National Post (Latest Edition)
Creative sp a c es
HOMEOWNERS ARE TURNING TO STAND-ALONE ADDITIONS TO ADDRESS THEIR BURNING DESIRE FOR MORE ROOM
Just before COVID hit, Trevor Gilbert of Modeco Construction had been planning on building prefab bathrooms for rental developments. When those projects were put on hold and, like everyone else, he was stuck working from his Etobicoke home with his wife and toddler, he started brainstorming ways to create more space. His solution involved pivoting his business, using his existing machinery to produce eightby-eight to eight-by-12 all-season office studios that don’t need a permit and can be installed in most backyards. His first client was himself. He made his family a kitted-out pod with a built-in desk, a pull-out bed for guests and a climbing wall for his son.
Since then, the requests for similar — albeit usually simpler — versions have poured in, and he’s booking into 2021. Modeco’s pods arrive with finished interiors, electrical and lighting, and can be completed in about two months for under $10,000. Gilbert thinks that once Torontonians realize the potential of these kinds of structures, they might start to plan and build more extensive laneway projects on their properties. Right now, he says, the demand has been mostly due to pandemic-induced frustration: “People just need a private space as soon as possible.”
I REALIZED I COULD BUILD IT FASTER, FOR LESS MONEY, AND ALSO TO THE HIGHEST STANDARDS WE HAVE FOR ENERGY, THERMAL AND SUSTAINABILITY. THAT WAS THE LIGHT BULB MOMENT FOR ME. — LEITH MOORE, VETERAN BUILDER AND CO-FOUNDER OF R-HAUZ
For the past six months, Torontonians have been forced to use every inch of their homes for remote learning, fitness classes, Zoom conferencing of every sort and makeshift workfrom-home office setups. And as the light at the end of the tunnel gets further and further away, overloaded homeowners are searching for ways to affordably expand their square footage without the disruption, or displacement, of a major renovation, a boon for local builders of stand-alone backyard units like Modeco.
Leith Moore, a veteran builder and developer, co-founded r-hauz three years ago. After 35 years in the industry, he was craving a simpler process, so he started offering prefab homebuilding solutions directly to customers. “construction is the last industry to adapt to innovation and productivity enhancements. It’s all based on old techniques,” he says, explaining the frustration that pushed him in a new direction. Another major issue in the industry, according to Moore, is that there’s no incentive for developers to scale down, resulting in what’s referred to as the “missing middle” in Toronto: a lack of options between single-family dwellings and dense highrise condo towers.
That’s part of the reason he’s focusing on two-storey laneway suites with a oneor two-bedroom apartment unit above a garage, as well as six-storey townhomes. He’s spent the past 2½ years perfecting his supply chain, adapting car manufacturing logistics and applying it to construction. The result is a panelized, factory-built kit of parts that can be mass produced but also customized to suit a client’s style. His process saves money, he says, by reducing individual project design costs and construction waste. “I realized I could build it faster, for less money, and also to the highest standards we have for energy, thermal and sustainability. That was the light bulb moment for me,” he says.
One silver lining of the pandemic, as Moore sees it, is that houses have gone from being valued as commodities or investments back to being valued as shelter. “My thinking is that we should be designing our homes to change with us, instead of moving each time our lifestyle shifts,” he says. For example, adding a laneway suite means it can be rented out for supplemental income or used to house family members when the need arises. The r-hauz process can take less than six months, including an eight-week installation process, and a price tag that hovers around $400,000 for approximately 1,000 square feet of living space. r-hauz’s six-storey townhomes, meanwhile, have been designed with those who own storefronts on main streets in mind. The main level can house retail, while the additional five floors can be used for the owners’ living quarters, a separate office space or more rental units.
Joel campbell of Laneway custom build, who started a construction company back in 2013, builds stand-alone housing the traditional way. After a car fire in his laneway burned his roncesvalles garage down, he decided to rebuild a fancier version, with a built-in shop where he could operate his business. So many of his neighbours approached him about building similar garages for their properties that it became the focus of his business. This was before laneway housing had been approved by the city. He mostly built garages that could double as studios, woodworking spaces or offices. “I was looking for that little spark that made it something more than a garage,” he says. When the city passed its laneway housing bylaw in 2018, he naturally moved into constructing laneway suites too.
Since COVID, he’s seen a surge in demand — he fields three new leads a week, he says. He understands the need for more space, and that laneway housing can be less disruptive to families than an addition. “I think the attractive thing about building in your backyard is it’s something you can add without affecting your main space or your daily life,” he says. It can still be a costly endeavour. Since the work is taking place in what is usually a constricted space, campbell says, the cost per square foot for laneway builds can be higher than typical construction, to make up for some of the technical challenges involved. At the start of the pandemic, campbell saw an unexpected rise in demand for his old-school garages, mostly to be used for extra office space. “Laneway houses are a good long play, if you have the financial ability,” he says. “but right now, I’m finding people are looking for a quick win.”
even though it’s been two years since laneway housing got the go-ahead from the city of Toronto, campbell admits that the expected explosion of growth hasn’t happened. Moore thinks part of that is due to a lack of financing options. r-hauz has partnered with cibc to provide financing arrangements to homeowners, but Moore thinks more tier-one banks should get involved.
“Finding ways to let people build on their own lots is really key, especially right now,” he says. “It’s the cheapest rental housing stock you can get. When you put 70,000 laneway units into the hands of homeowners, that’s a hugely efficient supplement to traditional building.”
In the meantime, for families who need something cheap and fast, pop-up pods and souped-up garages will probably do.