Laneways and the "Missing Middle" Could Help Solve Our Housing Crisis

©. R-Hauz V2

In Toronto, R-Hauz is offering a solution for both.

Toronto, Canada, has lots of development happening – in former industrial zones where towers are packed too tightly and too tall but there are no neighbors to complain. Throughout the city, however, there is underutilized land, on main streets and in back lanes, where nothing ever happened because of NIMBY opposition.

Way back in the '80s when I was a young architect, I won a design competition where I proposed back lane housing, but I knew it was a fantasy; it would never happen in this "not in my backyard" city. I tried to build one once and the institutional resistance was everywhere; the fire department wanted hydrants that alone cost as much as the house.

view from lane of laneway house

City of Toronto/Public Domain

Now, all these years later, back lane housing is legal "as of right" in Toronto. I don't expect there will be a lot of them built; the city doesn't have a consistent grid of lanes like Vancouver does. Many of the houses are townhouses, so there is no side access, and people are going to be shocked at what it costs to build and service these laneway houses.

R hauz team

© R-Hauz

But developers and architects are noticing the opportunity. One very interesting group is R-Hauz, which has a team including an experienced builder (Leith Moore), architect (Tye Farrow, on TreeHugger many times for his health care work), and quantity surveyor.

Exterior of V2

© R-Hauz V2

They are offering two interesting products that recognize the changes in zoning that have happened in Toronto; there is the laneway house change, which they respond with the V2. It is designed to suit various lot widths and is "produced in pre-finished modules and assembled onsite."

Each unit floor has its own heating and cooling system and a combination of front and back of unit terraces, balconies or french balconies for passive cooling and access to sunlight. The building specifications allow a better than building code performance for energy requirements to minimize operating costs.

One of the problems, when we were discussing lane housing years ago, was the lack of servicing, and the fire department's complaints about hydrants. But Leith Moore tells TreeHugger that "the lane suite will be serviced by extending sewer, water and hydro/gas from the main house, so it is essentially 'plugged in' to the existing home. The other key change is that you cannot sever the rear lane suite from the lot to create a separate parcel – which would trigger long-held fire department opposition."

laneway house rules

City of Toronto/Public Domain

The laneway houses also appear to require access through a side yard to the street in front, which gives the fire department access as well up the side. There are still so many complications doing this stuff that it is not going to take off like a V2 rocket, but it is a great start.

V6 on main street

© R-Hauz

R-Hauz is also developing a "Main Street" building type to address the "missing middle" problem in Toronto, where major streets, sometimes even with a subway under them, are lined with two storey buildings. Their V6 design also takes advantage of the changes in the building code that allow for wood construction up to six floors. They get what the housing problem is in Toronto:

Expensive urban markets are full of individuals and families who require a range of different housing solutions and while urban policies are in place today that allow for intensification, the housing market struggles with affordability and the problem known as the “The Missing Middle”.
missing middle

© R-Hauz

Note how they are working under that dotted line of "as of right" zoning, because that's the only way you get around the NIMBYs without spending years fighting for approvals. Time is money, and one of the problems of affordability is how long it all takes. Instead, they are promising "real estate as a product, delivering results that are faster, cheaper, smarter and healthier."

This is very clever stuff, exactly what Toronto needs, to expand development out beyond the formerly industrial lands. The city has under-utilized main streets and back lanes and R-Hauz is going after both of them. I suspect we might be hearing a lot more about this.