June 11 2020
Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis: Challenging Sites & Modular Housing
In part one of our series on affordable housing, we look at how COVID-19 has magnified gaps in our affordable housing supply and explore some options on how these gaps could be filled more quickly, at least temporarily, in emergency situations.
The Affordable Housing Challenge
Affordable housing has long been a challenge for major cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and New York. Whether it’s shelters to house the homeless, low-income or social housing, or entry level housing for newcomers or seniors, access to an affordable roof over ones head and the decent quality of life it can bring has long been in short supply.
With COVID-19, we’ve seen some stark realities become exposed and we’ve seen some of the less-than-perfect responses to these realities. From tent cities to hotel stays, these solutions are not ideal and we believe there are better solutions that can help address our current emergency situation and the longer term issues we’re seeing with respect to affordable housing.
In Toronto and Vancouver, one main reason for a lack of affordable housing is the fact that all types of housing take too long getting to market. There are plenty of reasons for this but several centre around red tape related to zoning, permits, and access to land. One way to help speed up the process when it comes to the creation of more affordable housing is to take a serious look at building on what were previously considered “unbuildable” lands, or on land that would traditionally not have been deemed attractive to home buyers or residential developers.
Building on Challenging Sites
Since a key barrier to building affordable housing in Toronto and Vancouver is access to land zoned for residential construction, we need to get more creative. Both cities have plenty of pieces of land or derelict sites that were previously deemed unbuildable or unattractive. Whether this is due to irregular lot sizes or shapes, zoning issues, or inefficient utilization, they represent a real opportunity to increase our supply of affordable housing. In Toronto, authorities have long been exploring School Lands, building medium density residential, on underutilized portions of school yards owned by the TDSB, another possible candidate for building future rapid housing.
It’s up to us as an AEC community to think of creative ways to utilize these unfamiliar site types and one way to do this quickly is with modular housing.
Modular Housing to Increase Supply
Modular construction is a great way to create more affordable housing quickly and often more affordably for citizens in need and is a much better solution than the temporary tent-like structures we’ve been seeing utilized as a response to affordable housing and shelter emergencies.
Several teams of architects and engineers have been working with modular fabricators and contractors to develop “kits of parts” that can be modified or customized, and creatively stacked to fit unique sites. There are some beautiful and inspirational examples of what can be done with basic modular kits. Take, for example, this project by Plant Prefab in partnership with Koto. Here, you see blackened wood on two stacked modular shipping containers looking elegant and like a home many of us would be proud to call our own.
While tents in parking lots have served as a temporary shelter solution, this approach cannot be effectively scaled up to support transitional housing, social housing, or even entry-level housing for those who want to live in something other than a high-rise condominium or a basement apartment. Entuitive is currently working on a research study with Partisans Architects who are in conversation with the City of Toronto to explore modular housing opportunities for unique sites.
We applaud the City’s recent announcements for taking action to explore, as Councillor Ana Bailao deems it “rapid housing”, and affordable modular housing and are confident that we can present creative solutions with our partners in the architecture and modular industry. This is a great first step to help us get past all the red tape and toward defining and implementing durable, rapidly constructed housing with high-quality design.
Pooya Baktash, co-founder of Partisans notes, “Modular construction is a critical strategy in reducing the cost of affordable housing, as it reduces site time and cost, while assuring the best quality and innovation. We need to learn a lot from the automobile and aerospace industries and think about architecture as a product that can be mass-produced in the highest quality with the latest technology.”
Another great way to take advantage of challenging sites – this time the parking laneways constructed behind entire pre-war developments in many Canadian cities – is to build laneway homes.
Entuitive recently completed work on a laneway housing project in Vancouver, working with Ocean Air Developments. This four-home project on Keefer Street is beautiful and unlocked more affordable housing options in what is a very tight and expensive Vancouver market.
We spoke to Steve Kipp of Ocean Air Developments about the project and how we worked together to increase affordable housing within one of the country’s most expensive housing markets.
“In Vancouver, we have a challenging situation with housing and the many people who are unable to live within the city limits. Land is at a very high premium in the city, however single-family dwellings dominate the landscape and are only attainable by the very wealthy. These trends are making it difficult for the City to further densify. Ocean Air Developments and Kipp Design + Build decided to look at how we could create multiple affordable living spaces on a common sized single-family lot in the city of Vancouver. We ended up constructing a new three-unit laneway structure encompassing two full indoor parking spaces. In addition to the new laneway structure, we fully restored the existing heritage house which initially sat on its own on the property. Entuitive was an integral partner in bringing this project to its completion and we are very appreciative to have had them on the team,” said Steve.
The structure at 835 Keefer Street was originally a 600 square foot home with space for one family. The project turned this into a 2,850 square foot home with four family dwellings, increasing the living space by 480%.
A Declaration for Change Post COVID-19
The Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, was recently initiated by Jennifer Keesmaat, alongside other Canadian planners and city builders urging us to take advantage of the pause initiated by COVID-19 to ensure that we prioritize returning to a more sustainable normal post-pandemic. Priority measures recommended in the declaration include updating zoning policies to allow more “gentle density” housing options, such as laneway housing, and to prioritize the use of existing municipally owned land, such as irregular municipal land parcels, for affordable housing.
This declaration contains a number of recommendations that are aligned with Entuitive’s sustainability goals, and our desire to take advantage of this moment to inspire and help facilitate positive change including smart rapid solutions to the affordable housing crisis.
Modular homes on unattractive, challenging sites could be a temporary solution that could function as transitional housing for those who are taking their first step out of homelessness, or for those new to the country looking for a soft landing before they have the opportunity to put down deeper roots.
Modular housing and laneway housing are only two of the affordable housing solutions we are exploring at Entuitive. In our next article, we’ll discuss how retrofitting existing buildings can provide another more permanent approach to affordable housing.
Do You Have a Site or Project?
Mike Hillcoat is a Principal in our Toronto office who leads our Restoration group, including many affordable and social housing projects. If you have a site or a project and would like to engage our advice or our services, reach out to him here.
Tom Greenough is an Associate in our Toronto office who leads our modular group. You can contact him here if you have a modular site or a project and would like to engage Entuitive.