds for children of the family that is renting the house.
There is a large deck between the front and rear houses. It steps down to a generous sitting area.
The home of laneway house advocate University of Toronto architecture professor Brigitte Shim isn’t strictly speaking a laneway house because it’s not located on the back of a street-facing house. Its privacy-driven sunken design is built on a scrap of land down a lane that is neighboured by garages and back yards.
Leon gave Shim full marks for walking the talk by building the kind of home she envisioned in a book she co-authored in 2004, Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture and Urbanism in Toronto.
The house won the Governor General’s Medal for Excellence for Architecture in 1994.
“The fact that she created such a great piece of architecture really elevated that conversation. It wasn’t these little back buildings, it was award-winning, worthy architecture,” he said.
Shim’s book, written with Donald Chong, says it was intended as “a catalyst for emergent possibilities for intensification.”
Included on the BILD tour as an example of sustainable, urban infill housing, the home’s occupant is architect Craig Race, whose company, Lanescape, wrote the laneway house policy.
Race bought the neighbouring house on a double-wide lot. Originally intended to be a semi-detached house, it remained a single because there was an underground river beneath the property that required some “tricky foundation work” on the new build.
The shingled front of the house was purposefully curved “to reconcile the streetscape setbacks between the two neighbours,” said Race, who designed and occupies the house. It also allowed a walkout to the basement apartment, he said.
Race called the building envelope “airtight.” The triple-paned, insulated-frame windows mean that even on cold days the interior of the windows are 18 C. Even the doggy door has airtight tape to reduce heat loss.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski