Apartment Interior

Using knockout panels to create flexible units

Adaptable partitions can help small residential units meet occupants' changing needs
Monday, January 20, 2014
By Leah Wong

Two things that make condos appealing to first time homebuyers are the lower barrier of entry and their usual proximity to amenities. Condos that are located in central areas manage to keep prices down by making units smaller. But this means that when young condo owners start thinking about having children, they need to move out for homes with more space.

But according to Toronto City Councillor Adam Vaughan, building condos in a way that creates a “house life cycle” could eliminate the need for young families to move every time their numbers grow.

“We should have knockout panels in between units so the condo has a house life cycle, much like a Victorian house in Toronto,” Vaughan told attendees at the Toronto Real Estate Forum in December.

A knockout panel is a design feature that is built during the construction of a building. It allows a door or passageway to be installed between two units, while having only minimal impact of the structural function of the wall. A doorway can also be removed, by reinserting the wall panel to re-create the smaller unit. This allows homeowners to stay in their unit longer, and ultimately change the unit to meet their changing needs.

According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the demographics of condo buyers are currently split between young adults and seniors. In 2011, 19 per cent of condo owners were under 35, while 29 per cent were over 65. The majority of condo owners are childless, with 71 per cent of condo owners either live alone or are couples without children.

But building flexibility into buildings could change that. In Tribute Communities’ Queen and Portland development, knockout wall panels are located between adjoining one-bedroom units. If a condo owner were to purchase their adjoining unit, they could remove the panel, creating a passageway between the living spaces of the two units.

This means that instead of upgrading to a larger house after starting a family, condo owners could simply purchase a second unit beside their own, and add a passageway to create a larger unit. Then later, when their children move out, the passageway can be sealed, thereby creating a separate unit that can either be used as an income property, to accommodate extended family, or placed back on the market.

Since 2007, Toronto City Council has required the provision of knockout walls in some multi-unit residential developments downtown. However, as there are limitations to knockout panels — such as the need for the adjoining unit to be available when owners require it — there need to be additional solutions to housing Toronto’s families.

But Toronto is faced with a growing land shortage. The vast majority of new low-rise housing in the Greater Toronto Area is being constructed outside the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area. To add housing stock within the City of Toronto, density needs to be added in areas that have already been developed.

“There are no greenfields (in Toronto) left to build on,” Paul Bedford, former chief planner for the City of Toronto, told Toronto Real Estate Forum attendees. “But the redevelopment potential in the city is huge.”

As such, the City of Toronto is looking to for increased growth along its so-called avenues, as detailed in the City’s Official Plan.

Avenues, as identified by the city’s planners, are important corridors along major streets. Unlike in apartment neighbourhoods where there can be a greater scale of buildings, the height of buildings on avenues can be no higher than the street is wide.

“We need to have more five- to ten-storey midrise building on Toronto’s avenues,” Bedford said. “This would allow flexibility for housing, including for families.”

Leah Wong is the online editor for Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability magazines. 

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