Right now, when you say the words “laneway house” to a Torontonian, a vision materializes of a beautiful, 3-storey home fronting onto a laneway. It is on its own mid-block property accessed off a peaceful, verdant laneway. Maybe it is a sleek metal and glass box, or maybe it is a classic cottage. Either way, the vision probably contains many bedrooms and bathrooms, and all the space a family would need to secede from their urban surroundings and create a self-contained residential oasis.
This is a beautiful image, and there are many houses in Toronto that exemplify such a vision, but these are HOUSES. Large houses that are located on laneways should be more accurately described as “infill houses”. Laneway suites, on the other hand, are a very different animal. They can never exist on their own because they rely on the main house to share a yard, access to the street, and services.
In proper housing nomenclature, “laneway house” describes a small, detached apartment above a garage that is secondary to the main house. We have chosen to call them “laneway suites” in Toronto to differentiate them from our existing stock of infill housing on laneways.
A laneway suite and its main house are on the same property, and they cannot be severed because water, electrical, garbage, and all other services come from the main house. Even the pizza delivery person finds the laneway suite by the address for the main house. In many ways, a laneway suite functions like a basement apartment, except there is more light and fresh air, and you can’t hear your neighbours walking above you or smell the toast they just burned.
The reason basement apartments have become so popular is because the technical issues facing a municipality are not affected by their existence. Water, sewer, gas, electric, and waste collection services are brought to the front of the property like any other house. From there, the homeowner runs the services to the basement apartment, and maybe even sub-meters them so the tenant can enroll with the service provider directly. These technical solutions can apply to any secondary unit, whether that unit is in the basement, on an upper floor, or behind the house above a garage. That is why laneway suites work where infill houses fail, they use the solutions we already have in place.
Large-scale infill houses typically rely on new municipal services being run down the laneway, so plugging-in causes significant disruption. They do not front on streets where that infrastructure already exists. Fixed infrastructure, like water and sewer, must be connected through new service lines installed through the laneway at great disturbance to neighbours and expense to the homeowner. Mobile infrastructure like waste collection, mail delivery, and emergency services have difficulty accessing infill houses because their vehicles are too large to drive down narrow, unplowed laneways – let alone find them due to unclear addressing.
Built form is also a key differentiator. Infill houses tend to be large because they need to accommodate all the living spaces typically found in a detached family home. Laneway houses, however, are sensitively scaled to contain only a small apartment nestled under a sloped roof, resulting in a building that is only slightly taller than a garage, with minimal shadows and overlook.
A laneway suite lives in harmony with the main house on the lot. They share space and infrastructure and work as two parts of a whole. So, while infill houses will always continue to pop up on unique lots in unique circumstances, laneway suites will become ubiquitous appendages to existing homes.
We Torontonians have fallen victim to our own success. Our openness to creative design and a vibrant array of neighbourhoods has made us trailblazers in building houses on laneways. We started building utilitarian laneway structures for livestock over 200 years ago. As we industrialized, we converted those structures into housing, and that built form inspired adventurous architects and builders to pepper the city with new infusions of infill housing wherever circumstances would allow. Now laneway housing is being reimagined as a small-scale solution that will improve the safety and beauty of our laneways, have minimal impact on our neighbours, and create low-cost, as-of-right housing opportunities for homeowners. We just need to make the distinction between a house and a suite.