Our industry relies on codified requirements to ensure our buildings are appropriate for their context, perform to minimum standards, and maintain the health and safety of occupants. Zoning by-laws, building codes and municipal regulations provide a carefully crafted framework applicable to a wide variety of circumstances while preserving design freedom and creativity.
Over the last 2 years, we have secured permits for over thirty laneway suites. Every project is different and we are always carrying forward our experiences to inform future proposals. However, implementing this new typology has illuminated several regulatory grey areas where inconsistent interpretations have created challenges in gaining approvals.
Where a 2-storey laneway suite is positioned at the minimum separation from the main house, the second storey must not project through a 45-degree angular plane. This preserves sunlight and sensitive massing for neighbours, however the by-law permits a dormer to project through this angular plane, so long as the dormer width does not exceed 30% of the overall building width. A great diagram can be found here. But we have discovered a shortfall.
The zoning by-law does not indicate a minimum offset of a dormer relative to the sidewall of a laneway suite. In some cases, the dormer was allowed to be aligned with the sidewall. In other cases, the examiner has determined the dormer must be offset from the sidewall, otherwise it is not considered a true dormer, but an extension of the sidewall. If that does not make sense to you, do not worry. It does not make sense to us either..
We recently brought this issue to senior city staff and they will be issuing an internal notice clarifying that a vertical roof projection can be considered a dormer, regardless of its location.
Main House Rear Main Wall
The zoning by-laws define a main wall as: any exterior wall of a building or structure, including all structural members essential to the support of a roof over a full or partially enclosed area. The rear main wall of the primary house is important for any laneway suite build. It dictates the required minimum separation between the main house and the laneway suite and sets the area in which required soft landscaping is calculated.
It is very common for an existing house to have a single-storey addition (what we often refer to as an appendage) at the rear yard. These are typically enclosed spaces that serve as solariums, vestibules or basement entrances. Is the rear main wall considered to be at this appendage? Or is it taken at the full height wall of the main house? Again, we have experienced conflicting interpretations from zoning examiners. Our argument is that if the appendage has a roof and is enclosed, then this is where the rear main wall resides. It may seem like a minor item at first glance, but this interpretation ultimately impacts the laneway suite’s size, angular plane encroachment and rear yard landscaping, so it is imperative that a clear directive be issued for consistent application.
We will be approaching city staff with this issue to determine a clear direction.
Heritage Conservation and Neighbourhood Character
Certain areas of the city are designated heritage conservation districts. Any construction that is visible from the public realm must be reviewed by a heritage planner and a Heritage Conservation District Committee (HCDC) to ensure the proposal is consistent with the neighbourhood’s character, with prescribed styles for windows, claddings, openings and rooflines that must be considered. How do these guidelines get applied to laneway suites in areas such as Cabbagetown, Riverdale, Harbord Village and Queen Street West?
One could argue that a new laneway suite would not be subject to the full extent of heritage requirements because they are not visible from the “public realm”. Of course, laneway suites must not negatively impact our vibrant historic neighbourhoods, but we must always be weighing the merits of respecting context without creating a false sense of historicism.
We are actively working with the municipality to determine exactly what regulations should apply to laneways where there may or may not be existing requirements for heritage preservation, but for the time being, every neighbourhood is different.