Welcome to this month’s installment of Dear Urbaneer where we ponder housing questions put to us by our client base. This month, we explore a movement in housing that is happening more and more frequently in the city of Toronto, as a culmination of several market conditions – including escalating prices, aging homes and scarcity both of existing stock and existing land – occurs: renovation.
We have recently purchased an older home in our desired neighbourhood, and while it checks the boxes both where location and budget are involved, admittedly, it needs some work. We want to renovate the existing home so that the space is more functional for our needs, and potentially build an addition for our growing family. We’ve already started thinking about what we'd like to do to our house, but how do we actually get started to make them a reality?
Addled Over Additions
Congratulations on your purchase! If you're as obssessed with all matters of housing and home like I am, then what’s possibly more exciting than actually purchasing a home and embarking on a transformative journey that lets you take the lead in creating the space that you want, how you want? That notion is at once very empowering, but it can also be a little daunting as well. Even when you've done it multiple times!
First, there's a distinct connection between the imagined (i.e. the vision of your home) and the pragmatic (i.e. the process on how to physically bring that idea to life). In my on-going Tales of Upper Hillsborough Series, I've chronicled my on-going adventure – and nearly complete now that 8 years has passed – transforming a dilapidated vintage manse in Charlottetown, PEI with a best pal into dreamy vacation accommodations. I've also shared my journey redefining 2 of my unique Toronto lofts – in complexes where I was part of the original development team back in the 1990s – in Rejuvenating The Button Factory and Renovating The Movie House Loft. And now – as I type – I’m about to add 1000 square feet up and out on a 1960s aesthetically-mundane purpose-built Riverdale duplex into what I hope is a supremely cool, architecturally arresting new abode. That series – called the Tales From Tennis Crescent – has been both educational and inspirational, because I’ve had the opportunity to dip my hand in the creative pool at each stage of the process to really, truly transform the concept in my mind’s eye towards reality.
Whereas renovating an existing space has its own set of challenges, the complexity ramps up when it involves building an addition onto an existing dwelling. From my journey over the past two years (I'm just awaiting the permit to be issued), here's my step-by-step guide on how I'm expanding my duplex into a sublime space
✓ First Stop: City Hall
I first recommend you request an 'Application for Routine Disclosure' from Building Records at city hall so you can obtain the archival documentation for your property. I paid a $15 fee for a printing company (Paragon Digital Print Innovation) to make electronic copies made of all the relevant documents and drawings associated with the dwelling. The package could include original building drawings, permits issued over the years, etc. I consider this to be the foundation from which you start, because it provides a real history of the property and can help you formulate some of your future building decisions. It provides a snapshot of your property’s evolution and helps you determine if what you want to do is even structurally feasible. Drawings should help you determine placement of structural components, including support beams and the like.
✓ The Survey
Hire a surveyor to prepare a new survey that shows the dwelling, fences, easements and rights-of-way as it stands now. An up-to-date survey will be required by the city for any additions you propose. You may have an existing one but it needs to be pretty accurate to be considered acceptable by the city departments. I hired surveyor Speight, Vonnostrand & Gibson.
✓ Acquire an Arborist Report
In the City of Toronto, tree protection is a high priority. In fact, you cannot cut down a tree with a diameter of 12 inches or more without getting a permit from the city and agreeing to their terms, which often includes planting new trees. If you have trees on your property that could be impacted by an addition, you'll need an Arborist Report. I enlisted Alex Karney from Urban Forest Associates Inc. to prepare a report that analyzed the existing trees and addressed any impact the additions and alterations will have on them. Given I have a large tree just a dozen feet from my house, early on I explored proposing the rear addition be constructed on helical piles so as to not impact the root system. The report reviewed the potential impact in detail, as well as made recommendations on how to mitigate potential damage, along with the recommendation I plant an additional tree at the rear of the property, all of which I found agreeable in advance of submitting it to the Committee of Adjustment for approvals.
✓ The Plans
Engage a firm to prepare floor plans of your existing property. Many firms will not only do plans similar to those we use in real estate for the sales and marketing, but with advance notice they'll also prepare those plans so they can be converted into AutoCAD drawings which can be used by an architect and designer. AutoCAD lets you do more comprehensive architectural planning, like addressing structural plans and mechanical components and providing key analytical tools needed to bring your concept to life. I used Plan It Measuring for the preliminary plans from which the design then evolved. If your renovation is substantial these can be used by your architect and designer to develop the construction drawings from which your permit will be issued.
✓ Involve a Structural Engineer
If you're extending or adding onto your property, hiring a structural engineer early on in the process to review your archival drawings and the property, to best ascertain how the building is constructed so they can recommend the most economical way to expand up or out. You need to be clear from the outset about the viability of your plan; proceeding without the proper guidance and/or approvals invites the possibility that you might blow your budget or force you to make concessions you may not want to. I used Frank Infante from Engineering Link Incorporated.
✓ Hire an Urban Planner
Hire an urban planner familiar with your area to determine the existing zoning, setbacks, height limits, and density that exist with the land, as well as what is currently being approved for properties similar to yours in the area today. In 1960 – when my house was built – the size of a downtown Toronto house could be 60 percent of the lot size above grade. Today, the city is open (but not definitively) to it being around 1 times coverage. This can serve as a rough guide on how much larger in square footage you can make your house. Your application to enlarge your house – if reasonable – is a process where you request 'minor variances' which exceed the original build but don't exceed what the city is generally approving in the area. In my case, I got approvals to add a third floor because there are three storey houses surrounding my property, and my rear addition matched the extension of my attached neighbour. Getting these approvals can be a significant and lengthy process in itself. This is the stage during which you may need to engage your neighbours and community directly, and it helps to have a full understanding prior and during this particular process. Furthermore, by complying and using foresight (I engaged Urban Planner Sharyn Vincent) may help you to make decisions that may help to diminish unforeseen expenses.
Here is my experience getting approvals from the Committee of Adjustment in the City of Toronto for my Tennis Crescent Duplex in Navigating The Committee Of Adjustment For Toronto Real Estate.
✓ Hire an Architect
As my urban planner steered me in how large, high and long the envelope of a new addition could be, to be successfully approved by the City, I hired an architectural firm to create a design that married these limitations with the space plan I envisioned. These initial concept drawings, prepared by Fine Line Designs, served as the concept drawings for my Committee of Adjustment application. Once I had City approvals to proceed, I took the concept drawings to Paul Dowsett of Sustainable.TO, a sustainable architectural practice committed to delivering “healthy, affordable, and energy-efficient solutions”. Given my propensity to be 'high-design' (meaning I jammed a lot of inefficient expensive steel and glass cubes to the house in my original concept), they helped edit my vision into one that is straightforward (read 'more economical') in its construction program, efficient in its space plan, incorporates local sustainable materials, while still reflecting my aesthetic. I recommend you find an architect whose philosphy aligns with your own. If you can match your own ideas with an architect who can mirror them, it means a greater likelihood you’ll love, love, love the end product.
✓ Hire a Designer
You use much of the same criteria to choose a designer as you would your architect. Renovating a home is truly a team pursuit that welcomes and benefits from various points of view. Even with all my experience in design, I always hire a designer to help me refine my vision of the interior and source suitable available accessible products. While I follow a lot of design blogs, zines and am a fan of Houzz which allows me to cultivate a portfolio of what appeals most to me. By the time I meet my designer I have a clear direction on where I want to go, but I also rely on him to refine, elevate and steer my aesthetic so it's cohesive. Again, the renovation process is about taking steps to help realistically bring your inspirations to fruition. I also have him source products on sale, and then mix high/low products for each room so that I can keep on budget, ensuring each room has one bling item that catches the eye while the others are more affordable. In my experience, it’s wise never go 'cheap' in when it comes to fixtures and finishes, but to stay 'mid-grade'. High-end finishes don’t always generate a comparable return on investment, whereas inexpensive finishes will age, deteriorate more quickly and ,well, look 'cheap'. In short, when it comes to finishes and fittings, you get what you pay for.
Another word of advice: when choosing a designer, ensure their style and aesthetic appeals to you. This is one professional relationship where compatibility and admiration of style is crucial. One wouldn't choose a traditionalist if you’re drawn to avant-garde, or contemporary if your house is 'country'.
No matter if your project is big or small, it’s important to be specific in your desires, and that includes formulating a plan with specific steps along the way.
Are you searching for a property that will be your blank canvas? With a multi-disciplinary education in housing, decades of experience in navigating the Toronto real estate market and lots of my own personal experience in the renovation process, we’re here to help!
~ Steven and the urbaneer team
earn you trust, then your business
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000
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Tales From Tennis Crescent