A generation ago, some of Toronto’s most creative architects worked to build houses in the weed-filled back laneways of the old city. These strips of underused land – lined with rotting garages and the odd workshop – seemed fertile territory for design innovation.
But the landscape has changed. After decades of advocacy from the design community, Toronto broadly legalized laneway houses in 2018. Today there are dozens of them in construction. Unfortunately, most of the new laneway houses are not especially beautiful or interesting.
The home of Suzanne and Jeff Wilkinson is an exception. Designed by Betsy Williamson of WilliamsonWilliamson architects, this two-storey dwelling displays spatial creativity and a high level of craft. It’s serious architecture that shows how the fabric of the city can be patched and repurposed.
The Wilkinsons live with their three teenagers in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood. Their four-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot dwelling occupies the back of a 30-foot-wide lot. From the street, you can look down the driveway to see a dormer and a wall of Toronto red brick – but as you approach, you see that the wall has an irregular pattern in which bricks stretch outward at 30- or 60-degree angles.
This is a clever play on traditional materials and craftsmanship. It reflects the larger idea of the house. “It’s doing something slightly unusual within the fabric of Toronto,” Ms. Williamson explains, “and also adding density.”
The homeowners are well suited for this kind of experimentation. Suzanne is a prominent interior designer, a principal at the firm Figure3, while Jeff runs a construction company that builds multi-family buildings.
They bought the property – an old house with a large garage – while planning a new home for their blended family. The lot was wide and deep enough to accommodate a sizable new dwelling. “They were willing to move to the back,” their architect explains, “but with this arrangement, you still feel like you have a front door. You’re not ancillary to the regular houses on the street.”
Within the house, Ms. Williamson’s architecture turns the typical arrangement of domestic spaces upside down. The second floor holds the kitchen, dining and living spaces, which enjoy views toward the street and toward the tree-lined laneway. Oblique rays from a long skylight dance across white-oak millwork. “This elevates us so that, in the summer months, we are living in the trees,” Ms. Wilkinson explains.
The main floor holds three bedrooms, each with built-in storage to maximize space. The basement, unusually, holds the couple’s primary bedroom; a lightwell brings southern sunlight down into the room. Tall 9 1/2-foot ceilings, a restrained palette of terrazzo-pattern ceramic and more white oak create an atmosphere of grandeur and comfort. Highly insulated walls and tightly designed mechanical systems help; Mr. Wilkinson describes the building’s guts as “very similar to a commercial building, rather than a house.”
But the key to its success is the arrangement of spaces. It’s a sort of architectural magic trick to fit a sizable dwelling into a tight lot.
In this respect, the house represents the completion of a long cycle in Toronto urbanism and architecture.
Laneways were everywhere in Toronto’s early neighbourhoods, used for servicing and occasionally for dwelling. But in the early 20th century, public officials saw living in the lane as unsanitary and undesirable. Such houses were, effectively, banned. Laneways became quiet places for garages, sheds and the occasional grandfathered workshop.
Then came the architects. Among them, the young couple Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe – today some of the most decorated architects in the country – completed their own laneway house in 1993. It is a tightly detailed house that, like the Roncesvalles project, plays a form of three-dimensional chess. Ms. Williamson knows it well; she worked for years at Shim-Sutcliffe Architects.
Finally, the current generation of laneway houses followed the 2018 rule change. There are hundreds either complete or in construction now. This is a positive trend, allowing households to find bonus space or provide a rental unit on their property.
The Wilkinsons do just that. The older house on their property is now two rental apartments, plus a basement space that the family uses as an extension of their home. Three-and-a-half units on a single lot is significant, especially since many affluent homeowners in this area are renovating buildings to remove apartments. (Which is, unfortunately, legal.)
However, this sort of gentle density is very much a niche phenomenon. Some advocates argued that laneway housing would add to the city’s housing supply and improve affordability. This was never realistic. The numbers are too small, and building is expensive. Today Ms. Williamson estimates the minimum construction cost for a four-bedroom laneway house at roughly $600,000. “And these are ultimately bespoke buildings,” she adds. “Every site is different, and every family is different. The process takes time. Custom houses can only do so much.”
This house, however, sets a high bar for refined spaces and spatial inventiveness. With luck, those qualities will carry through the next generation of big buildings in the city.