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A laneway house by Lanefab on Yew Street in Vancouver. LaneFab co-owner Bryn Davidson says about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the accessory dwelling units the company has built in Vancouver over a decade were for inter-generational families.Lanefab/Colin Perry

Earlier this month, just two days after Toronto council approved a bylaw allowing the development of “garden suites” in the backyards of residential homes, architect François Abbott put out a press release declaring that his upstart firm, Fabrication Studio, would be the city’s first design-build outfit specializing in this new breed of compact housing.

According to Mr. Abbott, who relocated from Montreal to Toronto last year, his practice is already working on two west-end projects, on Lansdowne and Windermere avenues.

There are, of course, other companies hustling to lay down stakes in the nascent garden suite market, including Lanescape, which has built a tidy business around laneway suites, as well as others that may be trying to ride a wave, such as “Garden Suites Toronto,” a Markham, Ont., construction firm that seems to be based in a UPS Store postal box.

In this emerging market, however, the race for clients will likely be more akin to a marathon than a sprint as Toronto homeowners, designers, contractors and neighbourhoods become accustomed to a residential form that is alien to most of the city, but has gained considerable traction in places such as Vancouver, Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.

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The interior of a laneway house on Worthington Drive in Vancouver that was designed by Lanefab.Lanefab/Colin Perry

While the lot constraints for laneway suites limit design choices, the space for architectural innovation should be somewhat greater with garden suites, although the Toronto bylaws are quite prescriptive in terms of massing, angular planes and set-backs.

One of Mr. Abbott’s first two projects, in fact, is on a site that had an existing rear building (a three-car garage), the dimensions of which are grandfathered under the new rules. The project, therefore, is wider than what will be allowed, and isn’t limited by the angular plane requirements. It includes a balcony overlooking the backyard, a dormer and a privacy screen.

“The void between the two [houses] is one of the drivers of the design,” he says. “Who can see what, where? We get to the bottom of that very fast in the schematic design phase.”

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Slocan laneway house by Lanefab.Lanefab/Colin Perry

Designers with more experience in garden suites (known in most jurisdictions as accessory dwelling units or ADUs) say the interface between the two dwellings is largely determined by the owner’s use requirements. In more established markets, ADUs tend to be built for intergenerational families, with a young family living initially in the garden suite. The space between tends to be more integrated whereas purpose-built rental ADUs require clear delineation, which drives choices around the location of windows, landscaping, and orientation.

But Bryn Davidson, co-owner and lead designer for LaneFab Design Build, says about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the ADUs he’s built in Vancouver over a decade were for inter-generational families. “We don’t do that many straight-up rentals.” Some clients, he adds, are older couples who want to downsize into the ADU, rent out the main house, and thus remain in their neighbourhoods. “It gives people a lot of options.”

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This laneway house at 4665 Commercial St., in Vancouver was designed by Lanefab.Lanefab/Brett Ryan Studios

The sizes in Vancouver range from one to 1 1/2 storeys, 700 square feet to 1,000 square feet, with two bedrooms, one to two bathrooms and integrated kitchen/living room/dining room. The capital cost runs to about $500,000, and Mr. Davidson cautions clients that the price per square-foot tends to be higher than the going rate for ordinary homes because the fixed costs – permits, servicing, etc. – aren’t amortized over a larger floor area.

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In even more mature markets, such as Portland, homeowners have found all sorts of uses for these additional dwellings, says Eli Spevak, principal of Orange Splot LLC and one of the driving forces behind that city’s fondness for ADUs.

“Almost everyone I’ve ever talked to who has an ADU has more than one intended use for it,” he explains. “Maybe they just had a baby and they want to be able to be near a grandparent or an in-law. But that person might not be there all the time and you might want to rent it out some of the time. Or the kids get older and they just take it over. The biggest appeal is the flexibility.”

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East 38th laneway house by Lanefab.Lanefab/Brett Ryan Studios

In his experience, couples who build an ADU as a retirement dwelling and then rent out their main house are most likely to generate enough income from this configuration to cover the capital cost. But while Portland real estate agents now actively promote the potential for an ADU conversion as part of the marketing for a listing, Mr. Spevak adds that a seller who has built an ADU is not likely to recoup the overall investment in the resale price. Consequently, he notes, they tend not to be flipped. “It’s not a speculative market.”

The Bylaw in Brief

Toronto’s new Garden Suites policy, which is now entrenched in the neighbourhoods section of the Official Plan, offers an as-of-right approval, meaning that such projects aren’t subject to committee of adjustment appeals if the application satisfies the city’s parameters.

These include set-backs from side and rear property lines, angular planes on all four sides of the ADU, and a maximum height of two storeys, with the footprint not exceeding 645 square feet or 40 per cent of the backyard, whichever is smaller. There are rules around soft-scaping and tree protection. Parking is not mandated, but each ADU must have two bicycle parking spots.

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Rendering of a garden suite.Fabrication Studio

Council is also asking the city’s planning department to monitor the roll-out of the policy over the next few years, as was done with the laneway suites. (In the case of the latter, some architects and their clients challenged aspects of the bylaw, resulting in changes.)

Mr. Spevak cautions that the mere fact that a policy exists doesn’t necessarily mean homeowners will build. Portland had allowed ADUs since the 1980s, but when he got into the market in the 2000s, few were being built because of what he calls “poison pills” in the bylaw.

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A second rendering of a garden suite.Fabrication Studio

The three main obstacles included unworkably small caps on size, excessive development levies and a lack of public education. He began advocating for reforms on the first two. In terms of awareness, Mr. Spevak began working with realtors and retirees’ associations to debunk concerns from homeowners and residents’ associations. He and other ADU advocates also started doing tours so people could see what was possible. “There was like a little contagion thing going on,” he reflects, “and it became popular.”

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