“I wanted my mom to live nearby, so I spent $450,000 to build her a garden suite”

“I wanted my mom to live nearby, so I spent $450,000 to build her a garden suite”

Instead of shelling out for a million-dollar condo, Ryan Rohin built a 645-square-foot suite in his backyard, complete with an outdoor kitchen and smart-home features

Ryan standing with his mom, wife and two kids in front of their wood-panelled garden suite

I’m an only child, and my mom, Shoba, is a single parent. We moved to Canada 20 years ago from southern India. We don’t have any other family here, so her well-being has always been a priority for me. I see it as my responsibility to make sure she’s taken care of.

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In 2019, she was 57 years old and living in a 1,100-square-foot condo. It was about a 15-minute drive from my home in the east end, but after my wife, Risa, and I had our first son, we noticed how difficult it was for us to shuttle him to and from my mom’s place for visits. The three of us started talking about whether she should move closer to our home.

My mom loved her condo, though, and she felt anxious about the idea of downsizing. If we were going to uproot her life, I wanted to make sure she didn’t have to compromise on the privacy or comforts she’d been enjoying. So we started looking at condo developments within walking distance of our home. We quickly realized that anything comparable to her current condo would cost close to a million dollars, which was way out of our budget. Plus, even with the added proximity, we worried about whether she would be able to manage on her own if her mobility ever became an issue.

Ryan's garden suite, which he erected into his backyard

I’d seen a few laneway houses popping up in our neighbourhood, and I wondered if that was an option for us. We have a relatively large lot, so it felt like there was room for one. However, I soon found out that only properties that backed onto a public laneway could get approval—and there’s no laneway entrance at the back of our yard. So we put the whole issue on hold for a bit.

We revisited the idea in December of 2021, as we were preparing for the arrival of our second child. I decided to reach out to Lanescape, an architecture firm that specializes in laneway builds. I asked what our options were, and they told us that a zoning by-law for garden suites had been put in front of city council and was awaiting approval.

The policy would allow homeowners to build secondary dwellings in their backyards without a public laneway—access to the suite could be along the side of the main house. There would be slightly more restrictive size requirements, though, so we would have to cut down my mom’s living space by almost half. But it could be done within our budget, so we felt like it was the best solution. We decided to wait for the by-law to be approved and then build my mom a garden suite in our backyard.

The open living area in the garden suite
Photo courtesy of Lanescape

Approval came in 2022, and we got started right away. I looked at examples of tiny homes and coach houses in Canada and other parts of the world for inspiration. I really liked designs that blended minimalism with natural elements and functionality. Our lot would accommodate a 645-square-foot garden suite. At first, we played around with the idea of making it two stories, but we didn’t want my mom to have to navigate stairs as she aged. So we decided on a layout that included one bedroom, a den, two bathrooms, an open living area and a large outdoor kitchen. Our budget was $400,000.

I collaborated with the architects at Lanescape on the design—we were actually the very first garden suite they worked on. I also spent a couple of months interviewing builders to ensure we had the best team in place. The builder we chose, MBC Homes, was crucial in helping us bring the design elements to life. They quoted us just shy of $350,000 for the build, which left us room to make some upgrades.

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One of the first things we planned was a 16-foot-wide patio door that looks out onto an outdoor kitchen, which is covered by an exaggerated overhang. Actually integrating the doors was tricky, though. I didn’t want there to be a step, since that would introduce a risk of tripping. In order to assess the level of everything, we would have to wait until the interior floors and windows were in before we could start to build the deck and patio. It would add a few weeks to the build, but it felt worthwhile.

The outdoor kitchen in Ryan's garden suite

For the interior, we went with a combination of Japanese and Scandinavian design. All the research I’d done beforehand helped us keep costs down, since I was able to pick out all the fixtures and finishings myself. I chose materials with earthy elements and kept them consistent throughout the suite, which helps it feel expansive. We incorporated two skylights—one in the entryway and one in the living room—for added natural light. We also added a Murphy bed and a desk.

We wanted lots of storage to keep the space from feeling cluttered. We designed a pitched roof and used the added height in the den to accommodate a semi-loft. It’s big enough to shelve most of the things Mom doesn’t need on a regular basis.

To future-proof the space, we added a lot of smart-home elements. Many of the electronics are connected to a hub device, so Mom can use voice commands to turn on the lights or raise the blinds. For the winter months, we designed a heated pathway from the garden suite to our house so that she never has to worry about shovelling snow or getting stuck in the suite during a storm.

The kitchen area in the garden suite
Photo courtesy of Lanescape

We applied for our zoning permit in October of 2022, and it came through in March of 2023. We had shovels in the ground by May. Timing was critical for us because we wanted to get Mom’s condo rented as soon as possible in order to offset the cost of the garden suite.

Once things got started, we met with the construction team for two hours every week to talk about how things were progressing. Between that and picking out our design features, I spent eight to 10 hours on the project each week. It helped that the construction site was in my backyard. I work from home most days, so I could just walk over whenever I needed to.

We experienced our first challenge in early May. When you build a laneway or garden suite, the supply lines have to be connected to the main house, so we needed to dig a trench and extend the lines out back. Unfortunately, we had built a concrete patio in 2020, so we had no choice but to dig out a portion of it and rebuild it after the fact.

In August, toward the end of the project, we ran into another hurdle. We’d been working with a specific tradesperson on most of the exterior elements, but then they stopped working for the company we’d hired. On top of that, some of the things they’d ordered hadn’t arrived on time, so we were left to figure out how the company could fulfill its obligations. It delayed our completion date by a month.

The bedroom in the garden suite
Photo courtesy of Lanescape

Finally, in the first week of October, everything was complete. I was really happy with how it all looked, especially the kitchens. The outdoor one has a built-in fridge, a two-burner gas stove and a barbecue. Even though the indoor kitchen is smaller, all the appliances are regular size. With all the modifications, we ended up spending $450,000—$50,000 over our original budget. It could have been done at a lower cost, but we wanted high-quality materials. And it was still well under what it would have cost to buy my mom a new condo.

I kept Mom away from the suite for the last few weeks of construction. When we did the grand reveal, she was in awe. Even though the process was time-consuming, I knew it was completely worth it. She officially moved into the suite in October of 2023. Two nights later, our older son slept over at her house for the first time. She couldn’t believe how easy it was to spend time with him. The following week, she cooked us all a Thanksgiving dinner there.

Now, it’s been about five months, and my mom is really enjoying her new home. Our new routine is that she comes over every night to hang out with the kids while they’re having dinner. It means that my wife and I get an hour to ourselves, which is amazing. Our older son continues to have scheduled sleepovers with his grandma every Friday and Sunday night. Of course, our kids can visit their grandma anytime now—all they have to do is cross the backyard.

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