Ever since the inception of the laneway suite movement, forward thinking professionals in the building industry took a leap of faith by using their knowledge and fundamentals of design and construction to pioneer the development of laneway suites in Toronto. As the interest in laneway suites among the general public grows, experts in this field, (including designers, suppliers, and builders) are being provided with new opportunities to showcase their innovative visions and technical prowess. As the first marketplace for laneway suites in Toronto, we at TurnKey wanted to highlight experts who have made significant contributions in the new, and innovative laneway industry in Toronto. In this segment of the Laneway Expert Series, we are featuring Lanescape.
The truth is, you can’t think of the laneway space in Toronto without thinking of Lanescape. They have been industry leaders since the firm’s inception in 2015 when they alongside Evergreen and Councillors Mary-Margaret McMahon and Ana Bailao introduced Toronto to a new era of housing. At the time, this new company took it upon themselves to advocate for laneway suites and help craft the very by-laws that design professionals and homeowners know today. They have always believed that education and increased awareness are key in increasing the adoption and delivery of laneway suites. We had the privilege of speaking with Tony Cunha, Architect and Senior Manager at Lanescape. Having grown up in Toronto, Tony was all too familiar with the housing challenges that young Torontonians are met with when entering (or should we say attempting to enter) the housing market. He felt that laneway development was a unique career opportunity where he could make a significant impact to our built environment. With the city’s housing and financial challenges in mind, Tony joined the Lanescape team to lead the design and construction of laneway suites across the city. Since then, Lanescape has made significant impacts on homeowners by changing the urban fabric with their custom designed laneway suites. They pride themselves in designing functional homes at competitive prices. They serve a range of clients, from those that build suites to provide their children with an affordable rental to retired couples with equity, kids who are having kids, and a need for a smaller space downtown when visiting from their cottage.
As is true with any successful company, a great reputation must start somewhere, and as expected, Lanescape’s first project proved to be a unique, yet rewarding challenge. There was a steep learning curve on all sides of the process. Navigating a new by-law with municipal departments, exceeding high expectations of the homeowner, and developing unique details for the tight confines of laneway construction were just a few of many exciting opportunities to establish the practice as leaders in the typology. The first project means a lot to designers because it sets a baseline of humility that is reflected on with each new success. “After completing each new project and going through the process, you carry 20% of that experience forward to the next and after completing 2 to 3 projects a momentum begins”. Eventually, there comes a point when there is no longer 1 project a month but instead 6 projects, quickly multiplying to dozens at a time.
The beauty of laneway suites is their accessibility to the everyday homeowner that has little to no experience with major construction work, however, this is also what makes them a unique endeavour to designers and builders. More often than not, homeowners are not business owners or developers which means that it takes time to educate them on development costs, construction costs, and contingencies for variable costs (e.g. utility services, HST). Sometimes homeowners have only done a minor renovation so the new construction process can seem complex. In other instances, misinformation stems from homeowners googling fragmented construction costs that aren’t local or comparing pricing to a previous renovation/home purchase done 8+ years ago. Amidst it all, Tony mentioned that even with higher-than-expected price points, laneway suites continue to serve a multitude of purposes while ensuring an unprecedented real estate investment opportunity .
The journey has been one of steady growth for the company and one of the only surprises is how much traction the typology gained so quickly, especially during the pandemic. In order to better understand the adoption of laneway suites in Toronto, we asked Tony if he could rate the amount of homeowners whom he believes have utilized their laneway eligible properties to build laneway suites from 1-10 (10 being majority of eligible homeowners). Tony rated the uptake of homeowner’s seeking to build laneway suites as a 5/10 due to many factors including eligibility, cost of development, minimal data available on completed projects and lack of awareness of the new typology. Despite this, the housing market is much more diverse than it was before and the city’s 200+ laneway suite permit applications have contributed to this. Laneway suites can now be found near St. Clair, Mid Town, the downtown core and in Scarborough yet, despite this, he feels that the laneway suite policy should be made even more accessible to the average homeowner. “When Vancouver passed its laneway policy, they issued 100 permits in the first year, yet Toronto has just 238 applications since the 2018 inception”, said Cunha. The uptake is gradual, but more homeowners will seize the opportunity as early adopters share their testimonies and more project data becomes available. Tony believes the trend will continue as Garden Suite policies are introduced and will unlock hundreds of thousands of properties. The implementation will be different since multi-generational use cases will be popular and smaller in order to maintain the yard access requirements. These suites will require different financial models when the rent rates for smaller units may not justify the cost of construction.
In terms of what the space is missing, Tony reiterated the importance of awareness and education since homeowners are combing the internet for information. He said that even though the intent of the by-laws were for homeowners to understand independently, having all the facts in one place is crucial. His team always recommends seeking information from a reputable and qualified design professional but cautions that design experience shouldn’t come at a detrimental cost to the project. As hinted earlier, Tony’s best moment so far was the first permit they obtained and being able to navigate the learning process. This permit was framed and is kept in sight as the team now gets a permit every few days. He said, “I wouldn’t change a thing and it never gets old walking through the final space with homeowners because you feel fulfilled knowing that you made a meaningful contribution to their life.” Steady and organic growth paves the way to success and Lanescape will continue showcasing their innovative visions for years to come.
Key takeaways Tony wanted to share:
Good design doesn’t have to cost more.
Do your due diligence – request references, project examples and anything else that gives you a level of comfort in hiring your dream team.
Even if the best architect or builder is hired, expect the unexpected and ensure you have factored in contingencies.
Enjoy the process. It’s an exciting and special opportunity that should be both pleasurable and lucrative.