R-Hauz Blog

A Research Series: Switching Lanes

By: Will Baigent | May 1, 2020

The aim of R-Hauz is to create products that contribute to developing a healthier and more sustainable city. We believe that a consistent lack of research in the building industry has created barriers to innovation in construction. More specifically, academic literature linking laneway housing, or other secondary suites, to sustainable development also appears to be widely missing.

Will Baigent, Sustainability and Value Engineering Coordinator at Footprint Engineering , completed his Master Thesis in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science at Lund University (Sweden). In sharing findings from his thesis titled, “Switching lanes: The Potential of laneway housing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto, Canada” we would like to shed light on laneway development from a sustainability perspective. The research does an excellent job of providing context, projections and limitations of laneway housing in Toronto.

Laneway housing has the potential to cut Toronto’s emissions in two large sectors, transportation and buildings. This is especially important as these two sectors account for 80% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions as calculated for 2016 (City of Toronto, 2019a). Within emissions from transportation, 80% of this is attributed to personal vehicle usage. Therefore, personal vehicle use accounts for 28% of Toronto’s total GHG emissions. Meanwhile, buildings make up the largest portion of Toronto’s emissions at 45%.

What is the potential capacity of laneway housing to reduce emissions in Toronto?

Within Toronto’s report on laneway housing a section is dedicated to sustainability in which it is explained that the city sees strategic land and infrastructure use as a way to meet its emission and energy reduction targets (City of Toronto, 2018a). More specifically, the city is targeting new approaches to help achieve this development, and views laneway housing as a tool to do this due the environmental benefits of increased densities in neighbourhoods, and the ability to add green building technology to the suites. Within the regulations on laneway housing it is also stipulated that new suites are “encouraged to include green roof areas, solar panels and other sustainable building technologies” (City of Toronto, 2018a).

R-Hauz laneway suites are designed to facilitate reductions in both building and transportation related savings and incorporate these technologies. Our suites are built with a green roof and electric power rather than gas. Our building envelope is designed to minimize heat loss and heat gain, increase indoor air quality and humidity control thereby reducing operating costs and the owners carbon footprint. We do this by using LED lighting, energy star appliances, energy recovery ventilators and low flow plumbing fixtures.

The thesis results revealed that adding a number of smaller homes within Toronto will not on its own radically overhaul the building and transportation sector’s respective greenhouse gas emissions to 65% below 2030 levels. They will however lower each new household’s footprint.

Energy efficient buildings allow individuals to be able to make more meaningful reductions in their energy usage. Within the building sector, individual reductions in energy consumption alone cannot have us reach our climate goals align if our homes do not provide us with the efficiency capabilities to do so.

Laneways Provide Economic Incentive for Sustainable Development

The development of laneway housing has the added benefit of potentially swinging the housing power dynamic back towards a portion of the public. It will be the choice and responsibility of citizen homeowners whether or not they decide to build a laneway suite in their backyard. In this sense laneway housing development provides an opportunity for citizen engagement in shaping the spatial fabric of the city.

Participation in the transition to a more sustainable housing stock is in the economic interest of the homeowners as they can provide themselves with an additional revenue stream in the form of rent collected from the laneway home. This represents another incentive to sustainable building development (Olubunmi, Xia & Skitmore, 2016).

The Missing Link

The finding that many municipal documents, regarding secondary suites and laneway housing, fails to make a linkage to sustainability is in line with previous research on the topic. There are no rules regarding how sustainability initiatives must be integrated within municipal documents thus helping to account for some of the variation in depth between documents.

This is not exclusive to Canada as the issue of a lack of integration of sustainability in Canadian documents is consistent with global findings (United Nations Environmental Program, 2012). It has been suggested that this failed linkage can be attributable to a lack of empirical evidence to draw from (Stuart, Collins, Alger & Whitelaw, 2016). Research findings, such as those produced by this thesis, should help to close this gap.

Laneway housing has the potential to reduce the emissions from newly built low-rise residential housing.

The thesis shows laneway housing to be an immediately available and effective tool to reducing building and transportation-related emissions despite the linkage to sustainability being underdeveloped in Canadian municipal documents.

“The geospatial analysis concluded that over 36,000 properties are eligible to build laneway housing, and an additional 11,875 could become eligible with future changes to municipal by-laws.”

The repercussions of not reaching the world’s vitally necessary greenhouse gas emission targets are incredibly daunting. Sustainability scientists have an obligation to both the environment and society to do all that they can to address our planet’s sustainability issues. These stakes are readily apparent and well known to them. While the psychological risks of this burden can be potentially harmful, there should be at least some reassurance from knowing that, sometimes, solutions can be found in our own backyards.

Please see link for the abstract, and Will’s full thesis.

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