Architecture For Affordability In Canada

Despite the previous predictions for a cool down in 2016, Canadian housing prices - particularly in Vancouver, Toronto, and the areas surrounding these cities, remain high. The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has revised their earlier forecast, and are now predicting a one percent growth in sales.

In Toronto alone, prices have shown a 14.9% year-over-year jump to an average price tag of $685,728  - which contributes to an eight percent increase in average cost nationally. While this kind of market makes real estate in Canada’s largest cities appealing to investors (both local and foreign alike), affordability for its residents has become an increasingly pressing issue.

There’s been no shortage of efforts to address the affordability challenge through research and policy change. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's (CMHC) efforts to collect data on foreign investment have been met with resistance - some information is inaccessible due to privacy laws, and British Columbia’s requirement that immigration status be reported on transfer tax forms is rarely enforced. The recently released 2016 Federal Budget included amendments to capital gain refund mechanisms to reflect the new 33% rate of top marginal income tax, but it’s been speculated that this is unlikely to deter investments in real estate; a 2015 survey of Toronto condo-owners showed that more than half of the owners of investment properties did not plan to sell within the next 5 years - so it’s not income from sales that is affected by this policy change, but rental income that these investors appear to be counting on.

These struggles make it all the more interesting to take a look at ways how architects, coast-to-coast, are addressing the issue of affordability - not by building cheaply, but building smartly, and designing homes that create new opportunities for income.



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Let's begin with Michael Geller, an architect and planner who is the pioneer behind UniverCity, an award-winning sustainable community situated on Burnaby Mountain, next to Simon Fraser University (SFU). In 2009, Geller created a building featuring 24 units, each with “lock-off suites”. Borrowing the idea from hotels and resorts, a small studio apartment - at a tiny 260 square feet - is connected to each larger unit, allowing property owners to take in rental income, and take over this space if their family grows. Fireproofing between the rental units and the rest of the suite, along with an additional door to the corridor was estimated to add between $20,000-$30,000 to the sale price compared to the same square footage, but the flexibility and option for income meant buyers could justify this additional cost (particularly when it eliminates the cost of real estate commissions, land transfer tax, and the hassle of moving when it’s time to upsize). While the units are below the minimum square footage normally permitted for a residence, it provides an option for students with a limited budget seeking accommodations near the SFU campus.



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In Toronto, Janna Levitt and Dean Goodman of LGA Architectural Partners took a similar approach in designing their detached home on Euclid Avenue - though here the focus was not so much on how to generate rental income, but how to create a home that could be inhabited in different ways as their family matured. The basement of the house was built to provide some privacy without complete autonomy for their then teenage children. Space was allotted for a kitchen, and an exterior stairway was also built and then buried, setting the space up for an easy transition to being an entirely separate unit - a transition which they’re now making as their children have moved out. The couple plans to continue to live on two floors, but the basement suite will provide income throughout their retirement.



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While affordability is not nearly as problematic in Halifax, the home designed by Susan Fitzgerald (recently featured on is another great example of how residential architecture can accommodate changing needs.



Image courtesy of: Mike Dembek


Basement suites and renovations that convert single-family homes into multi-family dwellings - and vise versa - are nothing new, but this kind of planned evolution to accommodate both changes in lifestyle and in financial needs, seems to be an emerging trend. So perhaps it’s this sort of adaptability that will be the key to improving affordability in areas where housing costs continue to rise.


** Hero Image courtesy of Inhabit  with thanks 


This article was written and researched by Miranda Corcoran, a designer based in Toronto


Take a look at other articles on to see how laneway housing is being used to create affordable options without increasing urban sprawl:

Vancouver's Laneway Homes by Lanefab Design/Build by Brennan Guse

Addressing Urban Sprawl with Laneway Housing in Vancouver BC by Kristine Krynitzki

Posted In: Canada

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