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2006 11 24
Allow Energy Saving Laneway Homes

When architects Bridgette Shim and Howard Sutcliffe decided that Toronto’s back lanes were a design opportunity, they had to spend years convincing the city that laneway homes should be part of our urban fabric. After all, Toronto decided it had to intensify its core. Laneway homes offered one way to do that.

At the time, our city’s moribund regulatory environment stifled innovative architecture. Toronto’s planners and politicians received a gentle nudge from the two local architects, changed and the city is better for it.

Skip ahead a decade or so. Laneway housing is an entrenched part of our city. It works well. However, as Shim and Sutcliffe can confirm, changing the city’s policies did not come easily.

Today, we need innovative land use policies more than ever. Look, for example, at the Ontario Liberal government’s decision to build a gas-fired power plant downtown. Instead of using energy wisely, it promotes more consumption.

And, according to some critics, it creates a tipping point. They argue the plant’s additional contribution to airborne pollutants will increase the rate of illnesses and cause deaths. In 2005, Toronto suffered through about 50 smog days. Get ready for more.

What can government regulations do to make the city healthier to live in? Encouraging energy-efficient buildings is an important step, but the lead time on new office complexes is long and it appears this generation’s condominium tower buildup is just about over. Toronto will just have to live with the big buildings and work to retroactively make them more energy efficient.

Fortunately, there is an option that is energy efficient—and we can start implementing it today. Sustain Design Studios’s miniHome is CSA-approved, and production can accommodate 1,000 families in a year. That is, if our regulators are forward-thinking enough to allow it.

Architects Andy Thompson and Lloyd Alter of Sustain Design are dedicated to creating and selling well-designed, energy-efficient housing. How efficient? A family of two adults with two small kids can live a year in one of their miniHomes and consume the total energy equivalent of about $200 in propane. Theirs may be the world’s “greenest” mass-produced dwelling.

With built-in solar panels and a small wind turbine to generate electricity, the miniHome does not require hookups to the electrical grid. It also has tanks for fresh water and waste water so it can, if needed, be independent of the city’s water and sewer system. Other refinements include a “green” roof that reduces the need for air conditioning. The one problem: Where do we put them?

This takes us back to Toronto’s laneways. In many neighbourhoods, long lots back on to viable laneway streets. Shim and Sutcliffe proved that those lots can be subdivided to make room for new housing. Imagine if the city were to decree that miniHome-like solutions could use those lots. In one step, we would create communities of sustainable housing on otherwise underperforming land.

Right now, the city and province have regulations that will not allow this type of low-energy home. There are a number of reasons why. Some have to do with building codes and others are planning related. Given an increasingly fragile environment, all cities will sooner or later have to change their building policies. We can plan for that change or react to it. The choice is ours.

This story also published in yesterday’s National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 11/24 at 01:57 PM

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