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Housing business builds right in your back yard

If it’s time to move and you don’t know where, the solution could lie right in your own back yard. One new business specializes in building garden and garage suites that are both affordable and custom-built.

If it’s time to move and you don’t know where, the solution could lie right in your own back yard.

One new business specializes in building garden and garage suites that are both affordable and custom-built. 

“All they have to do is come and pick a model or redesign the model with us,” said Thomas Lukaszuk, managing director with Urban Mews, the business that builds the back yard homes.

In February city council voted in favour of amending the land use bylaw to include garden and garage secondary suites. Prior to the change residents could only fashion their basements into secondary suites.

Lukaszuk said the change to the bylaw provides more living options for residents who want to downsize, co-parent or who want an additional space for their hobby. It’s also a great option for families who believe in aging in place.

“One of the biggest issues in Alberta is that there’s no housing for seniors. The government of Alberta hasn’t built any new housing for the last number of years. So if you have a mom that’s 80 years old and can no longer live in her house because of stairs, where does she go?” Lukaszuk said.

Since the city approved the bylaw changes Urban Mews hasn’t heard from St. Albertans looking to build. Lukaszuk said, however, he expects that to change as more residents seek out other living options.

Ian McKerracher, 64, who is a resident in St. Albert, said he’s glad council made the changes. He has plans to build a secondary suite in his back yard, attached to his home. Once it’s built he has plans to move into the smaller space and pass his home on to his daughter, her husband and two children. 

“The importance for me is that I wanted to pursue multi-generational living. I saw it as a reality in most places in the world and very much absent in North America,” said McKerracher.

He said he felt the city was working too slowly in changing the bylaw. In January McKerracher appeared before council to talk about his concerns.

“I’m glad it went through,” he said. “I see good things coming from it. In the early part my grand kids get to live in a house close to their omi and poobah and get the enriching relationships that come from knowing the extended family.”

He said as he ages his family can also take care of him and his wife.

Shovels haven’t hit the ground yet, but once plans come into place McKerracher will have to speak with his neighbours prior to building the addition. He said the city requires him to notify anyone who is within a 30 metre radius from his property about building a secondary suite.

Regardless of city requirements, Urban Mews builder Steve Gerencser said talking with neighbours is an important part of bringing the community together. Even if the resident has already had the conversation, the company will make an introduction themselves before building.

“If something arises that you’re uncomfortable with, then contact us. We realize that this is going to be intrusive to not just the homeowner, but to the neighbours as well,” he said.

That means if there’s any complaints while building is going on, neighbours will know where to go.

While Urban Mews hasn’t built any in St. Albert yet, they have completed various suites across Edmonton. One current project includes working with a mother who wants to build a suite for her child who has disabilities.

Tanis Miller said having a garden suite will help her 15-year-old son, who is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, have his own space while still being close to home.

“Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean that you should lose that opportunity to be independent,” she said. “It’s independence for him, and for us he’s just down the sidewalk."

The garden suite would either serve as a living space for her son with an employed caregiver, or just the caregiver. 

“He needs a nurse for all basic care. This allows the (nurse) to have a bit of a private life as well  while helping foster the independence of our son.”

The A team

Creating a company with a strong focus on community didn’t happen overnight. Urban Mews consists of builder Gerencser, who builds high-end custom homes, project lead Paul Hastings and architect George Ilagan, who both have experience constructing houses in third world countries, and managing director Lukaszuk, who is the former deputy premier and has experience refurbishing and building playgrounds in third world countries.

Together the four stand around a table in the Urban Mews office that’s piled with stacks of architectural designs. It’s in this room where they discuss and debate what direction the company should go.

Since launching, there’s been a strong focus on being both socially-focused and quality-focused. All their homes are state-of-the-art builds with a guaranteed 10-year warranty. The suites are complete with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and laundry room. 

As part of giving back to the community, Lukaszuk said part of the proceeds generated through the business will go towards local community associations.

When a customer reaches out to Urban Mews, the company will walk through a list of options in building the garden or garage suite. That includes choosing the type of siding, roofing and other building materials. 

For a more expensive build-out residents can choose eco-friendly and fireproof materials. The list stands as is, which means customers can’t dream up their own designs. Ilagan said this ensures Urban Mews is always in line with city bylaws.

All the homes, regardless of what the resident chooses, will be outfitted with LED lights. 

Buyer beware

One increasing trend the company is starting to see is the use of shipping containers as secondary suites. The suites have the classic metal ribbed siding of a sea can, but it has been fashioned into a livable space. Hastings said companies that develop these suites often say it’s more eco-friendly and more affordable.

He said before looking into that option, however, it’s important to have buyer beware.

“Sea cans were not designed to be homes, they were designed to be sturdy shipping containers,” Hastings said.

Ilagan said he worked with shipping containers in the late 1980s, building homes and offices for workers in the Philippines. He said in order to make it into a livable space you have to cut into the siding to create windows and doors. Then it has to be welded with steel to create a sturdy frame around the cutting.

He said anytime you cut into the container it compromises its structural integrity. Ilagan said while prices for the sea can home start out seemingly small, by the time it’s structured into what a customer wants, the prices are similar to buying a home.

“It becomes extremely expensive,” he said. “When it became a fad I thought, 'really'?”

He added that in order to get the shipping container fully insulated it takes away a lot of the square footage within the interior. 

Lukaszuk said that sea cans used for secondary suites are removed from the line after its first use. All shipping containers have a lifespan of six shipments before the structural integrity is compromised from being banged up on the journey. When a sea can is taken off the line, it ultimately has to be replaced.

He said he’s also wary of what might’ve been shipped in the shipping container before it was taken off the line.

“The floor of a sea can is made of bamboo, (it’s) pretty porous material,” he said. “Sea cans are used to ship garbage, body parts for incineration, chemicals, you name it."

Instead, if you want to join in on the trend, Urban Mews can use similar siding to mimic the look of a shipping container, while still providing an upscale home. Once the trend cycles out, the siding can be replaced.

Urban Mews will take between three and four months to complete a back yard secondary suite. For more information on the business visit: https://www.urbanmews.ca/.


Dayla Lahring

About the Author: Dayla Lahring

Dayla Lahring joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2017. She writes about business, health, general news and features. She also contributes photographs.
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