Nearly 6 months after its enactment, the Changing Lanes policy has continued to gain traction in our city. There are currently about 50 laneway suite applications under review, putting Toronto on a similar pace to Vancouver where 100 were approved in the first year. While fielding inquiries for dozens of properties, our team has found that many homeowners and their builders are still learning about the city’s emergency access criteria. This requirement is not a part of the zoning by-law – its assessed as part of the permit review. This stipulation has the potential to disqualify a lot that would otherwise conform to the policy, so we have taken it upon ourselves to seek clarity on the issue.
Toronto’s laneways were never meant to house people. Laneways (and their abutting structures) were historically intended for carriages, early automobiles, and to support light industrial uses. Today Toronto’s low-rise urban fabric remains fundamentally unchanged. Laneways do not have fire hydrants, are rarely plowed, and provide limited width or turning clearance for large vehicles. Because of this, it is not possible for emergency services to rely on laneways for access.
Conventional buildings must always face a street conforming with certain criteria for this exact purpose. Streets ensure timely response and accessibility in the event of emergency. So, how do we ensure life safety on lanes?
Outlined in the city’s Changing Lanes final report, there are two ways to provide emergency access to your laneway suite:
A one metre wide continuous walkway, via the side yard on a residential lot or on a combination of side yards on abutting lots where appropriate easements have been secured. This route must be no longer than 45 metres from the front curb at your property to the laneway suite entrance at the rear yard.
Access can be provided via the laneway, given the principle entrance at the laneway side is within 45m of a street curb.
The premise here is to allow a fire pump truck to park at a curb, extend a hose 45m to a hydrant, and another hose 45m to a fire. The side yard clearance is also intended to allow a stretcher, gear and personnel to pass safely and efficiently through.
While these options are fairly clear-cut, the municipality may also approve alternative means or minor discrepancies at the discretion of the plans examiners and fire department. For example, bay window or chimney breast projections into a side yard walkway, or a slightly longer travel path may be acceptable in justifiable circumstances. These cases are reviewed on a project-by-project basis, often by your architect or builder with the goal of satisfying principles outlined in the Ontario Building Code. Since these requirements are not part of the zoning by-law, lack of emergency access is not something you can pursue as a minor variance at the Committee of Adjustment.
This brings us to the question, do I engage an architect or builder before I even know if this project is possible? Do I pay someone to develop drawings at the risk of them being rejected?
As homeowners ourselves, we certainly wouldn’t want to pay for work without knowing the outcome. If you’re unsure you satisfy access, the first step is to check your survey. If you do not have one on file, we suggest applying for a routine disclosure through the municipality for any site plans or surveys on record. For a minor fee ($71.17 to be exact), the city will scan and send you any available materials. A second step is to take critical measurements, assemble a series of photos or google maps screenshots and take a trip to the building services counter. Customer service representatives are well equipped to answer questions and can often immediately tell you if the project has any likelihood of being approved. Our team is a resource as well. We can fairly easily determine if there is an issue with your access or if any other challenges exist. Feel free to send your address and/or survey to firstname.lastname@example.org for basic feedback.
Life safety is always a paramount concern. As designers and builders, it is our responsibility to responsibly satisfy this criteria and ensure uncertainty is eliminated. Let us know how we can help.