Economies of Scale Touted as Solution to Making Tiny Homes Affordable

PUBLISHED: 6:05 AM MAR 29, 2022

Tiny homes are touted as a way to create affordable housing alternatives, but in the Greater Toronto Area where land costs are exorbitant and such an innovation is consequently stymied, the solution becomes economies of scale.

“In the east end of Toronto, there are some infill-style tiny homes that aren’t individual units but styled like townhouses, and they are quite small and pre-fabricated. It’s an interesting solution,” said Mike Singleton, Executive Director of Sustainable Buildings Canada. “It’s something that should be looked at in urban settings where there’s limited space and there’s a desire to densify as much as possible but still have a great urban form, which is what this development achieved.”

Topping out at around 600 sq. ft, tiny homes are no larger than bachelor and one-bed condominium units but, because a GTA land plot is so expensive, the savings are negligible. However, building several tiny townhouses, as Singleton referred to them, justifies the land price while keeping the dwellings’ costs low by using fewer materials and ensuring a smaller footprint.

In St. Thomas, Doug Tarry Homes is developing Project Tiny Hope, which will have about 25 tiny homes and an apartment building with another 25 or so smaller units. The project is being developed in tandem with the local YWCA and will charge below-market rents to tenants for whom housing is precarious.

A rendering of tiny home (ranch style) from Project Tiny Hope

Using the example of a drywaller, Stefanie Coleman, Chief Sustainability Officer with Doug Tarry Homes, says a single tiny home isn’t always economical because a certain price per square foot is charged, and because drywalling requires several trips, there could be no cost savings. Moreover, even though a tiny home’s bathroom might be smaller, the price of a faucet, fixture, bathtub, and shower won’t be any less.

“One of the things we’re working on right now is, because tiny homes can be quite expensive — and in our particular situation they’re designed as actual low-income affordable housing, so the challenge is compounded versus a regular home — is what I call ‘tiny towns,’” Coleman said of tiny townhouses. “If you have an option that can suit that, it’s a great alternative.

“Overall, if the project is larger than one single small unit, when the plumber is there he can hit all, say, four units, and when the electrician is there, she can hit all four units, so some efficiencies are built in.”

Coleman says tiny homes cost $350-450 per sq. ft to construct, but considering a downtown Toronto condominium, which is of comparable size, is priced at over $1,200 per sq. ft, the cost savings are there — provided the land is optimized to recoup costs.

Moreover, built a couple of storeys off the ground, two or three bedrooms can be fit into a tiny home, which makes it the perfect missing middle housing.

“The feedback I’ve heard is, when you compare it to the alternative, which would be a condo, this can be a really affordable alternative for people,” Coleman said. “But when you look at rural towns, those types of price points can be really high and may not make a lot of sense.”

Tiny Homes Are Ideal in Laneways

Singleton says that, in Toronto, tiny homes work perfectly in laneways because there aren’t additional land costs, making a stronger case for constructing single tiny homes. He also noted that laneway housing is a great way to achieve densification targets that are mandated by the provincial Places to Grow Act of 2005, and while tiny homes weren’t mentioned among dense housing typologies 17 years ago, they’re ideal missing middle abodes.

Although expensive land costs can quash the case for tiny homes in some places, Singleton notes that there’s always a case to be made for a home that has a smaller footprint because the energy and water bills will be lower.

READ: Toronto Gives Garden Suites the Green Light

“You have a homeowner who owns the land already and they can add a second dwelling on the land without having to pay land costs, and they can rent out the second dwelling to somebody who needs it,” he said.

“It’s a solution for people who are downsizing and don’t want to live in condos for one reason or another. It’s an alternative to the condominium, perhaps. That’s the sweet spot for tiny homes, and particularly once you get away from those volcanic prices that we have in Toronto, it becomes a really interesting potential solution.”

Tiny Homes’ Small Footprints are Sustainable

Tiny homes use smaller square footage, therefore, even if their roofs are fitted with photovoltaic panels, they won’t produce enough energy. But that doesn’t mean exploratory methods aren’t underway.

Singleton says tiny homes, due to their smaller footprints, also lower the embodied carbon — the amount of energy in carbon that goes into creating a structure — during construction.

“Those are the ‘importance of sustainability’ features. Some of the ones being contemplated right now are striving to be net-zero energy or net-zero carbon, but there’s this idea of generating enough energy on-site to offset what you use,” he said. “It’s difficult to generate enough electricity because the roofs aren’t that big, but it’s the target or aspiration, if you will.”

Lead Photo: An example of eco-friendly tiny houses in NIjkerk, Netherlands, with just 39 sq meters of living space.

Written By
Neil Sharma
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Neil has covered housing and real estate for a number of years as a Toronto-based journalist. Before joining STOREYS, he was a regular contributor for the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, National Post, Vice, Canadian Real Estate Wealth, and several other publications. Have a real estate story? Email him at Neil@storeys.com.MORE FROM AUTHOR

Natalia Ortiz Moreno

Natalia Ortiz, student of Project Management Environmental (PME) program in Seneca Polytechnic, has an Environmental Engineering background completed at Universidad El Bosque in Colombia. She has always been involved in sustainability roles and projects that included Environmental Management Systems implementation, Water Treatment Systems’ design and operation, Hazardous and Conventional Waste management and minimization practices, as well as Ecosystem’s Conservation and Energy
Efficiency programs.

For the PME – Applied Project Management Course, Natalia developed a Green Roof Assessment Tool for Seneca Polytechnic’s Office of Sustainability, with the aim to provide green roof technology recommendations best suited to a particular scenario, taking into consideration multiple aspects of green roofs and buildings; infrastructure, design, materials, environmental factors, and costs, as well as the Toronto Municipal Code – Green Roof bylaw. Natalia also has a scientific journal publication as the main author of the project “Selection and sizing of industrial wastewater treatment units required at the
new maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) aircraft facility owned by Avianca S.A. in Rionegro Antioquia” in the El Bosque University Journal of Technology.

Natalia strongly believes there are several research topics left to be developed, and the importance of
working towards Sustainability from different backgrounds, knowledge, and cultures to build strong, productive, and resilient communities.
With the vision of growing cities and infrastructure along with nature, always preserving and respecting the ecosystems’ attributes and services, Natalia would like to keep researching and acquiring more experience in Sustainability roles.

Emily Smit

Emily is a second-year PhD student in Geography at the University of Toronto, and a co-operator of a small home renovation company, Magnus Home Improvements. Her research seeks to determine how single-family homes can quickly and best be retrofit to achieve Toronto’s emissions reductions targets – including net-zero by 2040 – as part of the TransformTO climate action plan. Specifically, she will assess the impact of municipal home energy reporting and disclosure programs, as well as produce recommendations for growing the retrofit labour force in ways that attend to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Further, her research seeks to understand how home retrofit activities can be regenerative and produce net-positive impacts for humans and the environment towards transformative, place-based sustainability. When not at her computer, Emily can be found cycling with her kids to and from school or making funky sounds on her analog synthesizer.

Bofa Udisi

Bofa is a sustainability professional with over seven years in the energy and environment industry. He has a Bachelor of Science in Energy and Petroleum Studies from Novena University in Nigeria and graduate certificates in Energy Management and Environmental Project Management from Seneca College in Toronto. In 2020, he graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Master of Environment and Business degree. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Building Science program at Toronto Metropolitan University, researching whole-life carbon reduction in new construction and building renovations.

Bofa‘s work experience is primarily in the built environment, working in the private and public sectors in roles that involve structural and environmental assessment of building structures, HVAC engineering design and sales, and facilities management. Bofa is a member of several industry associations, such as the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE), the American Society for Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and the Project Management Institute (PMI). SBC’s bursary will go a long way in supporting Bofa‘s research and his desire to learn.