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the architourist

The Toronto laneway home of Robert Burley and Debra Friedman has two entrances. The acid green door leads to an officespace/work studio and the royal blue door leads to a fully autonomous apartment.Robert Burley/Robert Burley

Door No. 1, the acid green one? Or Door No. 2, the royal blue one? Which to enter? Well, if one is simply combing the back alleys of Toronto’s Danforth and Donlands Avenue area for fun, neither, but it wouldn’t hurt to stop and admire this laneway house by LGA Architectural Partners, since it does a lot more than one might expect.

If you’re Robert Burley or Debra Friedman, both renowned photographers, and you just happen to own both doors, you’ll probably choose the acid green one, since that opens to a wide, well equipped, bright-and-airy, ground-floor home office/photography studio.

The other door, as lovely as it is, contains a small shoe-removal area and a staircase to an exquisitely detailed, fully autonomous apartment; so unless Mr. Burley or Ms. Friedman experience a marital spat so severe that an extended time-out is required, both will likely stay in the main house, and the little apartment will await a life with tenants or relatives.

And that’s the thing: combine a wide lot such as this with the steel trap mind of architect Janna Levitt, and a laneway house need not be something a homeowner forgets about once it’s built and tenanted. No, it can provide more homeowner space via its main floor as an art or yoga studio, as a writer’s retreat, or perhaps as … well, the sky’s the limit, really.

“It was always intended to be flexible,” Ms. Friedman says as she sips coffee from a colourful vintage mug.

“Right,” agrees Mr. Burley as he reaches for a piece of honey cake. “We want to have as many options as possible in the future … not to get morbid [but] if one of us makes the transition into the next world, I mean, it would be easy for one person to live in this.”

How true. And imagine the rent one could generate from the big, detached house that’s within spitting distance of the Danforth and all of its goodies?

  • Toronto laneway home of Robert Burley or Debra Friedman. Design by LGA Architectural Partners. Construction by Vanderwal Build.Robert Burley/Robert Burley

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The rent that can be generated from the around 700-square-foot laneway apartment, say the couple, is about $2,400 a month. And while that might seem steep for a one-bedroom (with an optional home office that can serve as a second) with a small galley kitchen and a diminutive dining area, consider some of the niceties LGA has provided: a set of floor-to-ceiling sliding doors turns the living room into a balcony that overlooks the laneway; wall registers that have been reduced to abstracted rectangles – ”We want to minimize the surface stuff,” says Ms. Levitt – to lessen visual clutter; kitchen and bathroom storage that’s boat-like in its cleverness; and light-coloured, wide plank flooring that combines with the ‘borrowing’ of space over the staircase to create the illusion of even more width.

Even sacrificing a small piece of the main floor so that there’s space to shake off the rain and remove one’s shoes helps dramatically in making such a happy, livable space.

“So it’s really surgical, every square inch is accounted for,” says Ms. Levitt, who estimates construction came in at about $350 per sq. ft. (in 2019 dollars; things have increased since then).

And despite being a medium-sized firm of 40 employees that is usually involved with larger projects such as libraries and educational buildings, LGA enjoys tackling the odd little laneway project. “It’s a business decision,” Ms. Levitt says. “You could decide to not do them; we decided to do them because they’re challenging [and] architecturally they’re really interesting.”

However, there remain challenges that aren’t the fun kind: drop off and staging of construction materials is always a nuisance, but even more so with the extremely limited space of laneway projects; many contractors aren’t experienced with the new building form (while this was Chris Vanderwal of Vanderwal Build’s first laneway suite, he was a quick learner and everyone loved him); and despite the City of Toronto changing its bylaws to allow for laneway suites in 2018, the city still has some kinks to work out.

“It’s still hard to do [laneway houses] as-of-right; the City just can’t let go,” Ms. Levitt says with an eye-roll. “They’re making it up as they go along … and it’s also that there’s no one at the City with enough history reviewing these things, and a lot of people don’t agree with it, and the directions aren’t clear, and [the city] keeps changing the requirements.” To combat this, LGA always does a preliminary review with the City “to find out what they think of it, and then you can fight it if you know they are wrong,” she says with a laugh.

Despite the hurdles, it’s safe to say that laneway houses have become a hit in The 6ix. And, as this sexy, black standing-seam metal example proves, they can also house family members who can’t afford to buy in this hot market while also providing additional space for the homeowners themselves. They can even provide outside space: despite losing a good portion of the backyard to the build, Ms. Friedman and Mr. Burley say they’re using the newly hardscaped patio between the two buildings more than ever before.

“We have no regrets whatsoever,” Mr. Burley says. “There’s nothing about this where we thought ‘Oh, we should’ve done this or that.’ Everything is what we had hoped for and expected.”