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Laneway homes are the new loft

Here’s my latest post from the TAS blog. You can find it cross-posted here. I hope you enjoy it.

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Over the past 5 years, I’ve become borderline obsessed with laneway housing in Toronto. In fact, sometimes I ride my bike around the city just trying to find interesting laneways and alleys, and undiscovered homes. For most people, this is a portion, or scale, of the city that’s almost completely hidden. It doesn’t even really exist. But that’s precisely what makes laneways so interesting to me.

Today, Toronto’s laneways basically function as service roads. All 2,400 of them. They provide access to people’s rear garages in the typically older parts of the city. And so by design, they’re supposed to be nondescript and utilitarian streets. They were never intended to really have a sense of place or any redeeming urban qualities. Most don’t even have a name. They’re what architects and real estate people refer to as the “back-of-house.”

But similar to how lofts were once never considered desirable places to live, I think the same is going to to happen to laneway housing. That’s my bold assertion: compact and well designed laneway homes are going to be the new loft. From a regulatory standpoint, they’re almost impossible to build today in Toronto, but there are pioneers out there who have managed to do it. They’ve replaced rear garages with a new housing typology.

Here’s one by Kohn Schnier Architects located off College Street. And here’s one by Superkul Architects in the Summerhill area.

Other cities, such as Vancouver, have developed policy that allows laneway homes in certain instances. But that’s not the case in Toronto. They’re one-off exceptions. It usually helps to have an existing laneway structure (which was the case with Superkul’s project), but sometimes the city will allow them to be part of a larger redevelopment, which is what’s happening with our DUKE project in the Junction. At DUKE, we have 5 south facing live/work laneway homes at the south end of the building.

Here’s what the site looks like today from Indian Grove to the east:

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And here’s an artist’s rendering of what it’s going to look like when the project is complete. There are 5 live/work laneway homes (all 2 storeys) facing south and 2 townhomes facing east (Indian Grove):

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I think these homes are going to be really great.

So why do I like laneway homes so much and why do I think they’re going to be the new loft? Here are 3 reasons.

1. The hip factor

For the same reason people love lofts, laneway homes are unique and a bit eccentric. Let’s face it, nobody wants cookie cutter these days. People want something with character. And having a beautiful home off an intimate urban laneway is cool.

If you’ve ever watched Swingers (it’s one of my favorite movies), you might remember the scene where Mikey is taking his friend from New York to a hot new speakeasy in Los Angeles. To get there, they’re forced to go down an alley and Mikey’s friend asks: “Where is this place?” Mikey then responds by saying:

For some reason the cool bars in Hollywood have to be hard to find and have no sign.

It’s kind of like a speakeasy kind of thing. It’s kinda cool.

It’s like you’re in on some kind of secret, you know?

The people who live in laneway houses today are usually architects, designers and other creative professionals. Typically, these are the kinds of people that pioneer new neighborhoods and new housing types (again, think about how lofts started becoming cool). So I have complete faith that these groups are on to something here too.

2. An intimate scale

The second one is about scale.

The way I see it, Toronto really functions at 3 main scales. You have the main streets like Yonge, Bloor, and Dufferin; you have your typical residential streets; and then you have laneways (which today have been mostly forgotten). Most people don’t want to own a single family home on a main street because it’s noisy. It’s perfectly fine to live higher up, but they often don’t want to open up their front door and walk out onto a street like Bathurst. That should be for retail.

So homeowners typically look to quieter residential streets. These are perceived as having more value. But if you want something even quieter and with less vehicular traffic, why not check out the laneway hidden behind that residential street? I can imagine these laneways being a perfect place for kids to play on in the future.

To use an example from outside of Toronto, I used to have a good friend who lived in Paris. She lived on a quiet laneway that was directly connected to an incredibly busy arterial road that led into the Place de la Bastille. But separating her laneway from that main road were a set of giant barn doors that you had to walk through. And once you walked through those doors from the main street, it was as if you entered a different world. Other than the sound of kids playing soccer on that laneway, it was absolutely silent.

That laneway is obviously different than the ones we typically find in Toronto, but the principle is exactly the same.

3. A diversity of housing options

Finally, I think laneway housing could serve as a really great way to relieve some of the pressure we’re seeing today on low-rise housing using the existing fabric of our city. If you follow Toronto’s real estate market at all, you’ll know that from the Junction to Leslieville, bidding wars are pretty commonplace. And there’s a simple reason for that: demand is exceeding available supply.

There’s no silver bullet, but I think we could improve the situation by building more, and different, housing types. In the case of laneway houses, they could be a great alternative for families wanting to stay in the city. And in the case of DUKE, our live/work units are intended as a way for business owners to both live and hang their shingle in the Junction. We’re living at a time where 3 people with a laptop and an internet connection can build something that changes the world. That’s affecting the way people live, work and play, and we’re trying to a respond to that with the homes that we build.

But that’s just my view on laneway homes. What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Laneway House Image: Tom Arban Photography / Lorne Bridgeman

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