When German Antonio Gomez-Decuir and his partner Jesse Watson decided to build a modern laneway home, alongside their heritage property in the northwest Edmonton community of Calder last year, they admit they were unprepared for the attention the project received.
The head-turning home featured a dramatic, polished-steel exterior and textured shingle made from recycled hemp; bold design statements in what Mr. Watson calls "a low-key, conservative community."
"The plan was always to create something that stood apart from the heritage home," explains Mr. Gomez-Decuir. "I think individuality is as important in architecture as assimilation, even in a heritage environment."
Twelve months later and the pair have been even more surprised at the new business their laneway home has won for their firm, Space Squared.
"Some Saturdays, we had 20 people turning up to see what we were doing, especially when we started installing the mirrored exterior," says Mr. Watson, a planner. "The project was really a chance for Antonio to design something that he would probably never get to design for a client but, in the end, it sparked some really interesting conversations about design concepts for heritage neighbourhoods and alternatives to vinyl siding."
The conversation, and subsequent media buzz, piqued the interest of Adam Tassone of Skyward Homes, who contacted them to open a discussion about customized designs. He was eager to see if they could bring some individuality to his skinny homes.
"Skinny homes are becoming more popular in Edmonton and we're seeing an increasing number of developers bringing product to the market," Mr. Tassone says. "It's very competitive, there's no doubt about that, but most developers are working with off-the-peg architecture or architects who are regurgitating the same designs over and over again. I don't want to do that; partly because I think building more creatively gives me a competitive advantage and partly because I think heritage communities deserve better."
Mr. Tassone acquired infill sites in the affluent neighbourhood of Parkview in west Edmonton and the northwest community of Prince Charles, where he has a total of six skinny homes under way.
"We have two in Parkview that we've just finished framing, those will both be two-and-a-half storey with rooftop patio decks with wet bars. That's a layout that not a lot of people have done in skinny homes in Edmonton," Mr. Tassone says.
"The homes also have a recessed porch area that adds dimension to the front facade as well as a community interface," adds Mr. Watson. "It's also a nod to the heritage porches in the Parkview community; as are the recessed, blind windows. We also added sunken living rooms with custom fireplaces, which are pretty unique in a skinny home."
Mr. Tassone says the homes, which have both presold for $780,000, have been well received by the community; one which has previously opposed lot splitting. He's currently awaiting permits to begin construction on two more homes in the same neighbourhood, which will feature entirely new designs.
"The next homes for Parkview will have patterned, red brick facades," says Mr. Gomez-Decuir. "One will have a second storey balcony while the other will have an internal courtyard. We've never seen anyone build a skinny home in Edmonton with an internal courtyard."
Mr. Tassone expects these homes to hit the market next year at $700,000 and $750,000 respectively. Meanwhile, over in Prince Charles, framing is under way for a further pairing of skinny homes.
"I wanted to build a more affordable product for this community," Mr. Tassone says, "so we're putting in legal basement suites, which is unusual for this kind of property. A lot of banks will give home buyers 80 to 100 per cent credit for the rent you can charge for the basement suite, which means the homes will be affordable to a larger number of buyers," he explains.
Mr. Tassone says one of his Prince Charles' skinny homes has already presold and one remains, at $550,000. As with the rest of his portfolio, he's relying on eye-catching design and "realistic pricing" to sell the other one.
"The homes in Prince Charles will have a fully glazed foyer entrance so when you enter the home you'll be able to see right up to the top of the second floor ceiling," Mr. Gomez-Decuir says.
"Like the sunken living room and the courtyard, a vaulted foyer entrance is something which is common in much larger homes but not in a skinny home," he adds. "Other than the small added cost, which we estimate in the region of one to 3 per cent of the cost to build, there's no reason not to add these design features to skinny homes."
Mr. Watson and Mr. Gomez-Decuir hope that seeing more unique skinny homes on Edmonton's streets will persuade people to stop maxing out smaller lot spaces with excessive square footage which, they say, inevitably comes at the expense of thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing, design.
"People in Edmonton have a size problem and, unfortunately, that's the biggest threat to good architecture in this city," Mr. Watson says. "We have private clients who come to us and say they want a skinny house but the expectation they have of their floor plan is that of a large suburban home. To us, that's like forcing something to be somewhere it shouldn't."
"When you use 100 per cent of the allowable square footage, there's no room for cantilevers or depth, there's no room for design, so you basically end up with a box," Mr. Gomez-Decuir agrees. "It's the same on the inside; clients often have these room dimensions that they want to achieve but it comes at the expense of any sort of customization or individuality, which can increase the quality of the space."
Mr. Tassone says he's proven that individually designed homes give his business a competitive edge and he has no plans to revert to building off-the-peg.
"I'll admit that I was worried initially when I saw some of the designs because I thought the cost was going to be prohibitive, but actually, it's nominal in the grand scheme of a project" he says, "and the extra spend is worth it to see something sell fast and fit with the community you're putting it in."
"Most skinny homes are on the market for 30 days or more in Edmonton. It's certainly not the norm to have homes sold before you've even finished framing them," he adds. "Buyers like that the homes are individual, that's very clear."
Next year, Mr. Tassone is preparing to venture further into mature neighbourhoods, where more skinny homes are on the cards, and he plans to apply the same strategy to a small townhouse development.
"I've got four lots in High Park, which I'll be developing as skinny homes next year, one of those is already sold. I'm building another two skinny homes for a client in Westmount and I have a large corner lot in the Spruce Avenue neighbourhood where I'd like to do something more dense, but similarly unique," he says. "Maybe a row townhouse product but staggered to let each home stand alone and get more light. I think people would like that."