When Leslie Doyle and her husband, Jackson Stone, set out to design what will be one of the first newly permitted laneway houses in Toronto, they knew they wanted it to be green and somewhat absorbent, particularly the roof.
Doyle owns Restoration Gardens Inc., a company that designs and installs living roofs — an engineered system of vegetation on top of filtration systems and waterproof layers built to insulate against energy loss and prevent flooding by absorbing heavy rainfall.
So stormwater and overflowing streets were top of mind when planning the two-storey laneway house on their Little Italy property.
“There is so much flooding,” says Doyle, who is also renovating the main house on the property near Ossington Ave. and College St. that will be the family’s home. “The more green roofs we can have in the city, the more it will help with storm water.”
When it is finished — hopefully by late spring — the 1,125 square-foot laneway structure will include a 385-square-foot garage.
Laneway housing is a bit of a new frontier in terms of urban development — one that’s beginning to gain traction in Toronto after council passed regulations last summer allowing homeowners to convert garages and build up unused space into suites. The rules state the houses must be self-contained and can be rented out or used to provide a home for family members, but not sold off as a separate property.
The idea is not only to provide a boost in income and overall value for homeowners, but also TO increase the number of rental units and secondary suites across the city — albeit a modest increase. There were about 78 potential sites at different stages of the permit process by mid-March. Fifteen minor variance applications — where homeowners can make the case for a slight bend in city rules — have been submitted, and six permits have been issued, according to city staff.
Doyle and Stone are working with VFA Architecture + Design. Their laneway property is one of six being handled by the firm. Two are under construction.
VFA founder and principal architect Vanessa Fong says having self-sustaining elements as an essential part of overall design is part of her firm’s mandate. So Doyle’s green roofing — which will also provide a pleasing visual component — was a natural fit.
Fong was impressed with the couple’s flexibility and willingness to balance their needs and the concerns of area residents. They consulted with neighbours who shared a mix of enthusiasm — over the possibility of their own projects — and worry about what adding density and new renters could mean.
There are so many elements to consider when adding something new to a tight space, says Fong. Challenges, such as delivering construction supplies, can result in rising tensions. “Some of the lanes, you have to turn on really tight corners when a car can barely get through” and there is a limited amount of time when supplies can be dropped off, she says.
Those unique challenges, on top of the somewhat complicated and new permit application process, prompted Fong to start Ukkei, a business dedicated to making the laneway housing process more accessible.
Fong said gentle densification is an important part of any evolving city and people on all sides of the process just have to be respectful and understanding.
Doyle and Stone, who just welcomed their second child and are living in Kitchener while they oversee the renovations of the main house, said the ultimate plan is to install solar panels and a green roof on the main house. Doyle’s business is temporarily on hold but their current project is very much a family affair. Stone is an electrician and will be installing the solar panels. Designing their future home has led the couple not only to consider the impact on their immediate neighbours but also to think about the space beyond their project — the laneway itself.
“I have a feeling it is going to pick up because it is a win-win for renters and homeowners,” Stone says. “But I feel like somebody has to do something to make the laneways a little more pedestrian-friendly.”
To that end, the Laneway Project, a design and advocacy group, is coming up with creative ways to draw pedestrians to laneways through art, design and events without interfering with the cars and trucks that use laneways to access homes and work.
“Everyone has an interest in seeing who else is in this space and being able to navigate those spaces safely with other people,” says co-founder and executive director Michelle Senayah of the vast network. The Laneway Project has mapped out 2,400 laneways in the city, covering about 250 kilometres.
Senayah says signage and signal systems, similar to those used at intersections, could be designed and installed to make sure everybody understands how to share and navigate the spaces. Better lighting would also make things safer and more appealing, she says.
“Things that make it safer for cyclists are also going to make it safer for people on foot, for people in cars, for people in trucks,” she says.
Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao, chair of the city’s planning and housing committee, says safety has been a factor and will certainly be considered in future conversations about laneway development. “It’s time we looked at our laneways with a little more care,” she says.
Citywide, the interest in laneway housing has been high, Bailao says. In November, regulations were amended to defer a significant development charge, which she believes will encourage more people to apply for laneway development projects.
“If you have aging parents or a young kid who wants to live in the neighbourhood but can’t afford an apartment, it could be a really good thing,” Bailao says.
David Hulchanski, professor of housing and community development at the University of Toronto, says in a city facing a lack of affordable housing, anything built should ideally be for rent. However, he says, those monthly costs will likely match whatever the market dictates and won’t put a dent in the lack of affordable rental housing.
The vacancy rate for purpose-built rentals in central Toronto is about 1.3 per cent, with a one-bedroom unit going for $1,561, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. Those figures come largely from occupied units subject to rent control. New apartments can be rented out for whatever the market can bear.
Some Toronto laneways are already well used as public space, including Graffiti Alley, where street artists have transformed the backsides of Queen St. W. buildings, between Spadina Ave. and Portland St.
The alley was the backdrop for Rick Mercer’s rant videos for the CBC and is a popular attraction for tourists and locals who pose for photos or shoot videos while navigating the cars and trucks.
And there are other laneway test sites.
In 2016, landscape architect Victoria Taylor, working with the city, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Laneway Project, installed a prefabricated punctured paving system along the centre of two laneways — Willowvale Lane, near Christie and Dupont Sts., and another running alongside Fred Hamilton Park near College St. and Ossington Ave. — to control water runoff and reduce flooding. The open-celled paving stones named “Laneway Punctures” were seeded with a variety of hardy vegetation, selected for the ability to stand up to foot and bike traffic.
Another pilot project, Light Up the Laneways, a partnership between the Laneway Project and two west-end business improvement areas (BIAs) with support from local stakeholders, will transform two laneways in the Ossington and Bloordale neighbourhoods — one near Queen St. W. and Ossington Ave. and the second near Bloor St. W. and Brock Ave. — into illuminated pedestrian and cyclist-friendly spaces filled with street art and potentially greenery.
The goal is to have the work completed by fall.
“We are really excited about our laneways. We just want to see them changed” into something beyond just utility and into more of a destination, says Meg Marshall, manager of the Ossington, Bloordale and Bloorcourt BIAs.