Itsy Bitsy Oases

To ar­chi­tec­tural stu­dio Firma, Toronto’s pub­lic laneways are a huge op­por­tu­nity for ter­rific tiny homes.

Designlines - - Contents - BY JEREMY FREED

Firma is a lit­tle stu­dio tack­ling a big pre­oc­cu­pa­tion: how best to build laneway res­i­dences

TO UN­DER­STAND THE PO­TEN­TIAL for laneway hous­ing in Toronto, one needs only to pay a visit to Lia Mas­ton’s ar­chi­tec­ture of­fice, Firma. A map hang­ing promi­nently on one wall shows an ex­pan­sive net­work of blue lines worm­ing their way across the city, each one rep­re­sent­ing a laneway. To Mas­ton, who spe­cial­izes in de­sign­ing for just this sort of com­pact ur­ban space, they also rep­re­sent a huge op­por­tu­nity.

As ar­chi­tects, de­vel­op­ers and ur­ban plan­ners scram­ble to find ways to re­lieve Toronto’s hous­ing short­age, the city’s 300 kilo­me­tres of pub­lic laneways – and the air space above ex­ist­ing garages – have emerged as an un­tapped re­source. Af­ter co­found­ing Mi­cro­cli­mat, a Mon­treal firm spe­cial­iz­ing in laneway-fac­ing homes, Mas­ton moved back to Toronto to put her skills to use on this city’s new­est de­vel­op­ment fron­tier. “It’s a way to in­crease den­sity at the scale of neigh­bour­hoods,” she says. “Peo­ple are re­ally ex­cited about it.”

Firma’s two pro­to­type laneway suites are de­signed both to max­i­mize avail­able space and be at home among the rac­coons, cars and spray paint of the city’s cur­rent laneway land­scape. To that end they fea­ture open floor plans, big win­dows and rooftop ter­races, along with a pol­ished ma­sonry shell that re­sists both car bumpers and graf­fiti. In­tended as a ready­made so­lu­tion for home­own­ers looking to add an in­come prop­erty or suite for parents or adult chil­dren, Firma’s laneway homes stream­line the de­sign-build process wher­ever pos­si­ble. As such, the one- and two-bed­room de­signs are para­met­ri­cally scal­able, mean­ing they can eas­ily be stretched to fit the width of a typ­i­cal laneway lot.

While Jen­nifer Keesmaat, Chief Plan­ner for the City of Toronto, has ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm for laneway de­vel­op­ment, cur­rent zon­ing laws make build­ing hous­ing atop garages ex­cep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult. “You have to have a lot of pa­tience to go through the process right now,” says Mas­ton, adding that even if you jump through all the right hoops, there’s no guar­an­tee your zon­ing vari­ance will be ap­proved. Mas­ton an­tic­i­pates the city will up­date its laws in the next year or two, and when it does she’ll be ready to build.

When they come to life, Firma’s laneway suites will be mostly in­vis­i­ble to the street, but that’s by de­sign. These homes are in­tended as func­tional liv­ing spa­ces; the aes­thetic is sub­tler. “It’s the idea of a blank can­vas,” says Mas­ton. “It’s less about the ar­chi­tect’s th­e­sis com­ing across in the build­ing and more about the per­son that lives there be­ing able to make it their place.” FIRMAARCHITECTURE.COM

 3D-printed mod­els il­lus­trate Firma’s para­met­ric (scal­able) de­signs. This one ex­hibits the op­ti­mal lay­out of a 102-squareme­tre-home.

Mi­cro­cli­mat, which Mas­ton co-founded, built this Mon­treal home in a lit­tle un­der two years. Alu­milex win­dows over­look its laneway and brighten the in­te­rior to its core.

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