What Can I Do Under Edmonton’s RF5 Zoning?
The RF5 (Row Housing Zone) is a small-to-medium scale zone in Edmonton Zoning Bylaw 12800. The RF5 Zone allows for multi-unit housing such as townhouses or small apartments, as well as secondary or basement suites.
The RF5 zone is a bit of a dark horse when it comes to zones in Edmonton Zoning Bylaw 12800. It’s historically been used more in Edmonton’s suburban neighbourhoods than in our mature neighbourhoods. However, changes that were made to the RF5 zone in 2019 have made it a good option for both infill and suburban development, because it allows for multi-unit housing (just like the RF3 zone), but with the option for slightly more height and density.
Read on to find out what you can do in the RF5 zone, and what the advantages and disadvantages are when compared to the RF3 zone.
The RF5 zone is meant to be used for multi-unit housing. The zoning bylaw considers “multi-unit housing” to be a building that has three or more principal dwellings inside it, with the dwellings arranged in any way, shape or form. In practice, multi-unit housing in small scale zones (like RF3 and RF5) is generally built as townhouses, where each dwelling is attached side-to-side and the front doors face the front and side lots lines (see diagram 1 below).
Diagram 1. Multi-unit housing in its most common form—row housing
BASIC RF5 REGULATIONS: MINIMUM NUMBER OF UNITS
As we discussed above, in the RF5 zone the maximum number of principal dwellings per site is controlled by the minimum area that is needed per principal dwelling (125 m2).
The RF5 zone also regulates the minimum number of units allowed. The RF3 zone doesn’t regulate minimum density, but other low rise and mid rise zones like the RA7 and RA8 zones do. The minimum number of units in the RF5 zone is 35 units per hectare. This means that if you do the math on a standard 600 m2 site, you’d figure out that you have to build at least two principal dwellings.
BASIC RF5 REGULATIONS: BUILDING SIZE
Now for the next key RF5 regulations: the size of the building. Three things control the size of the principal building: how much of the site is covered by the building (the site coverage), the building height, and the distance from the building to the property lines (the setbacks).
Site coverage is much simpler to figure out in the RF5 zone than in the RF3 zone—maximum site coverage is simply 50%, regardless of what type of housing you’re building (see diagram 3). The maximum of 50% site coverage can also be split between the main building and one or more accessory buildings (like garages and sheds) in any proportion you want (see diagram 4).
Diagram 3. Site coverage for multi-unit housing, no garage, RF5 zone
Diagram 4. Site coverage split between house and garage, RF5 zone
Note: you can get an additional 2% bonus on site coverage for any type of principal building if that building includes an unenclosed front porch. The city considers front porches to be a good way to make the front of the building look nice, and a way for neighbours to interact with each other. You can also get a slight bonus to site area if you build a garden suite.
HEIGHT (AND THE MATURE NEIGHBOURHOOD OVERLAY)
If you’ve read our previous blog posts on the RF1 and RF3 zones, you should be familiar with the routine: look out for the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay (MNO) if you’re building in a mature neighbourhood under any of the zones numbered RF1 through RF5. You can find out whether the MNO applies to your neighbourhood by checking out this map.
Although the MNO applies to the RF5 zone, a key difference between the RF5 zone and the other zones that the MNO applies to is height: the RF5 zone is exempt from the MNO height limit of 8.9 metres. The maximum height for buildings in the RF5 zone is 10 metres, whether you’re in an MNO neighbourhood or not. This makes it possible to build a three storey building, allowing for more spacious townhouses or even small apartment buildings, especially if you build the lower storey partially underground. (To find out how to measure height and make sure your building will conform, check out the section on height in the bylaw).
It’s important to note that the city’s development officers (the people who approve development permits) are not allowed to grant a variance on height. So, 10 metres is all you can get (unless you want to try your luck on making an appeal, which opens you up to quite a bit of uncertainty and takes a lot of extra time).
SETBACKS (AND THE MATURE NEIGHBOURHOOD OVERLAY)
If you read our previous blog post on the RF3 zone, you’ll know how complicated the setback regulations are in that zone. By comparison, the RF5 setback regulations are way easier to figure out, particularly the front setback.
The front setback under the RF5 zone and MNO is either 20% of the site depth, or 1.5 m less than the average front setback of the two houses beside you; whichever number is less (see diagram 5 below). The absolute minimum front setback is three metres.
Okay, we admit that the front setback regulation under RF5 is still tricky to try to figure out, but believe it or not, it’s easier than under RF3, which has different front setback requirements for row housing on corner lots depending on if the house next door has a front setback of less than nine metres, between nine and eleven metres, or greater than eleven metres (!). Yes, really.
Diagram 5. Front setback example , RF5 zone + MNO
The rear setback under the RF5 zone and MNO has to be at least 40% of the length of the site (see diagram 6). This is the same requirement as the RF3 zone. However, one of the differences between the RF5 and RF3 zones is that in the RF5 zone, individual buildings that are 6.5 metres in height, or less, can be built as close as 1.2 metres to the rear lot line. This means that you can build small buildings behind the main building in the RF5 zone, or fill up the whole site with small buildings. This regulation was designed to accommodate garden suite-style buildings on sites with multi-unit housing, though we haven’t yet seen anyone doing that in Edmonton (maybe you could be the first?).
Diagram 6. Rear setback requirement, RF5 zone + MNO
The minimum side setbacks in the RF5 zone and MNO differ slightly from the RF3 zone, and are determined based on site width and whether the site is on a corner.
Let’s look at site width first. For all principal buildings on a non-corner site, if the site is less than 18.3 metres wide, the setback on each side has to be 1.2 m (even the internal side setback for row housing). That’s quite different from the RF3 zone, where the minimum interior side setback for row housing is 3 metres.
Now let’s look at corner sites. If the site is on a corner and has a width between 12 metres and 18.3 metres, the minimum side setback along the exterior side lot line is three metres. This is larger than the minimum side setback along the exterior side lot line in the RF3 zone, which is two metres. And finally, if the site width is greater than 18.3 metres, then the side setbacks must be 20% of the site width, to a maximum of 6.0 metres in total, and at least two metres on each side. Again, the minimum setback along the exterior side lot line for a corner site is three metres. Minimum side setbacks are illustrated in diagrams 7 and 8 below.
Diagram 7. Side setback examples, non-corner site, RF5 zone + MNO
Diagram 8. Side setback example, corner site, RF5 zone + MNO
We know that’s a lot of information to take in! But it’s really important because setbacks determine how much of the site you can build on. The area in the middle of the site that’s left over after you figure out all the minimum setbacks is called the building pocket—that’s the part of the lot that you’re theoretically allowed to build on.
We say “theoretically” because, actually, the building pocket isn’t the only thing you need to look at to figure out how much of the lot you can build on. You also need to know the maximum allowable site coverage, as sometimes the building pocket is larger (or smaller) than the allowable site coverage.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to build a building containing row housing, and no garage. The maximum site coverage in the RF5 zone is 50%. However—if, after you figure out all the required setbacks—only 35% of the site is left for the principal building, then all you get to build on is 35%, even though the maximum site coverage is so much higher. By contrast, if you figure out the setbacks and determine that 55% is left, the maximum site coverage is still only 50%.
A FEW MORE THINGS TO NOTE!
SECONDARY SUITES, GARDEN SUITES
The RF5 zone allows for suites in all types of housing. In Edmonton, a suite located in the main house or building is called a secondary suite (usually but not always located in the basement), and a suite located in the backyard is called a garden suite. A garden suite can either be attached to a garage (above it or beside it), or it can be a standalone building on its own. (For more information on suites, have a look at the regulations for secondary suites and garden suites in the zoning bylaw).
Secondary suites can only be built in multi-unit housing in the form of row housing (see diagram 9 below). That is, secondary suites can be legally built in a building that contains three or more units connected side-by-side, but not connected up-and-down or back-to-front.
Diagram 9. Secondary suites in side-by-side row housing
A garden suite can also be built on the same site as row housing.
However, a major difference between the RF3 and RF5 zones is that the RF3 zone allows each principal dwelling unit to have both a secondary and garden suite, but the RF5 zone only lets you have either a secondary suite or a garden suite, you have to choose one or the other.
This means that a four unit row house on a 600 m2 site in the RF3 zone could potentially have a total of twelve units (four principal units, four secondary suites, and four garden suites), while a four-unit row house in the RF5 zone could have a maximum of eight units (four principal units and four secondary or garden suites). However, on a slightly larger site of 625 m2, five principal units could be developed in the RF5 zone, while only four would be allowed in the RF3 zone.
The same goes for suites in single or semi-detached housing in the RF5 zone. Only one type of suite is allowed per principal dwelling unit.
DRIVEWAYS AND GARAGES
One last thing about the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay: if there’s a lane behind your site, you are not allowed to have a driveway or garage facing the street, you have to use the lane. This is true even if your new building replaces an old house that had a front garage on the street—you will be required to remove the old driveway and garage, rebuild the curb, and put the new garage in the back.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR WITH MULTI-UNIT HOUSING
- Apartment buildings and stacked row housing cannot have secondary or garden suites, as shown in diagram 10 below. Only side-by-side row houses can have secondary or garden suites.
Diagram 10. Not allowed: secondary suites in an up and down row house
- Secondly, pay close attention to the rear setback. Although the size of your site may theoretically allow for four units of multi-unit housing, it can be difficult to achieve all four units without a variance, especially if you’re building side-by-side units. That’s because you will probably have to build the fourth unit in the rear setback area, which would then require a variance to the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay (which may be refused). This is illustrated in diagram 11 below.
Diagram 11. Problem: fourth unit of row housing in rear setback
In most instances, the RF3 zone will work just fine for building townhouses. In addition, if you’re looking to develop secondary suites and garden suites with your townhouses, the RF3 zone is the way to go.
However, the RF5 zone does offer a few advantages over the RF3 zone in certain instances. Typically we start to notice those advantages on larger sites, such as consolidations of two to three lots.
The smaller minimum site area of 125 m2 per principal dwelling in the RF5 zone may not make much of a difference on smaller sites, but on larger sites it can allow for a significantly higher density than the RF3 zone. In addition, the maximum height of 10 metres makes it easier to build three storeys, allowing for more spacious townhouses, stacked townhouses, and even small apartment buildings.
In conclusion, there’s a lot you can do in the RF5 zone and we hope this article helped you understand what’s possible and what to watch for. If you’re planning to build in the RF5 zone or rezone to the RF5 zone, make sure to get familiar with the regulations of the zone itself as well as the regulations of the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, to set yourself up for success.