“This is our staging area,” Andrew Fishman says. “I’m not kidding you.”
The spot Mr. Fishman points at measures 16-feet across and five-feet wide. In other words, tiny. Yet, this is where every stack of lumber, scrap of steel, every box containing engineered flooring and every Canadian-made window or kitchen cabinet has been dropped off in order to create this diminutive dwelling.
“I think this is difficult to design, definitely difficult to build,” the head of Laneway Home Building Experts continues. “You’d think smaller is easier [but] it is not … you have five guys bumbling around in here, moving stuff around, it’s like a constant game of Tetris.”
And like Tetris, things are speeding up in this quiet laneway near Danforth and Donlands avenues as the final components of this 500-square-foot abode are bolted in and sanded down. And while there is indeed bumbling, this is no Keystone Cops affair: bumbles, when they happen, are good-natured, and the product being created by this newly assembled crew is elegant … perhaps even luxurious.
Which doesn’t surprise architect Craig Race: “I don’t think you’ve seen anything yet. The projects we’ve executed so far have been well appointed but modest in their price range because, A, that’s the aesthetic that appeals to renters and, B, the budget that appeals to landlords … but we have a few projects that are going to be significantly more luxurious.”
Mr. Race, who co-founded Lanescape in 2014, was one of a handful of people who devoted countless hours – years actually – to changing restrictive Toronto bylaws to allow fully detached, independent homes to be constructed in residential backyards that back onto laneways. With Toronto Councillor Ana Bailao and former councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, and the good folks at non-profit Evergreen, consultations with thousands of Torontonians and public meetings resulted in “Changing Lanes” being enacted in 2018.
And while a laneway dwelling’s utilities must be attached to the main house and require certain setbacks and angular planes to be respected, the new bylaw has created a brave new world of possibilities for homeowners. While the obvious income property model is always a consideration, Mr. Fishman says he is seeing other uses, such as a potential client with a disabled daughter who will gain autonomy (with a safety valve) by living in her mother’s backyard, and young couples priced out of the hot Toronto market choosing instead to “homestead” on their parent’s land.
“But no cows here,” Mr. Fishman says with a laugh, as he picks his way between piles of building supplies to give this author a tour of the Danforth and Donlands property.
Immediately, one is struck by how every square centimetre of space is utilized, maximized, much like a boat or a camper. No dead space under the stairs, no bulkheads, and no blank walls where a cabinet or a closet would be better suited. The second thing is just how much daylight is allowed to penetrate, especially when windows aren’t allowed to look onto neighbouring yards. Outside, it’s the luxurious materials – Maibec siding and a standing-seam metal roof – that catch the eye, along with the big dormer window.
And yet, the building doesn’t dominate, visually. “It fits in with the neighbourhood. … It definitely brightens up the whole laneway,” Mr. Fishman says. “At the beginning, when you’re in the rough staging mode, it looks like it doesn’t fit in, and then the further along you get, the better it is. … When I look from the street and I see the dormer, it’s pretty awesome.”
What’s even more awesome is that Mr. Fishman, like the bylaw, is new to the building game. Although he comes from a family of builders, the 50-year-old’s gig was magazine publishing – he launched Westmount Living in Montreal and Village Living in Toronto some years ago – and real estate seminars until being bit by the laneway bug in 2018. While currently his company is working on three laneway houses (with another three scheduled to begin this autumn), he predicts he’ll complete 15 in 2021.
Just north of Christie Pits, I’m able to tour one of those projects just before the keys are handed over to the homeowner. Since this house sits on a lot that’s much wider than Danforth-Donlands spot, one must keep reminding oneself that this is, indeed, a laneway house. Of course it helps that everything is painted white, there are light woods throughout, and, again, condo-sized windows allow for maximum photon penetration.
It’s also hard to believe how easy it’s been for homeowners to gain the necessary permissions, since many are conditioned to expect red tape when dealing with city hall. Then again, Mr. Race says, that smoothness was built into the new bylaw: “We did a lot of due diligence before it was implemented, which is why I think it’s been so easy to work with. … We basically never go to [the] Committee of Adjustments for any of our projects.”
Yet, while Mr. Fishman jokes that there has been so much interest he could stand in any of the laneways in which he’s working and hand out business cards, Mr. Race counters that there are still a great many Torontonians who have no idea there’s been a sea change: “At least once a month I give a presentation to a heritage association or a neighbourhood association or a real estate agency … and it’s always just shocked, blank faces because they can’t imagine this exists.”
So you want to build a laneway house?
While all parts of Toronto are eligible, it’s important to note that while Toronto and East York contain approximately 42,000 lots, Scarborough contains only 391.
If your lot qualifies, Andrew Fishman outlines the usual steps:
- A “feasibility report” would come first, and this would be provided for free by Lanescape (Lanescape.ca)
- If one qualifies, agreements must be signed with neighbouring property owners
- An estimated buildable footprint is then produced
- The homeowner would meet with a builder such as Laneway Home Building Experts (find them at lanewayhomeexperts.com) to discuss soft costs such as a backwater valve, upgrading the main home’s electrical or water flow (i.e. if low flow is a problem it’ll be worse in the laneway house), and to talk about architect’s fees
- Then, says Mr. Fishman, the discussion would revolve around materials: “Is it an IKEA kitchen, is it vinyl flooring, is it engineered hardwood, is it quartz countertops?”
- One those items are ironed out, Mr. Fishman says he can estimate “pretty accurately” what the home will cost per square foot (the Danforth-Donlands project is around $200,000). “We’ve yet to go back to a client and ask for more money,” he finishes with a laugh.
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