There was a secret in the back lane: an old house, shingled and ramshackle but big enough to be home. It had been hiding out behind the proper Victorians on a downtown street for about a century. “There was something about the mystique of the secret house,” says its co-owner, Rochelle Rubinstein. “We wanted to explore what it could become.”
After an extensive renovation led by LGA Architectural Partners, it became a fine, bright and basically new home. But it’s also a sort of template for how Toronto could add a few new housing units, in its laneways.
This summer, the municipal government approved a policy change that allowed for housing units to go into back laneways in much of the oldest part of the city. The principle was simple: laneways are often underused and some garages could be converted into decent dwellings in walkable neighbourhoods. This comes after 30 years of advocacy by local architects and their allies. It’s a welcome change to the overly strict rules that govern building in Toronto.
And the result, if Toronto is lucky, will look like Ms. Rubinstein’s project, which predates the new rules. It is remarkably bright and well-planned – a beautiful house by any standard. She undertook the renovation with her son, Zeke Kaplan, a contractor and property manager, who oversaw construction.
The site was this old house near College and Bathurst, which the family owns, and near where Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Rubinstein live. It contains a skinny house up at the street, where a relative lives; and then the lot veers out to the side behind the next-door neighbour’s house. The dogleg lot has had a dwelling on it for a long time.
“In the beginning, we weren’t sure what it was going to become,” Mr. Kaplan says. “But we immediately got excited about the design.” That design was by LGA, led by principal Brock James and Drew Adams. (The office knows laneways; its founders, Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman, used to live in a laneway house a block away.)
Mr. James describes the project as a sort of surgery. “We had to look very carefully at what the zoning allowed, and very carefully at how to maximize the variety of spaces within this relatively small volume.”
In the end, the house has two halves, and one half is a few steps higher than the other. To the north, there’s a half basement; above that, a living and dining room; above that, a bedroom. On the south end, there’s no basement, and the kitchen is set halfway below ground; it is topped by a second bedroom and bathroom.
It sounds complicated, but feels simple. There’s a wash of sunlight from two directions, via carefully placed skylights, new dormer windows, and sliding doors that face the yard. And from the outside, it’s a crisp form wrapped in dark gray zinc.
Generally, to build a house on a laneway has been against planning rules, but because this one has been in place for so long – it probably dates to before 1924 – it’s grandfathered in place. However, to take advantage of that loophole, the builders and architects had to maintain at least 50 per cent of the existing building. “But 50 per cent of what, exactly?” Mr. James asks rhetorically. “We had to dig down into that.” In the end, it was the original framing that stayed, in altered form, while much of the rest of the building was reconstructed.
Ms. Rubinstein enjoyed the process, she says. “It was an open question: What would be a lovely addition to this neighbourhood?” Mr. Kaplan, meanwhile, “got to explore some of the things I’m passionate about,” he said. He was speaking of the refined finishing details on the house, including the “reveals” – the tiny channel where the drywall stops just short of the concrete floor – and the cabinetry, made in Douglas fir and largely to Mr. Kaplan’s designs. This is the sort of thing that usually gets architects excited and drives contractors crazy. “This was a real partnership,” Mr. James says of the project.
There’s no doubt that this is a bespoke building, created with thoughtful architecture, high-quality materials and excellent workmanship. It is also a renovation of an existing dwelling. In both respects – as a labour of love and as a renovation – it is typical of the laneway houses in Toronto over the past 30 years.
That’s because getting a new laneway dwelling approved has been incredibly complicated and time-consuming. Most homeowners and developers couldn’t pull it off; and if they did, it required a trip to a Committee of Adjustment, one of the city bodies that adjudicates small planning matters. “Then you get to hear all the neighbours’ opinions about laneway housing,” Mr. James says dryly. “And that doesn’t always go well.”
That has changed, at least in the old City of Toronto. The new policy is meant to make laneway dwellings easy to build, within very specific limits. Get a building permit and go.
But it’s not that simple. LGA has received a number of calls to work on such projects, Mr. Adams says, and they’re technically complicated. “One of the oversights I see from people who have the right lot size,” Mr. Adams says, “is getting the services back there” – water lines and power lines. “It’s easier said than done.”
This is why the laneway housing policy is unlikely to have a huge impact on the city’s housing market. Planners estimate that only a few hundred houses a year are likely to be built, overcoming all the hurdles.
But even if it’s a small change, it’s worthwhile. “It’s increasing the supply of housing, in these types of neighbourhoods where you wouldn’t imagine there could be much change,” Mr. James says. “The other thing I really like is that the lanes are a very different, social kind of space.” Speaking from his own experience, meeting the neighbours and their children behind his own house, he says: “It’s like a whole new type of street, and a special kind of street.”