By Tracy Hanes
Exploring The Infill Option
Builders in many parts of Ontario have been forced to adopt a small-is-beautiful mindset when it comes to new-home construction sites. With wide, open spaces for building in areas such as the GTA, Golden Horseshoe and Ottawa as elusive as a yeti, infill lands are the new reality.
These sites, of course, pose unique challenges from traditional greenfield properties. They may be awkwardly sized, pose design dilemmas, be subject to additional municipal requirements and restrictions, and spark push-back from neighbours.
Ottawa’s greenbelt has constricted land supply similar to the GTA and Golden Horseshoe. Thus, infill building is the only option for builders such as Roy Nandram, president of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association and owner of RND Construction.
There is no perfect infill site, says Nandram. “There are some that are easier to work with, but most hold different challenges such as neighbours, trees, streets where you can’t park. Some places have no room to put a dumpster, so construction waste has to be managed on a daily basis.”
A noise bylaw restricts the hours construction crews can work after hours or on weekends in established neighbourhoods. Nandram has to ensure the street his crew is working on is kept clean and may have to repave in front of his property if there are too many road cuts.
The City of Ottawa has infill protocols for builders to follow as a guide, says Nandram. If trees are removed, for instance, they have to be replaced or money paid into a fund.
“There is a lot of building height restriction and streetscape analysis,” says Nandram. “If you’re putting a new house in the middle of the block, you have to submit a streetscape of your house with the others on the street, to make sure yours doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.”
The height restrictions presented a challenge for Ha² Architectural Design’s Houry Avedissian, who designed a two-storey contemporary house on a 30-foot infill lot that Nandram recently finished. Because of an 8-metre height restriction, the garage had to be lower than normal.
“We had to ramp it down to the lower level, and because winter is cruel, we had to do a heated ramp so you can get up and down it,” says Nandram. The house also required a flight of stairs from the front yard to the main level entrance.
For another Ottawa firm, Flynn Architect, the convenience of city living and shorter commutes is a clear selling point for the infill option. “The dream used to be estate lots in the suburbs, but we’re seeing some people moving back to the city, but designing to suit their lifestyle,” says proprietor Jason Flynn.
And with COVID-19 front of mind, that means a low-rise lifestyle.
“Not to knock the condos that are being put up, but I think people do look for something tail-ored for their specific requirements,” Flynn says. “And there’s a real appreciation for being able to walk out of your home and be on the ground.”
Zoning Changes and Challenges
Zoning changes are contributing to the increase of infill projects, but it’s creating new challenges, Flynn notes. “Unfortunately we’re still not at the stage where the majority of people are willing to give up their vehicles. But many of these projects are controlled by parking. We have a project where we’re looking at squeezing 16 units on a 66’ x 100’ lot. But you can’t house 16 cars on a 66’ x 100’ lot and still get a building on it. And with a project like that, the investment for an underground parking system would be very, very expensive. So we’re trying to find the balance between providing some parking to relieve the stress on street parking, while getting people away from car ownership. Fortunately, our light rail system is three to five minutes from some of these hubs.”
The red tape of such construction is not for the faint of heart, though, Flynn cautions. “We have mature neighbourhood zoning overlay in Ottawa, where crucial older areas of town have been overlaid with a secondary zoning mechanism, which is far more complex than standard zoning,” he explains. “So making sure the infill conforms is the trickiest step. We have a project now that has gone through so many iterations because of the constraining factors: hydro lines, corner site triangles—it goes on and on for these inner-city lots.
The toughest constraint of all, of course, can be managing the client. “You’d be surprised how often client expectations don’t match the building height and space limits,” Flynn says. “Part of my job is to reel them in and curb their enthusiasm. It’s a delicate balancing act.”
Flynn’s Bower Avenue residence in Old Ottawa East is a striking example of modern infill. A high-performance home with double-wall construction, sandwiched between two traditional detached brick homes, the three-storey stone and glass design employs an L-shape footprint to maximize the site’s efficiency, while bathing the interior in natural light.
Appeasing neighbours with a dramatically new design that can require a year to build is another obstacle. “The guys I work with are so good at managing the neighbours, though—knocking on doors and talking to them to explain what they’re doing, even after the clients have spoken to them,” Flynn says.
Niagara Region Seeing It’s Share of Infill
Niagara Region builders have also been taking advantage of infill sites.
“It could be an old industrial use that’s ceased and presents a development opportunity,” says David Samis, president of Phelps Homes. “Or you could have one or two old houses on large lots that you could consolidate.”
All of Phelps’ sites are infill, with multi-unit projects ranging from 21 to 96 units. Some Niagara municipalities are more receptive than others to proposals, Samis says. Builders may run into front-end issues such as demolition of old structures and are mandated to follow property standards while waiting for approvals.
“We may be cutting grass on sites from two to 10 acres that has not been cut in two years, but we’re required to do it,” Samis says. “There are also trespassing issues. You may have neighbours dump stuff on your property; for example, if they are putting in a pool and dispose of their dirt on your property.”
A brownfield site is always more challenging, says Samis, as developers often have to contend with poor fill or soil and different levels of contamination.
“Say the property is worth $10 and the cost of clean-up is $10. You’re into the project for $20 and have to absorb $10 you wouldn’t have to in a greenfield,” Samis notes. “Yet, there is a regulation that expects you to spend $10 in clean-up before you can start construction, when you could move the soil and do the work at the time of construction (thus not duplicate the cost). Some municipalities are not comfortable working with you on those type of infill sites. That’s a challenge we have and many municipalities aren’t getting there yet.”
Knowing the Angles
Henry Burstyn, Director and Senior Practice Lead of Architecture for IBI Group in Toronto, says infill lots are particularly challenging for mid- or high-rise projects. For such developments in existing low-rise neighbourhoods, the City of Toronto requires that higher buildings have 45-degree angular planes to transition down to adjacent houses and to minimize shadowing.
“Most sites have at least two angular planes and that results in a terraced building that is frankly bigger at the bottom than you want it to be. At the top, where you wanted the biggest floor plate, that’s the smallest,” says Burstyn. He says the city is starting to recognize that terraced buildings create a wedding cake-type effect at the rear that is a challenge to construct. “For efficiency, you want floor plates that can run through multiple floors. With terracing, every single floor is different, with mechanical and structural differences that make it expensive.”
With narrow-frontage buildings, the ‘sweet spot’ is in the middle of the building in terms of creating the most efficient suite designs. On the lower levels, the solution is usually loft-style, long and slim units because price point is “a big issue in terms of trying to keep units affordable and a certain size,” says Burstyn.
Traffic may have to be disrupted during construction and overhead power lines dealt with. Planning for parking and back-of-house functions such as pick-up by garbage trucks is another issue when designing for narrow infill lots. At 210 Simcoe, a 294-unit mid-rise avenue project, designers Page + Steele/IBI Group managed to incorporate a two-car elevator, pass-through for garbage and a residential lobby on an approximately 65-foot lot. Burstyn’s office was also involved in designing MuseumHouse condo across from the Royal Ontario Museum. It has 26 luxury units in an 18-storey building, a single-car elevator and sits on a 50-foot lot. It helps when downtown projects such as those have a reduced parking standard, so don’t have to accommodate a lot of vehicles, says Burstyn.
“On a site like that (MuseumHouse), it’s almost like designing a Swiss watch. Every millimetre counts,” says Burstyn. He predicts the super-tall, super-skinny pencil towers that are rising in New York City will soon migrate to the 416 “as sites get more challenging.”
Infill projects require paying close attention to the context of the neighbourhood when designing the building, says Burstyn. “It may be more related to the podium at the base and its relationship to the street. It depends on the site. Some buildings are intended to be iconic and stand out, but most of infill is a building that will fit into the neighbourhood with a continuity of materials.”
Mid-rise infill projects are especially tricky, he says. On avenues, Toronto has tried to tie building height to street width—for example, a 20-metre street width would require a 20-metre building—but that’s costly for a developer and some are shying away from avenue projects as a result, says Burstyn.
Pioneering infill development in a community can be tricky, says Feiner. Geranium was the first developer to kick off the redevelopment of Main St. in Stouffville with its PACE on Main six-storey condominium/mixed-use building. It had to work with the municipality, the local heritage committee and business association to satisfy their various requirements – the stakeholders wanted to revitalize the main street and bring people back to the core, but wanted to ensure Geranium’s and any future downtown development wouldn’t jeopardize the small-town feel.
Geranium also had to create a market for condos that hadn’t existed in downtown Stouffville before, as people tended to move elsewhere when they got to certain stages of life, such as having to downsize from larger houses. The company was successful in attracting buyers to the project, and now owners include retirees, investors, empty nesters and people at all stages of life. “Doing mid-rise is tough,” agrees Leith Moore, former adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and president of Waverley Projects, a Toronto builder with a focus on mid-rise and urban infill. “It takes a few years to assemble land, get approvals and build, and the return is a lot less than high-rise. Most people just don’t do it.”
Addressing the “Missing Middle”
Moore’s latest role is principal and co-founder of Toronto’s R-Hauz, a company that addresses the market’s ‘missing middle’ with mass timber laneway and mid-rise infill units manufactured off-site and assembled on-site. The concept allows for homeowners to build more housing on their existing property with no additional land costs or development charges.
R-Hauz offers two turn-key products: a two-storey, one- or two-bedroom laneway suite over a one- or two-car garage (or no garage) that works with the City of Toronto’s new Laneway Housing Guidelines; and a six-storey townhouse designed for main streets and avenues that can be configured as a single-occupant unit, a two-storey owners’ suite with income rental units, or as a five-plex or six-plex rental.
The goal was to get rid of one-off designs and have repeatable designs that conform to municipal regulations and don’t require zoning variances, so units can be built affordably and quickly, says Moore. R-Hauz’s laneway products are designed for lot types with 15, 20, 25 and 30-foot frontages. Basic pricing is $350 to $370 per square foot plus connections.
“If someone has a 22-foot lot and I have a 20-foot product, they may ask to widen it to 22-feet, but the cost is not worth it,” says Moore. “If you have an 18-foot lot, a 15-foot house will work for you and provide a good solution. It doesn’t need to be customized to your width.”
The City of Toronto has been encouraging laneway and avenue housing and “they’re as helpful as you want, but it’s not easy,” says Moore. The City has done a good job on the laneway guidelines, he says, but some requirements have been more problematic. “The mid-rise guidelines are like a chart of the planning process from application to draft plan approval, but they don’t address getting beyond that into the ground.”
There have been issues on the ease of water connections, for example, and “a lot of nervousness” from the building department about mass timber construction, even though it’s common in provinces such as B.C. For the mid-rise R-Hauz townhouses, stairs must be non-combustible, thus require concrete. Moore has come up with an alternate solution for his pilot townhouse project, but at present each subsequent project must get re-approved, when one R-Hauz’s objectives is to make its products repeatable designs without requiring new approvals. But when the Ontario Building Code is harmonized with the national code by the end of the year, that should eliminate some of the current issues, says Moore.
One of the biggest challenges for infill building, be it a small project or a large high-rise, is NIMBYism. Samis says even in neighbourhoods where older, neglected houses can be torn down and a denser residential use is the best use, “some people don’t realize the benefit of new investment to their neighbourhood.” That can be challenging from the approval side, as councillors have to deal with phone calls and constituents’ opposition.
“We spend a lot of time designing to mitigate issues and may vary density to put the higher density inside of a development and lower density on the outside,” he says.
Nandram had to modify plans he had for a large corner lot that contained one older house in Ottawa. “We wanted to put six lots of 40 feet each on it. All of the neighbouring lots are 60 feet and the people living there objected, so we had to compromise and do four lots. You have to deal with the community where you require a severance. Everybody has a say and the right to object, but it can really delay a project,” says Nandram.
Despite all of the challenges, Burstyn says there are some advantages to building on infill sites.
“An established neighbourhood will have a lot of amenities and flavour. With projects where you trying to create character in a new neighbourhood, you’re still at the beginning of process and it could take a number of years to achieve that.
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