As Toronto grows by 100,000 people a year, it often seems that the city will have to grow up, literally. In many neighbourhoods, the building of high-rise condominiums seems like a simple necessity.
But a pair of local architects has another idea: thousands of inexpensive houses that could fit into established neighbourhoods without disrupting the streetscape. The key is the 300 km of alleys that knit together Toronto's older neighbourhoods. It's Laneway Toronto, and it may be the future of housing in the city.
That's the idea behind a new report by Jeffery Stinson and Terence Van Elslander. The two architects and
U of T professors have developed a series of designs that would allow the city to add more housing in back lanes. Even more interesting is the price tag: $100,000 for a new home.
Their report, commissioned by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, calls for 5,000 laneway homes to be built in Toronto's alleyhoods. "People want to live in their own dwellings and live in a neighbourhood, close to the ground," Van Elslander says. "Toronto is stuck between houses and very large buildings. And since land is so expensive, developers want to build as large as possible. So I think we need to look at the other end of the scale for new possibilities."
Stinson and Van Elslander studied an area on the west side of downtown, between Queen and Bloor, Spadina and Dufferin. They found potential sites on nearly every block; the report estimates the city's lanes have space for about 5,000 houses. And that, Van Elslander says, is a conservative number.
Interestingly, there are plenty of precedents. Laneways are important places in the city's imagination, but many Torontonians may be surprised to learn that laneway houses have a long history here. They're as old as the city itself, and were common until planning was tightened in the 1950s. "Toronto still has a lot of laneway houses that have been built in the past, or else built illegally," Van Elslander says. In their study area, the architects found about 90 examples, ranging from 1870s cottages to refitted garages. "Many of them are quite charming," Van Elslander says. "They show a lot of invention."
The report calls on architects, and adventurous homebuyers, to show the same kind of invention in developing new houses. To point the way, they suggest four designs geared to the most common types of laneway lots.
The houses are planned using standard components -- like industrial windows and roofs -- that allow for solid but inexpensive construction. A property owner could build one of these houses for as little as $90,000, including design fees. Some would be rentals, and others could be owner-occupied; homeowners could move into their own backyards.
Of course, this wouldn't be simple. Building in a laneway is complex: bringing in construction materials, and then services, can be challenging. But the biggest problems are administrative. Building in a laneway frequently requires variances from bylaws, which means negotiating with nervous neighbours at a local committee of adjustment. "There are often cultural problems," Van Elslander explains. "Many people feel that there's something wrong with someone who wants to live in a lane." Beyond that, a builder needs to get approvals from several city departments; it's a laborious, expensive process that can take years to complete. "No reasonable person would want to go through that," says Van Elslander.
For that reason, most laneway homes of the last 20 years have been built by architects for their own use: they are, in Van Elslander's phrase, "art houses." Notable examples include Shim/Sutcliffe's Craven Road House, in the east end, and Stinson's own project in Kensington Market.
In the early '80s, Stinson bought a cottage in a Kensington laneway, "because it was downtown and it was cheap," he says. The group of rundown garages next door, owned by the family behind Perlmutter's Bakery, was a tempting building site. He began working on a house plan in 1987, but it took two years of bureaucracy before he could go ahead with the building. "There were a whole lot of reasonable rules, particularly if they applied to the suburbs," he says. "But none of them applied to this block of land."
After plenty of redesigns, the project went ahead, and Stinson moved into the 2,000-square-foot house in 1989. The final cost: just over $250,000. And he was very happy with life there. "In the laneways, there's a remarkable quiet," he says. "It's like another little world in there, very different than the toughness of the outer streets."
Aside from the benefits to their owners, laneway houses have some obvious advantages for city planning. Because they use existing infrastructure, the cost to the city is almost zero; increased taxes and development charges help support local services and schools. And, as Stinson explains, "they're good neighbours. They don't destroy neighbourhoods; they just give them a few more people."
Densification is now city policy, and the report suggests that the planning process be streamlined. The city planning department is looking at the report, and Stinson and Van Elslander hope to see some new criteria for laneway houses, and at least one model house built, by next year. "From there, we should be in a position to change the laws and make it a lot easier to do this," Stinson says.
If that happens, the architects are convinced that this could be a source of affordable housing. Stinson recalls the hijacking of loft buildings during the '90s for expensive condominiums; that's unlikely to happen here. The mixed downtown neighbourhoods, and the necessarily small scale of the houses make it unlikely, he says, that "the posh stuff" will dominate. "These are all individual projects," he explains. "It requires dealing with individual builders and property owners, so bigger firms won't be interested."
At this point, the problem is making Toronto more receptive to the idea. "Every other major city in the world has mews houses, or lane houses," Stinson points out. "There's no reason we can't learn to do the same."
It will demand some thoughtful planning. "These laws are difficult to change," Stinson says, "and there are good reasons for that: density, privacy, fire protection -- these are important things. It's just that, 50 years later, we're in a different world, and we need to consider all the possibilities, not just push them aside."