Why some experts say modular homes could ease the Canadian housing crisis

Canada needs 3.5 million housing units by 2030 to restore housing affordability, according to CMHC

A modular housing unit bound for Oshawa, Ont.
Modular homes, such as this one bound for Oshawa, Ont., are constructed in a production facility off-site and stacked like Lego bricks onsite by a crane. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

For 27 years, contractor Craig Mitchell has built everything from hospitality and care facilities to multi-family residential buildings — with a twist. 

Mitchell doesn’t construct his projects traditionally, but rather builds modular houses in a production facility off-site.

“A modular box is constructed as a six-sided box that gets lifted into place,” he said. “All six sides are already installed with full plumbing, drywall, paint, right down to towel bars in the walls in the bathroom.”

Mitchell, who also works as a consultant with modular-design building company 720 Modular, compares them to a Lego brick. He says these boxes, fully constructed in the warehouse, are then delivered on a truck to a construction site, where they’re installed and stacked onto the foundation.

“Then the final wrap up over the next number of months occurs,” he said. “You put cladding and a roof on it, connect all the interconnections in it, and boom, you’re open for occupancy.”

An example of modular homes.
An example of modular homes. Several Canadian cities have looked into the possibility of using modular housing to ease the housing crisis. (City of London)

Off-site modular construction is not a new technique, but Mitchell and other builders and planners familiar with it say it can help build homes more quickly.

This is especially pertinent today, after Canada’s national housing agency, the CMHC, revealed that the country needs 3.5 million housing units by 2030 to restore housing affordability.

Alex Boston, an urban planner and housing and land use consultant in Vancouver, says Canada has no choice but to transition to off-site construction.

“There’s a lot of growing pains in the sector right now, and there’s a lot of painful policies and practices that are hostile to off-site construction,” he told Galloway. 

“We have to iron out these problems, and it’s the only way that we’re going to solve our housing crisis.”

Faster construction … 

Enda McDonagh is an architectural technician and principal  at Montgomery Sisam Architects in Toronto. 

As part of the Rapid Housing Initiative through CMHC, McDonagh and his team worked with the Housing Secretariat and the City of Toronto to deliver 100 modular housing units within an eight-month period in 2020.

Each unit was a complete studio apartment with a full washroom, kitchenette, bed and other necessities.

“With a project like that, there was a lot of effort on behalf of the modular builders and ourselves and a lot of other consultants,” he told Galloway. “But equally, there was a lot of backing from the city, right up to the mayor’s office to deliver those projects.”

McDonagh said this project was supposed to be a rapid response to the crisis of overflowing shelters and homelessness. He added that a traditional construction method could be “very difficult” to meet the demands of the job.

According to McDonagh, modular construction can be done much more quickly than traditional construction methods.

“You’re building the third floor while someone’s constructing the foundation. And normally you have to wait for the first and the second to get built before you can get the third,” he said.

On top of that, since every decision is made prior to going into construction, costs won’t fluctuate as the project goes on.

“You’ve already selected all your materials and you’re ready to go,” said Mitchell.

And since the components are built in a warehouse, construction won’t stall during the winter, either.

… but a higher cost

Despite the advantages, McDonagh and Mitchell admit that modular construction is more expensive per unit compared to traditional housing construction.

Since you’re stacking units on top of each other, the amount — and cost — of materials is higher than in traditional methods.

“You’ve got doubled-up assemblies,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got a ceiling and then you’ve got a flooring that is then stacked on top of that.”

Additional costs include transporting those units from the warehouse to the site, and using a crane to stack the units, he added.

Working together

Mitchell says we are still in the very early days of the growth of modular construction in Canada, while some other countries — such as Singapore and Japan — have “perfected” their techniques to make the process more efficient.

But with few potential solutions left in the Canadian housing crisis, Boston says there has to be “a decisive commitment by every level of government to amend existing practices” to tilt the field in favour of off-site construction.

A look inside one of a modular housing unit in Surrey, B.C.
A look inside of a modular housing unit in Surrey, B.C. (Haley Lewis/CBC)

“We need to start, but we have to transform policies and practices that inadvertently make offsite construction really difficult.”

McDonagh says people should be open to methods like modular construction to make sure “we’re utilizing every tool available to produce as much housing as possible.”

“[We] don’t have a choice. We just have to use everything that’s available,” he said.

– CBC

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