ANDY THOMSON   architect

Strong Communities through Affordable Housing

  • Authorandyro
  • Date 30 November 2015
  • CategoryEconomy Laneway

Ordinary homes have become too expensive for ordinary citizens. The growth of housing costs have far outstripped income growth in recent years, resulting in what is now called the ‘affordability gap’.

Many, if not most people will find themselves on the brink of over-extension if they try to find a way to purchase what is on the pages of the weekend paper’s real estate section, yet 90% of what the market offers is going to be a compromise for the homebuyer, from location to looks.  As the single largest purchase most people will ever make, where are the creative, affordable, new and green alternatives to the glut of pricey condos and mediocre single family homes?

For over 20 years I’ve been doodling backyard shacks, bunkies, miniHomes, trailers and granny flats as solutions to these problems. In fact I’ve even built several innovative prototypes, from cabins to RV’s, but these notional little houses have never found their market because there was never anywhere to legally put them!

Tiny Homes have grown from a persistent internet meme, to a mass movement over the past decade, thanks to the efforts of people like Jay Shafer and innumerable architects, designers, builders and DIY dreamers.  Now there are Tiny Home meetups and Facebook groups with members in the thousands and TV shows that deal exclusively with the subject – The Tiny Home has become a household term. But the more people embrace the idea of smaller homes as affordable homes, the more they run into the same obstacles and roadblocks I faced in 1994, from the Fire Code, to Zoning, to the Building Code. The difference now is, with the sheer number of eyes on these obstacles, and the number of people asking tough questions of their politicians, the policy framework is actually dissolving, and shifting in favour of embracing these solutions.

At the confluence of policy change and an empowered populace, there is a bright new future emerging for sustainable and affordable housing alternatives all over North America.  Can new, purpose-built, energy efficient smaller homes on infill lots in municipalities solve the problem of the affordability gap?

This same question is being asked in just about every municipality in North America right now, from Portland, and Vancouver, to Salt Lake City and Toronto. Some municipalities are farther along with adopting new standards (ie. Surrey, BC), while others are catching up fast, but what is noteworthy is that every municipality is dealing with the exact same set of parameters; Property Line and Lane/Road Setbacks, Building Height, questions over Materials and Context, Parking, Services (ie. gas, water, sewer and electricity), Sustainability and Accessibility.

I’ll be focussing on the state of legislation here in Ontario and specifically Toronto and while the time may not be right now, it will be very soon when Tiny Homes will be a legal, affordable reality for many Ontarians.

Toronto has over 250km of laneways that can be converted into neighbourhoods of Laneway houses, and Toronto’s Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) is undertaking a pilot project to identify strategies for implementation.  There are a number of stakeholders working to develop prototypes for Toronto laneway housing, notably UofT’s department of architecture in collaboration with Thomas Payne (KPMB Architects) and non-profit Evergreen’s CityWorks program.  I’m undertaking my own R&D to rebuild a garage into a secondary unit in an adjacent ward (Mike Layton’s). Update Dec 7th: On meeting with councillor Joe Cressy on December 5th, I learned a little bit about the progress of this pilot program to date in order to inform my own designs. The pilot is driven from the ground up, as the University of Toronto intends to build out 50 laneway houses over the next few years on its own property, which includes several laneways, using these first three as a starting point. These three prototypes are slated for permit application sometime in Summer 2017. Evergreen’s Cityworks initiative on laneway housing has a broader mandate that I hope to learn more about in early January 2017. Councillor Cressy did mention that the provincial government, apart from passing the SCTAH Act, has not actually done anything to promote or foster it, and neither has the city undertaken a study or consultative process yet to produce a zoning bylaw provisions to deal with laneway housing. I intend to make inquiries with my contacts at the city’s planning department to identify any individuals that may in future be responsible for applications of this kind. Councillor Cressy does expect a more open debate about future policy will take place, likely at the time when the UofT projects apply for approval. It seems that more grassroots initiatives can only help to blaze the trail for others, and demonstrate the public will, so Toronto people – talk to me if you are interested in your own Toronto ADU and we can apply a few at the same time! 

The Province of Ontario has mandated housing alternatives in every municipality, writ “The Strong Communities through Affordable Housing Act“.

For decades, zoning and fire codes have thrown up barriers to Tiny Homes, affordable second suites, granny flats, laneway houses, garden suites – whatever you might call them. Now the province has mandated change, and municipalities and the code actually need to adapt. This may take some time, because the changes required are multi-jurisdictional: Federal/Provincial/Municipal.  This act will govern the following types of alternative housing;

  • Second Units*
  • In-law Suites
  • Basement Apartments
  • Granny Flats
  • Garden Suites*
  • Coach Houses
  • Garage Apartments
  • Backyard Homes
  • Tiny Homes
  • etcetera

Why so many different names? Well – others have already asked this and in the US and Western Canada, the consensus has been to simply call these ADU’s.

A Simpler Term is Required: ADU = Accessory Dwelling Unit

ADU_Varieties - Image courtesy: http://streets.mn/2014/10/21/thoughts-on-minneapolis-proposed-adu-ordinance/#lightbox/3/

All of these terms refer to essentially the same thing; infill housing on existing residential lots in developed areas (ie. downtown Toronto) that already have a primary residence on a zoned residential lot. These alternatives can be site-built, using traditional methods and materials, or they can be factory built or prefabricated (under the federal, CSA standards), but either way, they must conform to the Ontario Building Code if they are intended for year-round living.

But don’t go rushing out to design your backyard or laneway dream home tomorrow! As of yet, most ADU’s are not strictly ‘legal’ in Ontario. This cross-jurisdictional rework to all municipal a) Zoning Bylaws and the b) Building Code, and even the c) CSA Standards for prefabricated dwellings, and even the e) Fire Code may take another year or longer to bear fruit. In some cases, these changes will be as simple as adding the definitions of ADUs stated above to the building code and CSA standards – that’s all! The zoning bylaws will be a little more involved as they will deal with the size, placement and look of the ADUs to play nice with the rest of the city.

We don’t need an entirely new standard, but rather we simply need to tweak and link requirements for ADUs to existing legislation to eliminate confusion and redundancy. There are basically three types of ADU,  Interior,  Attached and Detached.  These aren’t my own terms, (when I discovered there was an existing language, I quickly ditched my own for the accepted lingo) these descriptions are from zoning ordinances already in play in the US that have been accepted. Interior Attached ADUs would include legal In-law Suites and Basement or Attic Apartments that share the infrastructure services of the existing building. Detached Units are the backyard variety, and they may require their own service connections, or they can piggyback the primary residence where capacity exists**.

ADUs will require a connection to existing utilities, except where off-the-grid components of infrastructure are already legislated, such as with solar panels and composting toilets (OBC). Water supply, wastewater, gas and electricity hookups will also need to be considered, and homeowners (of the primary residence) should be expected to pay to extend their services to the second unit.  This may include trenching gas, electrical, water supply and waste-water connections through a basement or side-lot, through a backyard, and up into the mechanical rooms of the second unit.

*The current definitions of Garden Suites and Second Units are defined by the Ministry of Housing in the links provided and you will see the definitions are redundant and overlapping. The section of the Strong Communities act that refers to small, accessory dwellings, has recently been updated to allow an extension to the time a Garden Suite is allowed to exist on a given property Planning Act(Section 39.1) .

**It may be deemed by electrical authourities that existing services are inadequate to provide for a second unit, and therefore may need to be upgraded. Second Units should be designed for maximum performance and efficiency to minimize service requirements. For example, an efficient ADU should only require 1/2″ water service and a 30amp, 110V sub-panel – which may seem minuscule, but this is standard in an RV park, and for an efficient small building, this can be perfectly adequate even for Winter living conditions. 

A Planning Guide for Accessory Dwelling Units:

This is going to be a kind of gold rush for architects, builders, realtors (look for houses with garages on lanes!), micro-developers and homeowners and it is incredibly exciting for designers like me that have been waiting decades to spring into action on these kinds of projects! It’s also a great way to diversify the city ‘for the people and by the people’ with a huge variety of idiosyncratic private developments.  That said,  care must be taken to ensure conformity with the emerging regulations to maintain the quality of construction and in fact the quality of design as well. More than a few placeless tiny homes on wheels built by first-time builders, without the approval or guidance of building codes, have turned out to be uninsurable, unsaleable, and despite their owner’s best intentions, some may not last more than a decade due to poor envelope construction or ill-conceived building ventilation.

Toronto, in fact, any city deserves a system of support for ADUs that considers life and fire safety, environmental performance and durability, accessibility and a standard of architectural beauty that will enhance its neighbourhoods and provide new and interesting places to live, work and visit. If we could take just a handful of lessons from housing on the Toronto Islands and transplant them to the mainland, I’m confident the signature of Toronto’s Tiny Homes will be unique, funky, creative and meet an international standard of quality.

Now I expect this subject raises many more questions  that could best be answered with some sort of planning guide for laneway housing, indicating clear steps on how such a project could be green-lighted – or not. I intend to draft a guide for my own clients that will address the following questions:

  1. Zoning Diagrams: what will the allowable setbacks from property lines and building lot coverage ratios be? The question is – will the city make any exemptions over and above current ratios? Will there be setback exemptions or variances allowed? For example, large lots without lanes, will a lot with a side-lot garage be able to convert to an ADU?
  2. Area: I’d suggest a Primary to ADU ratio of 1:3 – or a maximum ADU size of 1,000sf on larger lots. PS – the numbers I’m throwing out are big – to start, in reality, many ordinances in the US restrict ADUs to much smaller dimensions, but if the lot and the primary dwelling support a larger unit, then why not go bigger so long as the ratio is observed?
  3. Height restrictions? Many ADU dwellers may want the option to retain a vehicle, or garage-style workspace for studios or bicycles, an overly restrictive height cap may limit design options. Again, a height ratio of Primary to ADU should be considered i.e. 2:3, with a maximum (whichever is lesser) that will allow a full second storey above a garage (10′ garage 8′ storey 8′ pitched roof), such as 26′ max. or 24′ for flat roof projects (that allows for 10′ main + 10′ second floor + 4′ roofgarden parapet)  – rules that encourage a bit of diversity and daylight on the laneway should be considered.
  4. Glazing: Eyes on the street – most of the glazing in ADUs will necessarily face the shared yard or the laneway, due to limiting distance considerations (fire protection) at the side yards. Some ordinances require at least 10% of building area on the laneway but greater ratios should be allowed, especially if these can be shuttered.
  5. Parking spaces – in other municipalities, primary residences must keep their required number of parking spaces, but the ADU is exempted from parking requirements.  Will bicycle storage be mandatory instead? Why not?
  6. Fire fighting – OBC requirements are one thing (building classification, combustible or non, etc.) The city will need to look to other municipalities where smaller fire trucks have been purchased specifically to address firefighting in laneway neighbourhoods. Is the Ward 20 pilot project looking into this?
  7. OBC minimum design standards – will these be allowed to be classified as ‘sleeping cabins’ or SRO’s? (Single Room Occupancies?) – or will a full kitchen be required in every ADU?  Will CSA standards be broadened to allow prefabricated and pre-inspected mobile/modular products to be used as ADUs?
  8. Hydro – will a 110V/30amp feeder (inexpensive, underground, just like a trailer park’s infrastructure) be considered ample for such uses? Or will higher amperage sub-panels be required? Toronto Hydro will surely have their preferences – but simple, inexpensive and safe is good too!
  9. Gas: will properly located and vented bottled propane be allowed where a gas line connection is too onerous? Again – like RV’s, or will gas feeds from the primary unit be required where gas is specified? It should be noted that for larger ADUs with limited electrical supply, gas for space and hot water heating may be necessary.
  10. Septic: ‘proper’ composting toilets need lots of space – minimal water toilets (one pint flush or less) – will go a long way towards reducing infrastructure burden – but this is also part of a larger discussion around hydraulic design for sewage conveyance, etc. It would be great to allow a few well vetted alternatives.
  11. Grey water: Probably not a good idea to treat on now smaller shared yards – municipal wastewater connection is likely going to be a must.
  12. Thermal and envelope design: Small houses pose special challenges – especially when constructed by owner-builders. A few standards or best practices should be developed for thermal efficiency and air-quality/safety and mould-prevention. The most current approach to building science should be adopted, with thermally-broken insulation outboard of structure.
  13. City Design Guidelines: How will context, materiality be governed? Will lane studies, similar to ‘elevated street studies’ be required for review to evaluate design by the City’s Design Review Panel? (I hope so!) What we don’t need is restrictive language that requires the ADU to match the roof pitch and materiality of the primary residence, as this might be of questionable quality to begin with, or it may not speak to the slightly different reality of the materials found in the laneway already. I’d be all for a ban on vinyl siding however!

While this blog post is intended to herald pending changes to Toronto (and all municipal zoning in Ontario) – it is too soon to outline the rules we will be adopting. Now is the time to dig in and research what has been successfully accomplished elsewhere. Armed with good information, the pilot wards of Toronto and other projects in municipalities across Ontario could provide sweet relief to your real-estate blues!

I’ll write a follow-up post on our laneway R&D, which will include a panelized engineered structural system developed in partnership with Cucco Engineering & Design that will allow a flexible approach to a number of laneway ADU configurations.  As soon as we get past the planning stage! – stay tuned.

Resources

The Laneway Project (Toronto)
Cooperative Purchasing: Bosley Real Estate: Lesli Gaynor (Toronto)
Smallworks: Vancouver Builder of Laneway Homes
Streets MN (Minnesota’s ADU Ordinance)
AccessoryDwellings.org (Clearinghouse of ADU information in the USA – specifically Portland, including rules from other jurisdictions, blogs about parking fears, financing, insurance and property taxes)
The Strong Communities through Affordable Housing Act

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Latest comments

  • Tanya 2 years ago

    This is such great news! Please sign me up to a newsletter/updates that you’ll be sending out, keeping me in the loop. I would love to see what you do here and where this goes. Great job! You can also find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tanya.frenette

  • Ruth Robb 2 years ago

    I have been following the tiny homes movement for some time and thoroughly enjoyed this article. I agree that we need to think about for more affordable choices for housing while allowing privacy of individual dwelling units. Back in the 80s I had a hard time getting a mortgage on a property that was under 800 sq feet because they said insurance would not cover it. I think our large house stigma needs to go.

  • andyro 2 years ago

    Thanks Ruth, Tanya, banks tend to favour larger projects, or larger values because of the collateral and interest involved. Smaller projects are deemed harder to sell and less profitable, so you get a lower tier of customer service for sure. The insurance statement seems odd, but not everyone works hard to inform themselves, it’s easy to just ‘say things’

  • Carol Ann 2 years ago

    Great news and long overdue! I will be following the progress eagerly…affordability is only but one reason people want to move into smaller homes . There are those that like a more minimalist lifestyle and also want to make a smaller impact on our earth.

  • Amy Turnbull 2 years ago

    This is a great collection of information and summary of the movement toward tiny. I’m putting together a tool box for tiny house advocacy with the help of other chapter leaders for the American Tiny House Association. Grass roots involvement at the municipal level is critical to advancing the idea that smaller, more affordable homes, whether tinys in community, or ADUs, offer more people access to affordable shelter. City guidelines have addressed the need for change so the regulatory environment is primed for advocacy.

  • KL 2 years ago

    Hello! Could you please share some interior photos of the inside of this TH and some of the features in it? Thanks so much!

  • Jennifer Lebel 1 year ago

    Thank you for posting this valuable information! Your hard work and professionalism may just be what people need in order to fulfill the desire to build their dream “A.D.U.” safely and legally.