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Rendering of the Flexplex concept house by GreenBilt Homes and designed by the architectural firm Sustainable.Sustainable

In a city with a crushing vacancy rate, contractor Mike Manning’s “flexplex” house concept offers a case study in how creative design and a savvy approach to planning approvals can yield small-scale developments that add rental units in neighbourhoods that have become inaccessible to all but the wealthy.

In broad strokes, the co-founder of GREENbilt Homes conceived of a three-storey new build that can be arranged in multiple configurations: everything from three or even four self-contained 900- to 1,000-sq.-ft apartments for singles, to two two-storey units for younger families and even a large conventional residential dwelling with space for one extended family and a secondary suite in the basement.

Key to the design, conceived by architect Paul Dowsett of Sustainable, is an approach than anticipates change instead of locking in one type of use. The plan stacks the flexplex’s infrastructure – pipes, stairwells, HVAC and so on – so it’s very straightforward to convert an upper floor into a self-contained apartment or vice versa. “The partition [walls] can come and go, like in offices,” Mr. Dowsett says, adding that there will only be a single entrance way, meaning the flexplex presents itself to the street as a tall-ish single-family home.

For younger buyers in particular, the design is meant to allow them to cover the mortgage with rental income. But Mr. Manning, who co-owns GREENbilt with his wife Catherine Ann Marshall, a veteran real estate investment advisor, also wanted to develop a template for a home that can be readily adapted to the age-and-stage housing shifts that most people experience over time.

“The building changes as your needs change,” he said, adding that the flexplex offers an alternative to the trading-up/downsizing dynamic – condo to starter; starter to full-size, full-size back to condo – that’s become much more difficult in an extremely expensive market. “That’s where our thinking started.”

Their proposal is now poised to jump off the drawing board after well more than a year in the planning stages; GREENbilt received a green-light from the Toronto Committee Adjustment in early August, and is set to rise on a 25-by-125-foot lot on Burlington Street in Mimico, a part of the city with plenty of duplexes and triplexes.

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A woman walks by townhouses in front of condominium buildings near Humber Bay Shores in the Etobicoke neighbourhood of Toronto.Mark Blinch

Mr. Manning and Ms. Marshall, who are downsizing themselves from a home in Oakville, Ont., plan to live in part of the house, but also hope to market the design elsewhere in the city.

The timing is significant: While Mayor John Tory and council housing advocate Ana Bailao earlier this summer asked city planners for a report on adding gentle density to residential neighbourhoods mostly inoculated from almost all types of intensification except secondary suites, the disposition of these kinds of applications is all over the map.

Earlier this month, a three-storey/eight-unit rental proposed for a residential lot near Dufferin and Bloor was approved, the Toronto Star reported. Yet, an Etobicoke homeowner lost his bid to subdivide his 50-foot bungalow lot in order to allow the construction of a pair of townhouses. In the case of the former, Ms. Bailao supported the project at the Committee of Adjustment; with the latter, local residents complained about the proliferation of tall, narrow houses.

As well, planners since last December have used an official plan amendment to block duplexes and triplexes in some suburban residential neighbourhoods, citing their apparently negative impact on neighbourhood “character.”

While Mimico historically has more multiunit low-rise dwellings, Mr. Manning’s project wasn’t a slam-dunk: the requested variances for the project included significant concessions on the zoning bylaw rules governing the minimum lot and frontage size for duplexes.

When they embarked on the project, Mr. Manning and Ms. Marshall sought a location where multiunit low-rise dwellings weren’t unknown. South Etobicoke was a natural choice. Next door, for example, is a triplex, and down the street is a former triplex converted recently to accommodate the needs of a large family.

The embedded space efficiency in the flexplex will be complemented by a range of sustainability features, such as permeable surfaces to absorb storm water run-off, a white roof and the use of natural materials, especially wood.

Because their flexplex will be built from scratch with high-quality amenities, the rents are likely to fall short of being affordable: $2 to $2.50 per square-foot, Ms. Marshall says. Yet, the plan targets a rapidly increasing segment of the population – people with mid-range salaries and professions, but who have been effectively shut out of both the ground-level housing market and, increasingly, the condo sector.

Such small-scale ventures, if approved in other Toronto neighhourboods, offer up a business model that gradually restores density in communities that have been bleeding population for years. “If it’s possible to role out the four-unit model widely in the city,” Ms. Marshall says, “it will be a sweet spot in the missing middle.”

What’s more, as examples of such projects – typical in many older prewar neighbourhoods, but banned in postwar subdivisions – become more commonplace over the next decade, NIMBY-minded opposition may abate, muses Mr. Manning, “I think mindsets will evolve. The concept will become more accepted.”

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