NO MEAN CITY: The genius of walk-up apartments

Cross-posted from No Mean City, Alex’s personal blog on architecture

Toronto’s housing market may be slowing down, but it’s been incredibly hot for a decade; still, developers haven’t done much to evolve the forms of housing in the city. There are still single-family houses (mostly in the suburbs), high-rise condos (everywhere), and not much in between. This big-and-small dichotomy is in keeping with the development history of Toronto; in the 1960s we went from building houses, almost exclusively, to building high-rise towers across the metro area. (And we’re now seeing how unwise that was.)

But other cities find a useful middle ground: walk-up apartment buildings. They are the fabric of most European cities and the best cities in North America. In Boston they take the form of three- and four-storey wood-framed buildings, with reasonably sized apartments. That’s where architect and academic Tim Love hails from; head of the architecture/planning office Utile, he’s teaching at U of T this year. And he may be helping to generate a new model for Toronto. A few weeks ago he and U of T  profs Ivan Saleff (some of his work, PDF) and Robert Wright wrapped up their studio class on Walk-Up Urbanism. Their students came up with some brilliant and very practical designs for three- and four-storey buildings that would work on Toronto lots and would provide interesting and varied apartments, with decent outdoor space, all at a much lower cost than condos.

They’re going to release some of these designs soon in an online publication, and I’ll bring it to you then. I share the professors’ hope that these proposals will help to spark new developments and even new developers, to fill a market niche – between the $300,000 studio and the $1-million house – that’s badly underserved. (One exception proves the rule: Quadrangle and Sorbara Group built walkups at Sixty Loft, at Bathurst and Front. They were reasonably affordable and they are quite handsome.)

More walkups would be, as Love told me, very good for the city. It would allow gradual and subtle intensification of the city’s less dense neighbourhoods. It would be ideal, in theory, for the city’s “Avenues” – the corridors along transit routes where we should be building for the next generation. (Mass numbers of these things are just what would be needed, as John McGrath argues, to make a new subway line viable. If city zoning and politics allowed for it, which they don’t right now.)

I also hope to see more innovation in general from the city’s developers this year. The construction and development industries, especially in Toronto, are way too risk-averse. I understand: nobody likes to gamble capital when they have the prospect of a big and predictable return. But people are looking for alternatives: homes that are contemporary, liveable, and not too expensive. It’ll be better for the future of the city if we see them soon.






  1. I like buildings with commercial space on the ground floor and a few storeys of residential up top, like the ones along TO’s arterials.

  2. Fire ladders generally can only reach up to the 7th floor. The other problem with highrise, is that they require elevators. While some lowrises do have elevators, in case of a breakdown or power-outage, people in general can still walk up and down.

  3. The Montreal triplex is another prime example. It’s also useful for mixing up unit sizes. You can have a three-storey townhouse next to a classic three-unit building next to one with two 2-storey maisonette apartments.

  4. I’m assume a pure walk-up like the classic Montreal one wouldn’t be allowed anymore because, without an elevator, it’s not accessible? And adding an elevator would really add to the costs.

    There are a surprising number of nice walk-up apartment buildings slipped into residential lots amidst houses in the older parts of Toronto. I really love those buildings – they are surprisingly unintrusive and provide so much reasonable-cost housing in good locations. 

    The city does have new mid-rise guidelines intended for Avenues, and they are trying to encourage them. Their definition of mid-rise goes somewhat higher than a true walk-up where streets are wide, though.

  5. Michelle: absolutely. I admire that quality (and it gives a variety of units, which is desirable from a landlord or developer’s point of view). These student projects mix it up in the same way.

    Dylan, the question about accessibility is a good one. Actually, elevators aren’t required as long as the front doors are no higher than three storeys – so if you stack two-level maisonettes on top, you get four storeys.

    And yes to clarify, the city’s midrise plans refer to 5- to 8-storey buildings. These could work in combination with those, though – on small sites, on side streets…

  6. My neighbourhood, and its surrounding neighbourhoods, are FULL of walk-ups. Venture out of downtown and you’ll see.

  7. There are actually very few walkups for a city of Toronto’s size. The old city of Toronto had legislation against apartment buildings through the teens and 20s (when there were half a million people). Montreal is “full” of walkups, as is Boston, and Brooklyn, and Paris and just about any large European city.

  8. Isn’t practically every major street in old Toronto lined with mixed-use walk-ups? As standalone residential buildings, we have many as well, though they aren’t as common as in some other famous cities. Many cities mentioned above have similar major streets that are mixed-use, but smaller residential streets that are either all walk-up, or a mix of houses and low-rise apartment buildings. Generally, they’re built quite close to the sidewalk, with trees between the sidewalk and curb rather than on substantial front lawns. I think it’s a more metropolitan look for residential streetscapes.

    Certainly, I’d like to see more in Toronto, even if they’re not “pure” walk-ups anymore–new buildings like low- and mid-rise condos with elevators. They are an excellent alternative to the house-meets-high-rise clash that one sees even in entirely new neighbourhoods in Toronto. You can get high density with smaller blocks, more buildings, and no space wasted for the big service areas required for high-rise buildings. (These are either tucked away in a new development, or as is common in North American downtowns, on a side street that becomes a dead service alley for the high-rise buildings.) The neighbourhood dominated by low- and mid-rise residential buildings may be more walkable with shorter blocks, and in time, more diverse with a greater variety of buildings available to people. The wind and shadow issues with high-rises aren’t factors, either.

  9. I’ll also disagree with the premise that there is nothing in between single-family and high-rise. There are lots of walk-ups in the former Toronto (Queen East in the Beach… I lived in one for a few years), the post-war suburbs (Don Mills, Victoria Park Ave., Bathurst, etc.), and there are plenty under development today (including along the Avenues). Maybe they don’t get as much attention because they are not as in-your-face as a high-rise, but they are definitely there.

    But the other part is that one could make the argument that the semi-detached house, which is the predominant dwelling type in much of the old part of Toronto, fills the gap between high-rise and single-family. Certainly the Toronto semi is denser than most of what would be considered “high-density” in the 905, and is the rule rather than an exception that is strategically located along main corridors as in the 905.

  10. A lot of “single-family” houses in the old city of Toronto were originally built with a kitchen on the second floor. The main floor dining room were actually bedrooms, and the second floor bath was shared. The basements were unfinished, with a large furnace or boiler and a room where coal was delivered through a basement window. And automobiles were a luxury item, with most people using streetcars for everyday transportation. Deliveries were made by your downtown department stores, and bread and milk was delivered.

  11. To clarify, the studio was focused on higher density walk-up prototypes than the Toronto examples that have been cited. We asked the students to push the wood frame building code and therefore test and develop mostly four-storey proposals. For all of the projects, we required at least a few ground-level accessible units, thus liberating the need for the upper level units to be handicap accessible. There are certainly urbanistic disadvantages to ground level units that are essentially flush with the surrounding public realm (versus being raised slightly and accessed by stoops), but it ended up being a very productive experiment. And it’s true, this approach doesn’t quite work when the context demands full ground level retail, like along the Avenues (because no space is left for ground-level accessible units, necessary to avoid an elevator under current codes) – but maybe that’s fodder for Walk-Up Urbanism 2.0.

  12. Not sure why you say it’s cheaper – is it really? There’s economy (financially and environmentally) when you build tall… Besides that, if the author or Mr. Love could respond – what’s the densest walkups we’ve got in the city? I’m sure many of the architects and students reading would like an example to visit – I sure would… the tightest I’ve seen are the rowhouses on Sudbury St. – the basements seem to get a good amount of light and there are three storeys-worth of units on top of them (with roof decks), and no space in between them.

  13. This is a great discussion and the type of discourse that needs to be carried out in this area of housing. Generally so much of this is coverened by code (Part 9 versus Part 3) which can effect construction types (wood, seel, concrete) which can govern costs and the desire of developers to recover costs so there are “sweet spots” that govern desity configurations relative to height. Local zoning and bylaws can have a tremendous impact. Medium density housing is interesting, because if we want to promote “densification”, effecient use of infrastructure and at the same time creating humane urban environments they offer a tremendous opportunity for integration in lower density neighbourhoods. Right now it looks like 2-4 times coverage allows a lot of “development flexibility vise a vise undeground parking which can free up the ground plane for more pedestrian and landscape interventions. What we really need to do is to develop a comprehensive list of precedents and types, so we can understand what is really innovative or not. toronto and montreal have lots of good existing examples and we need to learn from those…..rob

  14. That’s very interesting re. elevators not being required as long as the front doors don’t go above the third storey, or there are accessible units on the ground floor. That really opens up a lot of possibilities, and I wish they were being taken advantage of more.

    Also kind of an interesting point that a lot of the very large Victorian houses in central Toronto have been, effectively, walk-ups for a long time – subdivided into 3 or more apartments. But it seems like quite a few are now being reconverted back to single-family.

    Living in the east end, it seems to me there’s a lot of potential for walk-ups on the various collector-style N-S roads that are lined with houses but are really quite busy, usually have a bus route, and are not ideal for single-family homes. At 3-4 storeys replacing some of those houses with walk-ups could increase density a bit without really interfering with the overall character or the residential areas around them.

  15. Elevators and accessibility IS required to all floors as legislated by the AODA – Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. 

  16. Even that I agree with author that the walk-up apartments would provide a great living for middle class families, I´m rather skeptical about their mass construction. I mean, building places are in shortage, and people are not willing to live too far away from the downtown. This blog talks about the rise in construction of condos: Toronto Condos Facts. I think popularity of condos is not lower than it used to be. Maybe the city hall should decide about this problem.

  17. I moved from Toronto to Montreal a few years ago – from a semi-detached in Leslieville to a walk-up in Montreal’s east end. It’s infill housing that blends well with the older warehouses in the area but still reflects the character of the typical Montreal triplex. 

    The development comprises 5 blocks of 8 units – each set of 8 representing a condominium corp – but the whole clearly of a piece. The 8 units are set either side of a small central stairwell with pad parking at the rear. Units start in the basement (essentially half a floor down), with 3rd floor units double height. All units extend from the front to the back like the typical Montreal triplex which creates both better airflow and better separation of living and sleeping spaces. 

    One of the things that is incredibly attractive about the development is that beyond being relatively inexpensive to buy (it’s an up and coming area but close to transit and amenities) it is incredibly affordable to live in. Maintenance is currently running about $0.08/sq. ft. My two bedroom unit of about 1100 sq.ft. costs under $100 a month but would typically run me over $650 on average for a decent building in Toronto where the typical rate starts at $0.50 and up.

    Most articles, including this one, talk about affordability solely in terms of purchase price. I see that as increasingly irrelevant as we create a housing stock of condos that have maintenance fees rising faster than inflation and represent a cost of ownership 3 to 4 times that of the equivalent size house. I haven’t gotten any clear answers on why maintenance fees are so expensive but clearly work is necessary to ensure that higher density housing remains sustainable in the long term. Perhaps that’s more fodder for your Walk-Up Urbanism 2.0

  18. @Paul: To be clear, I am a journalist reporting on the research work of this studio. Now. Excellent point. Highrise buildings are vastly more expensive to build than low-rise wood-framed buildings, and yes, they are more expensive to run as well. Elevators, garages, large and inefficient building systems, common spaces and staff – it’s an expensive model. I am convinced that something like these student projects will emerge in the market – small-scale, simple to build and yes, cheap to run.

  19. The Ontario Building Code doesn’t have too much to say about elevators. They are needed for firefighters if the building is above a certain height.

    The disability requirements haven’t changed since 2006, so I don’t think the AODA hasn’t changed the Code yet and meeting the Code is all you need for a permit.

    Lowrise is a nice idea, but I don’t think that will make more affordable units. Land costs the same, and if demand still commands over $300k for small units in large towers, you’re just going to pay more for units in lowrise.

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