Notification Window

Laneway House (2004)

06 Feb 2017
Image Credit: Tom Arban/Michael Awad
Architectural Credit: Kohn Shnier Architects

Location: Toronto
Architects: Kohn Shnier Architects (Martin Kohn, John Shnier, Vis Ramasubramanian, and Jean-Louis Rivard)
Structural: Blackwell Bowick Engineering
Date of Completion: Fall 2004


The program for this house was challenging: to accommodate a family of five, including two pets, in a floor area of 111 square metres. Furthermore, in order to take advantage of zoning provisions pertaining specifically to additions, the design needed to strategically incorporate a significant portion of the single storey cottage that was on the site; while in fact creating the perception of an entirely new project.

It should be noted that even as there is a generalized desire to see the normalization of the laneway house, this project does not directly advocate for any attempts on behalf of wholesale laneway development; more to the point, we recognize that this project benefits significantly from its idiosyncrasies thus generating intensification that celebrates the unique character of this site and its context. It provides a safe and comfortable inhabitation for the occupants and enhances, without undermining the exceptional qualities that laneways offer.

Photo Credit: Tom Arban/Michael Awad

The distribution of uses in this house is inverted from the norm: sleeping areas are below and public areas are above.

Passing the gate from the lane, one encounters an intimate and unique garden court. The entry to the house is into a corridor which runs directly and entirely through to the rear of the home, with a view to a second, even more unique garden court. Bedroom doors are discreetly located on either side of the corridor, maintaining privacy. A number of devices have been employed which actually exploit the small scale of the project to lend convenience and even luxury for the occupants. Built-in desks and loft beds, each with its own full length widow prove generous living areas for children in very small floor areas and specially designed bookcases are also the ladders used to reach the beds. In the master suite, a sunken tub over-looks the rear court, simultaneously providing complete privacy and a view of a tiny garden. The inclusion of lavatory and dressing functions into the same space as the sleeping areas allows for cross ventilation.

The efficiently designed stairwell directs visitors up to a loft-like space on the second floor that accommodates kitchen dining and living. It is a space that is as generous as one would find in a house twice the size. Glazed re-entrant corners in the plan provide both privacy and remarkable views of the soft forms and verdant landscape -typical of block interiors of Toronto’s older residential neighborhoods---and to this one adds a third garden; a terrace that surveys the same view.

Once on this terrace, you will find a route to an even more secret garden on the top of the house.

Photo Credit: Tom Arban/Michael Awad

The openness of the main stair allows light from the top of the house to penetrate to both the ground and subgrade levels where on finds a complete sleeping suite as well as service areas. A small bathroom for additional convenience is magically located in a “discovered” space off the stair landing between the main and second levels.

The second floor is composed of a pair of off-set square volumes. One volume sets back from the neighbor on the lane to the south, respectful of their existing views and light, while the other volume sets back on the North West, to create a small outdoor deck for family use.

Generous glazed areas are located on the inside corners on each side of the massing, flooding the upper floors with light and creating dramatic views over the laneway and adjacent properties. One feels as though one is floating. Any evidence that this is a “small” house is offset by the feeling of space and light.

Photo Credit: Tom Arban/Michael Awad

The formal geometry of the massing makes the building appear to hover on the lane. The sense of weightlessness is complimented by a black colour palate that includes a front façade of dark Manganese Brick and pigmented cement board. The interior materials include recycled teak floors and cabinetry, ceramic tile, solid surfacing for counters and integrated sinks. Kohn Shnier’s characteristic use of “sneaky mirrors” is evident in both the living area and kitchen.

Photo Credit: Tom Arban/Michael Awad

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it is not the intention of this project to advocate for the normalization of laneway housing typologies. Instead it celebrates the opportunism afforded by the particulars of this site. These qualities include certain irregularities which, if normalized might reduce the qualities of inventions of the design. For example, more interesting then perhaps its site, is its inversion of typical living hierarchies as the result of being “upside down”; its wider-and-shallower-than-usual site proportions prompted us to find creative ways to incorporate outdoor space; the pre-existence of a building complete with address allowed us to take advantage of existing zoning conditions; and perhaps most importantly, the clients’ own predispositions and open mindedness encouraged experimentation.

We see this project as not merely contributing to the seduction of laneway housing; but perhaps even more importantly, it champions the possibility of satisfying program requirements on a small footprint while suggesting alternative options for inhabiting a site without sacrificing comfort, privacy or commodity-attributes that could apply creatively to many forms of housing.



Kohn Shnier Architects, is an OAA Award winning practice based in Toronto, Ontario. It was founded in 1990 as a small practice dedicated to non-specialization.  

Flag as inappropriate


Post new message: