As the dog-walker stops to scoop, she pauses at the sight of the handsome porch columns, flared side gable roof with twin dormers, and lovely buff brick on the Edwardian, semi-detached at 2133/2135 Gerrard St. E. Before she urges her little chihuahua to continue, she pauses again at its equally handsome neighbour, the detached buff brick house at 2137.
There are many sturdy, early-20th century houses along this stretch, which was once the prosperous, independent Town of East Toronto (incorporated from a village in 1903, then annexed by the City of Toronto in 1908), including the 1894, Queen Anne style, red brick residence of the village’s first reeve, Donald Stephenson, a turreted mansion at the corner of Gerrard Street and Enderby Road.
But, should that dog-walker decide to explore that leafy neighbourhood’s laneways, she might get an eyeful of what housing might look like in the 21st century. Particularly if she decides to hit the dog run at Norwood Park: from that sandy, paw-printed vantage point, she’ll notice that the backs of Nos. 2133, 2135 and 2137 are no longer filled with cars, gardening sheds, and recycle bins. Thanks to co-operating homeowners, there now exists a mini-streetscape containing three handsome laneway houses.
“I get this call from someone I don’t know,” begins Jon Braun, owner of No. 2137. “And when you talk to George, you realize how friendly and approachable he is, and he just started up the conversation.”
Now Mr. Braun, who owns a company that builds office interiors, has owned No. 2137 for two decades. Its three rental units are a source of income. But the semis next door, you see, had just been purchased by George Emerson (and a few partners) for the income its six rental units would provide. And Mr. Emerson had immediate plans to employ Lanescape Architecture to obtain approvals to build two laneway suites, something that didn’t exist when Mr. Braun purchased.
“I had four parking spots out back and I thought, ‘this is wonderful,’” Mr. Braun continues. “But now no one needs parking, so for the last 10 years I’d thought, ‘I’d like to build something back here.’”
So, when Mr. Emerson called about an LDA – a “Limiting Distance Agreement” is needed in Toronto to share a portion of the neighbouring property to allow for emergency access – a light bulb went off for Mr. Braun and it was decided to build three laneway units at the same time.
These are not your usual cheap-and-cheerful, get-em-tenanted-quick dwellings. No, the inspiration, say the pair, was to create a Toronto version of London’s famous mews houses since Mr. Emerson had rented one “a million years ago” in Kensington that had made quite the impression. And that called for a richer and more robust materials palette: long-lasting red brick and standing-seam metal, soft panels of ribbed, warm wood, and, inside, quality flooring, durable ceramic tile, and staircases as beautiful as they are functional.
“A lot of the material recommendation was really steered by Jake [Williams of Maxwell Contracting + Development],” says Mr. Emerson, who once worked in the radio and newspaper businesses, but now works in Internet business development. “Jake just kept pushing us on the brick … houses last for centuries if they’re built right, and I like to think that these have the character that fits in with all these other houses in this neighbourhood.”
Interior finishes were handled by Carolina Murialdo of Studio Bartlett, and furniture selected to stage the units was chosen by Avryll McNair of Bosley Real Estate Ltd..
And while there are similarities between the three units due to the all-at-once, townhouse-style construction – which the pair estimates saved them 12 to 15 per cent on materials cost – as one walks through each unit their different personalities begin to shine. Pointing to the door in one of Mr. Emerson’s units, Mr. Williams says that “each of the three trim packages is different from each other, counters are all different, floors are different, [and] tile selection … so when a renter comes, it’s a unique experience in each version.”
For instance, the stairs in Mr. Braun’s unit are buttressed by a glass wall with cosmetic end-caps to make it seem as if each tread pierces the glass, while Mr. Emerson’s sport delicate metal pickets and angled risers. The doors in each unit started as single-panel Shaker doors, but a different pattern (to match the casing) was added to each by the trim carpenters.
“This detail on Jon’s project cost an extra 1,500 bucks because there’re only so many doors,” continues Mr. Williams. “If we do that on a 6,000-square-foot custom home where there are 50 doors, it’d be a huge cost. That’s my favourite thing about these laneways is that you can pick these small moments and add an elevated detail and it doesn’t crush the budget.”
And speaking of budget, these laneway houses won’t help, unfortunately, with the issue of the lack of affordable housing. Mr. Emerson’s two units (each are three bedrooms and about 1,475 sq. ft.) are priced at $5,495 monthly, while Mr. Braun’s smaller, two-bedroom unit is priced at $4,600 a month. However, the current rules force homeowners to build only single-family units in laneways: “If the city would let homeowners put in two or three units in a backyard house, I think that would incentivize a lot more rental housing construction,” writes Mr. Emerson in an e-mail.
Perhaps, in time, the bylaws will change as the need increases. Maybe, one day, Toronto homeowners will be able to sever their lot and sell a laneway house rather than just rent it. In the meantime, Mr. Braun and Mr. Emerson are pleased with what they’ve been able to accomplish together.
“I probably would not have a lane house right now if you hadn’t called me,” finishes Mr. Braun with a smile. “I’d still be wanting one, but I’d be busy doing other stuff.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct photo information and details of how the units were staged.