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. 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’re featuring R-Hauz.
What happens when 30+ years of sales and marketing, construction, and approvals
are packaged into a forward-thinking development company? Well...you get the R-
Hauz team piloting affordable and scalable laneway housing. The company was
founded by Leith Moore and Michael Barker in 2017 with an emphasis on employing
innovative building methods to make the next generation of housing more feasible
for homeowners. We had the privilege of interviewing Francesca Mackinnon
(Marketing Director) and Catherine Krug (Product Director). Together they shared
wonderful insights on the company’s humble beginnings and experiences thus far.
Catherine previously worked on large scale development projects as an urban
planner and was drawn to the laneway space because of the opportunity to make a
significant impact quickly which is a bit different when compared to the 10+ years
cycle time of many high rise buildings.
Their first design project posed unique complexities because their approach is
different from a traditional build. Traditionally, new builds leave the collaboration of
contractors until the end of the project — this increases the risk of coordination and
scheduling issues. Instead R-Hauz uses Building Information Modeling (BIM) to
collaborate with trades (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc.) early in the approvals
process. This combined with their off-site production reduces the build time,
improves the quality, and makes the suites more affordable. However, a tremendous
amount of planning goes on in the background to provide a beautiful and realistic
model that homeowners can visualize upfront. Additionally, R-Hauz’s building method offers a high quality alternative to the current building code and therefore
went through a rigorous approval process.
"Clients appreciate the cost and time savings that pre-set options offer."
Within the laneway space, a popular question is the impact that 3D technology has
on the design process. This technology makes the process more accessible to
homeowners because they can see a representation of the suite virtually versus
having to interpret 2D design drawings — this can be more difficult to conceptualize
and render the process less accessible to the typical homeowner client. Francesca
indicated that the challenge lies in communicating to homeowners that the on-
demand visual options must still be supported by the prefabricated methodology,
therefore some elements may not be as customizable as clients are used to. Despite
this, many clients enjoy the options that are presented and appreciate the cost and
time savings that these conveniences offer.
A second misconception stems from the terms ‘Modular’ and ‘Prefabricated’ as
they’re sometimes thought to compromise quality. However, this could not be
further from the truth, and the team at R-Hauz is taking it further by utilizing mass
timber in their builds. Although the rate of adoption is moving as expected,
Catherine believes that prefabricated construction will continue to prove itself over
time as misconceptions are quelled and mental barriers are broken. Given the
significant demand for new construction in the city, she feels like the industry was
primed and ready to make a shift to a remote style of working so the pandemic just
accelerated this change. Francesca mentioned that anyone used to a high rise
condo can go see their Queen Street East project and immediately experience the
wonderful smell, airy feel, and improved quality that it offers. Nearby residents
who’ve seen the project have had expectations blown away as it draws similarities to
that of a luxury rental.
"Once more people see them being built the value will become more apparent."
The infancy of the laneway space is paving the way for innovation and challenging
designers, builders, and the city to scale existing processes. We asked the R-Hauz
team if they could rate the amount of homeowners who have utilized their laneway
eligible properties to build laneway suites from 1-10 (10 being the majority of eligible
homeowners). The R-Hauz team said the city has done a great job in pushing
the by-law to make it more accessible to homeowners trying to build laneway suites
and this is creating a lot of demand. Despite this, they rate the uptake of
homeowners seeking to build laneway suites as a 5/10 because Toronto is only on the
brink of seeing the suites built in volume. Francesca especially thinks that once more
people see them being built the value will become more apparent.
Their current clients are most attracted to laneway suites because of the versatility.
Laneway suites can first be used to house a family member, and as time elapses, the
space can then be used as a rental. As real estate prices continue to soar, people buying new houses will look for a house on a public laneway due to the possibility of
income generation — especially if the property doesn't have a secondary unit or
basement. As a matter of fact, Francesca expects that many prospective buyers are
seeking properties that offer a secondary unit or basement apartment. As property
prices rise, it becomes more attractive and necessary to have an option for rental
income from a secondary unit, whether that be the potential for a laneway suite,
garden suite, or in house apartment.
The team understands that not all homeowners seek income and mentioned that as
Garden suites become a reality they can satisfy multigenerational housing needs.
Their side yard access offers a more integrated feel as opposed to a separate
laneway access and this is an advantage when keeping aging relatives close. Garden
suites present the opportunity to delay placing relatives in public or even private
homes which can be absurdly expensive. Francesca mentioned that three
generations existing on one property is not uncommon in other countries so
providing this opportunity along with increased independence of a backyard seems
better suited for the Toronto culture. The team believes the laneway space lacks
awareness and the sensitivity of certain neighbourhoods can introduce an element of
fear since building a suite may be seen as a bold endeavour. As laneway suites
become more normalized, the question of impact in a neighbourhood will gradually
be a thing of the past. With increased demand, issues of supply chain may become
more prominent which will lead to price uncertainty similar to what we’re
experiencing now from the pandemic.
Zero to Laneway Suite in one day
One of Catherine’s best moments was going through the process and being able to see the first suite come to fruition. Francesca fondly remembers being in an interview with Catherine as they toured features of the first suite. She gained monumental appreciation for their technology after that experience and it has fuelled her ever since. In addition, both Catherine and Francesca recall the expression on neighbours’ faces having left for work seeing no laneway suite in the morning then returning home to a building envelope before sunset.
If they could do it all over again, the team noted that they would’ve adopted a
mindset of patience earlier on and let the growth of this unprecedented typology
speak for itself. Whether it’s urban planning, production, sales, or construction the
new opportunity the laneway space provides allows professionals to display the very
skills and innovation that have contributed in making Toronto the great city that it is
Key lessons the team shared were:
1) Have patience — Progress can go unnoticed when you're so caught up
on your project going perfect.
2) Trust the process — There is often complexity in new builds and a level
of chaos in construction, however, great processes provide certainty
and alleviate stress.