Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines


The City of Toronto has prepared a second draft of the Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines (August 2016). The Guidelines are intended to help implement the policies in the Official Plan by achieving the appropriate design of low-rise, primarily residential buildings for a range of building types. These types include townhouses, stacked townhouses, stacked and back-to-back townhouses, low-rise apartments and low-rise hybrid buildings.

The Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines address infill townhouse developments as well as mid to larger sites and the more complex and intense types of low-rise, multi-unit development in terms of site context, site organization, building massing, detailed design and private and public realm. The guidelines build upon and once approved by City Council, are intended to replace the Infill Townhouse Guidelines (2003).

Purpose of Guidelines

The purpose of the Guidelines is to illustrate how the public realm and built form policy objectives of the Official Plan can be addressed by:

i.     identifying strategies to enhance the quality of the public realm and overall living environment through improved spatial relationships, design and materials

ii.    establishing a balance between the protection of stable residential neighbourhoods and heritage features while allowing for appropriate infill development and intensification

iii.   providing best practices and guidance to citizens and stakeholders, particularly land developers, planners and design professionals and City staff in the creation and evaluation of development proposals 

How and Where the Guidelines Apply

The City of Toronto Official Plan seeks to direct and manage growth city-wide. While the Official Plan directs major and sustained incremental growth to the City’s Centres, Avenues, Employment Districts and the Downtown, much of the City’s land area is taken up by neighbourhoods where modest physical change is intended to take place. Low-rise, multi-unit buildings will often be located adjacent to and sometimes within stable residential areas and as such, it is important to ensure that new development will enhance and fit within the local area context.

The “Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines” apply to the design, review, and approval of new low-rise, multi-unit building developments that are 4 storeys or less. The guidelines will normally be applied through the evaluation of development proposals and design alternatives in Official Plan Amendments, Zoning By-law Amendments, Plans of Subdivision, and Site Plan Control applications. The guidelines are intended to be read together with, and help implement the relevant Official Plan policies, applicable Zoning By-laws, Secondary Plans, Heritage Conservation District Plans, the Toronto Green Standard, the Toronto Development Guide, as well as any other applicable regulations, policies and guidelines.

The Guidelines are intended to provide a degree of certainty and clarity of common interpretation. Each provision in the guideline should be weighed across the board with the other guidelines and "work together" to determine whether a development application has successfully met the overall intent of City policy. However, a guideline may not be appropriate in a particular instance or an alternative approach may result in a better solution. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the designer/developer/builder to demonstrate to the City where such an exception is appropriate. It is then at the discretion of the City to support or not support the justification. In cases where the City requires further review of applications, the City’s Design Review Panel may assist in the process.

Guiding Principles

The Guidelines do not determine where low-rise, multi-unit buildings are permitted. Rather, they assist with the implementation of the City's Official Plan policies to help ensure that low-rise, multi-unit buildings are located and organized to fit with its existing context and minimize their local impacts. The Guidelines provide specific and often measurable directions related to the following guiding principles:

  1. Enhance the quality of the public realm and promote harmonious fit and compatibility with the existing and planned context through appropriate scale, placement, and setbacks of buildings.
  2. Improve connectivity to streets, parks and open spaces, community services and amenities.
  3. Reinforce the structure and image of the City and respond appropriately to prominent sites and important views.
  4. Integrate and enhance natural and man-made features such as trees, topography and open spaces and conserve heritage properties.
  5. Create a safe, comfortable, accessible, vibrant, and attractive public realm and pedestrian environment.
  6. Promote architectural, landscape and urban design excellence, sustainability, innovation, longevity, and creative expression with visionary design, high-quality material and leading edge construction methods.
  7. Create comfortable living conditions by providing access to sunlight, privacy, natural ventilation and open space.
  8. Minimize the impact of service areas and elements on the public realm.


Low-rise, multi-unit residential buildings take many forms:

Townhouses are generally 2 to 4 storey structures with ‘through’ units that share a sidewall with a neighbouring unit and have at least three housing bays. They typically have a front and a back.

Stacked Townhouses are also ‘through’ units which share a sidewall and have units stacked vertically (typically two or three). Like the townhouse type they have a front and a back.

Back to Back Townhouses share a rear wall as well as a sidewall and the building block has two fronts. Typically, each unit has its own entrance to grade.

Stacked and Back-to-Back Townhouses share a rear wall as well as a sidewall and have units stacked vertically. This can include three units located on top of each other, two-level units stacked on top of one-level units, or two-level units stacked on top of two-level units. Typically, each unit has its own entrance to grade.

Low-rise Apartment Buildings are 4 storeys and less, units share interior corridors, vertical circulation and entrances, and have multiple units stacked vertically. Units may be organized on one or both sides of a shared corridor.

Low-rise Hybrid Buildings combine lower units with direct access to grade as well as upper units that gain access from a shared corridor, vertical circulation and entrance.

(See Section 2 – Building Types in the "Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines” for more detail on the various types of low-rise, multi-unit residential buildings)

The types of residential units described above are typically constructed in rows or blocks. The Official Plan allows these residential forms on lands designated as Mixed Use, Regeneration and Apartment Neighbourhoods. They may also fit under the four-storey height limit for residential development in designated Neighbourhood areas but policies regarding neighbourhood fit may impose restrictions. It is particularly important that the more intensive forms of low-rise, multi-unit residential development fit harmoniously within the existing neighbourhood context.

The Evolution of the Townhouse in Toronto

The City of Toronto has a long, rich history of townhouse or row house development, generally 2 ½ to 3 ½ storey, Georgian or Victorian in character, that dates back to the mid 1800's. The Toronto block size and configuration allows for long narrow lots that averaged 100 feet long (33.33 m) x 15 feet wide (4.5 m) with rear lanes and coach houses or garages. Although a somewhat intense form of development, this historical type on narrow lots still accommodated front yards, rear yards and cross ventilation with windows on the front and rear of the units. Separation distances between dwellings were maintained across the rear yards and rear lanes and access to sunlight was maintained.

In the post war period, townhouses were found in new lot and block situations and modified to promote housing with a relationship to grade, promoted by CMHC as good for families.  Typically these were laid out on large blocks near higher density forms of housing towers and mid-rises, schools and shopping centres. They were often rental housing with the site remaining in private ownership.  This type of townhouse was organized around private streets or pedestrian mews.  Parking of automobiles was in small parking lots at the edges of the site or integral to the townhouse and access was gained from a private street.

City of Toronto Infill Townhouse Guidelines

Over time new types of housing emerged within the townhouse form with new relationships between the individual unit, vertical circulation and grade. In 2002 the newly amalgamated City of Toronto introduced Infill Townhouse Guidelines to address the large volume of townhouse applications.  These guidelines responded to the decline in streetscapes created by the market for narrow frontage towns with integral front parking and garages.  Many of these applications were for free hold townhouses taking address and access from a network of private streets without adequate sidewalks, landscaping or design standards to allow for public garbage pickup. In 2005 to assist in meeting the Official Plan policy which asked that new development take address and access from public streets, the Development Infrastructure Policy & Standards (DIPS) (link) policies were approved placing limits on private streets and setting standards for the layout and design of new public streets.

New Challenges

Since that time, the demand for low rise grade related housing has remained strong.  During this period, land and construction prices have risen.   Townhouses are being constructed in many places on large sites with underground parking garages, at the edges of "tower in the park" apartment towers and on lands being converted from employment uses.  The simple townhouse has been replaced by a wide variety of taller, denser and more complex forms of housing including, townhouse, stacked townhouses, back to back townhouses, stacked and back to back townhouses, walkup apartments and hybrid types (see below for a description of types).

The current Infill Townhouse Guidelines which speak to the freehold townhouse on a public street or mews and the DIPS guidelines do not respond to the questions of organization and fit found in current applications.  These guidelines have been written to elaborate on how these types of buildings can be designed to meet the broad goals of the Official Plan.

Townhouses and the more intensified forms, Back to Back Townhouses, Stacked Townhouses and Back to Back, Stacked Townhouses, share similar issues regarding siting, layout and design.  The approach taken in these guidelines is to address the aspects that are common to all types as well as address the aspects that are particular to the more intensified housing forms. These latter types on large sites or sites which are shared with other buildings including towers present the greatest challenges in terms of organization and layout to ensure a quality public realm.


Low-rise, multi-unit buildings take many forms:

Townhouses are generally 2 to 3 1/2-storey structures that share a fire-resistant sidewall with a neighbouring unit. They typically have a front and a back.

Stacked Townhouses share a wall and have multiple units vertically (typically two or three). Like the townhouse type has a front and a back.

Back to Back Townhouses share a rear wall as well as a sidewall. They have two fronts.

Stacked, Back to Back Townhouses share a rear wall as well as a sidewall and have multiple units stacked vertically. When stacked vertically, this can include three units located on top of each other, two-level units stacked on top of one-level units, or two-level units stacked on top of two-level units. Other layout solutions may be possible (see Figures * and *). These types of residences often have more than 1 floor within each unit and have their own main access to the outside as opposed to apartment buildings which have a shared building entrance and interior hallways providing access to the units.

Low-rise Apartment Buildings share interior hallways and a common entrance and have multiple units stacked vertically

Hybrid Building combines units with direct access to grade as well as upper units that gain access from a shared corridor and entrance.

Residential units in the range of townhouses whether simple, stacked or back to back are typically low-rise, grade-related, attached and constructed in rows or blocks.  The Official Plan allows them in lands with Mixed Use, Regeneration and Apartment Neighbourhoods.  They often fit under the four storey height limit for housing in Neighbourhoods but each type may be restricted by policies which ask for neighbourhood fit, and ask for new development to have similar characteristics including building type etc.  As with any type of infill development, however, it is very important that new development “fit” within the existing context, and minimize the impact this type of development can have on the surrounding neighbourhood.


At its November 16, 2015 Planning and Growth Management Committee adopted with amendments the "Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guidelines Project".

Item 2 of the Committee's decision directed the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning to use the draft Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guideline as the basis for further consultation.

The revised Guidelines are intended to address the feedback received during the consultation process, where applicable and appropriate.

Prior to presenting a finalized version of the Guidelines for Council consideration and adoption, City Staff will undertake additional consultation and refine the Guidelines further. During this period, the Infill Townhouse Guidelines (2003) will remain in effect. City Staff will also refer to the Draft Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines in the review of new Development Applications and encourage applicants in the development of their projects to use them.

City staff and stakeholders are requested to review the Guidelines and provide feedback by September 30, 2016. Please provide Diana Birchall Program Manager, Urban Design, East City Planning with any comments or questions. 416-396-7027.

Stakeholder Consultations - A Collaborative and Consultative Approach

A main objective of the Guidelines is to provide certainty and some flexibility, in creating building designs and development layouts that reflect the goals and policies of the Official Plan. This includes making a positive contribution to the quality of life and fitting appropriately within the context of the surrounding community. The complexity and importance of this objective demands a high degree of internal and external consultation to build a set of guidelines that best represents the diversity of interests and expectations.

Four consultation meetings with City Planning staff (one in each district) and one cross-divisional staff meeting were organized to gather feedback and recommendations on townhouse and apartment building development. The meetings were well attended and the feedback provided has contributed to the creation of the guidelines.

In addition to ongoing collaboration with internal stakeholders, the current draft Guidelines reflect the results of a project mandate for an open and consultative process. Table 1 summarizes the consultation, public outreach and stakeholder engagement carried out to-date.

Consultation and Outreach Action


Public Outreach Online

Current Draft Guidelines posted online for review

Project highlights and staff contact information

Toronto Society of Architects (TSA)

Draft Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guidelines Forum and Panel discussion: April 14, 2015
Discussion comments compiled from staff notes

Online Survey: direct outreach to townhouse (with an emphasis on residents, living in the stacked and back-to-back building type)

September 11-October 5, 2015

Approximately 50 respondents

Building industry and Land Development Association (BILD) Staff Presentation I: June 24, 2015

BILD comments received by letter July 31, 2015
Staff Presentation II: September 29, 2015. Subsequent meetings to address specific concerns were held.  

Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations (FoNTRA)

Draft Guidelines circulated for review
FoNTRA comments received by letter August 5, 2015

Design Review Panel (DRP)

Staff Presentation I: July 7, 2015
Staff Presentation II: October 1, 2015
DRP comments received verbally and by meeting minutes

City Divisional Workshop  Staff presentation to representatives from relevant City Divisions, followed by a workshop: January 21, 2016
Toronto Planning Review Panel (TPRP) Staff, BILD and FoNTRA presentations to the TPRP, followed by a workshop on the topic: January 23, 2016
TPRP meeting minutes and learning materials available at: