Urban Tree House

Much has been written by well-meaning critics (including me) on the latent potential of laneway houses in urban areas. Our refrains of praise cite all the usual Jane-Jacobsian rationales: they increase density, they give “eyes on the street” to the grey zones of city laneways, they take advantage of under-utilized pockets in the urban fabric. We even have long lists of solid architectural precedents, many of them award recipients applauded for their innovation: Jeff Stinson, Michael Taylor, Mary Jane Finlayson and Shim-Sutcliffe have all designed their own houses. And Don Schmitt’s design of a house on Ways Lane was recently featured in this magazine (see CA, October 2004).

Like these antecedents, Kohn Shnier Architects’ design of a house on a quasi-lane in downtown Toronto explores the possibilities of the contemporary laneway house. The design is an essay in tight-site problem-solving raised to an art form–the entire lot measures only 26 * 40 feet. Spatially and programmatically, it advances the type. Its “French farmhouse” parti places bedrooms on the ground level, the minimal dimensions of the sleeping, bathroom and hallway spaces across the width of the site being key to the spatial puzzle that makes the whole house possible on the site. With that challenge solved, the living spaces are located on the second floor in an almost shockingly open, airy urban tree house whose windows–cut out of the main volume of the site’s almost square footprint–create a long diagonal dimension and a sense of light from all directions. The complex three-dimensional puzzle is triumphantly resolved by the clever placement of the family bathroom at the half-level of the stair, hovering over the garage below and tucked in under the kitchen counter above.

It is an architectural rabbit pulled out of a hat: magically, the program required to comfortably house a family of four is conjured from an impossibly small footprint, and then made to seem both effortless and generous. The livability of the tight space is further enhanced by the judicious placement of built-in millwork–especially in the rich wood cabinetry of the ground-floor master bedroom suite, and in the built-in cabinetry of the upper-floor living area, which quietly enfolds a fireplace. Trademark Kohn Shnier elements of whimsy include child-friendly blackboard paint on the stair’s solid railings, and “clerestory” mirrors that further refract the ubiquitous natural light and that play tricks with views.

On the outside, the house is equally sophisticated, a vocabulary of dark cement board and gunmetal grey brick surfaces creating an understated, not-too-fussy envelope that is comfortable on its site (its location is a strange hybrid in Toronto–technically it is a street, but garages outnumber cottages and houses, giving it more the feeling of a laneway, a comfortable venue for impromptu soccer games and an informal cyclists’ shortcut to and from the Annex). A small exterior court creates a small setback from the lane, lending the house a sense of privacy and security.

Some rather interesting vestigial architectural and engineering expression on the exterior resulted from various zoning requirements. The requirement for parking–and the inability to move the existing wall of the cottage without applying for full rezoning–resulted in a long steel beam supporting the cantilevered mass of the kitchen over the garage, giving an architectural first impression of a building that is edgy, muscular, and creatively in control of the invisible forces of gravity at work. The effortlessness of its expression belies a complex approvals process that took over six months to negotiate, even though the construction only required minor variances from the city.

Therein lies the reason we don’t see these buildings cropping up everywhere, even in Toronto’s red-hot downtown real estate market: the city’s policy planning creates a protracted, barrier-laden environment for a type of densification that the city, somewhat ironically, sees as favourable and desirable. Few clients have the stomach, the resources, or the time to wind their way through the laneway housing maze–which is probably why the majority of examples are houses architects build for themselves, on their own time and on their own dime.

The city has recently shown a more active interest in laneway housing, albeit without substantial regulatory changes that would streamline the approvals process. They have yet to identify local areas that might be logical places for laneway housing. So far the only progress is that the planning department has compiled a “checklist” of features that would give potential laneway homeowners a clear indication of whether their project would be a likely candidate for the rezoning required–a process that takes about a year. According to South District planner Linda McDonald, the city will try this approach for a year and then review the results and evaluate whether changes at the bylaw level would be useful (and in a development that might be positive, architects Jeff Stinson and Terence Van Elslander, authors of a CMHC report on laneway housing, are now acting as advisors to the city).

Martin Kohn and John Shnier appreciate the complexity of the “house-behind-a-house” issue, and also see the need for change in the city’s mindset to make it more collaborative, with an emphasis on trying to make projects happen, rather than approaching them with resistance. They suggest that the city could declare an ambition to build more of them, and then work to free up appropriate sites.

The best of Toronto’s architects are clearly up to the challenge of taking optimal aesthetic and spatial advantage of these intriguing sites. It’s high time the city rose to this challenge by creating a policy framework designed to speak to higher, and ultimately more sustainable, urban values, especially in the very real anticipation of increasing numbers of citizens flooding into Toronto’s downtown area. Paralysis in the face of snarled bureaucracy has been the death knell of many of Toronto’s most promising initiatives–from housing on main streets to waterfront development. Projects like this residence underline the need for improved planning policy that is timely, transparent, and supportive of such high-quality urban problem-solving.

Beth Kapusta is a Toronto-based architecture writer and consultant.

Client: Lindsey Shaw

Architect Team: Martin Kohn, John Shnier, Vis Ramasubramanian, Jean-Louis Rivard

Structural: Blackwell Bowick Engineering

Contractor: Chris Smith and Father

Area: 120 m2

Budget: withheld

Completion: Fall 2004

Photography: Michael Awad