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Ottawa’s Standardized Designs Must Deliver ‘Ultra-Efficient’, Resilient Homes, Analysts Say

The Canadian government’s “wartime effort” to speed up new home construction must incorporate net-zero or passive house building standards that “tackle both housing affordability and climate change in an integrated way,” Affordability Action Council members Cherise Burda and Brendan Haley write in an op ed published late last month in the Globe and Mail.

The mid-December announcement by Housing Minister Sean Fraser “harkening back to the speed and replication of new houses constructed after the Second World War” and has already gained support from industry and other levels of government, write Burda, executive director of City Building TMU at Toronto Metropolitan University, and Haley, policy director at Efficiency Canada.

But “while Canada’s postwar housing boom resulted in millions of single-family houses that regular people could afford,” they add, “it also paved over farmland and wetlands and facilitated stubborn-to-change, car-dependent sprawl, along with rising emissions from tailpipes and energy-leaking houses. While we need to harness this same get-’er-done approach to a housing boom today, we need to do so with contemporary challenges and goals in mind.”

Fraser announced the new federal program last month in what the Globe called “a reboot of a federal policy from the post-Second World War era,” in which the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) “developed straightforward blueprints to help speed up the construction of badly needed homes.” With thousands upon thousands of soldiers returning home, “Canada faced enormous housing crunches,” Fraser said at the time. “We intend to take these lessons from our history books and bring them into the 21st century.”

Many of those modest, single-family homes still stand in neighbourhoods across the country, but “the modern-day version of the catalogue will instead focus on low-rise builds, such as small multiplexes, student housing, and seniors’ residences, then explore a potential catalogue for higher-density construction,” the Globe explained. “The goal is to better ensure housing builds can be fast-tracked for approval from the CMHC and others, while also promoting larger-scale production through factory-based construction.”

The federal plan would accelerate construction with “prerubber-stamped, repeatable building designs and floor plates,” Burda and Haley say. But the plan should also address “what we build, where, and for whom,” using “simple, yet elegant” plans that specify ultra-efficient, resilient homes. “New housing can be built to perform with greater energy efficiency and be constructed with less carbon-intensive materials, while being climate-resilient,” they write. “For example, designed to maintain safe indoor temperatures for days in the event of a power outage.”

Mass production of those blueprints would depend on manufactured housing components that could be assembled onsite, and factory production would in turn “make the numbers work for these repeatable designs,” they add.

Where to build is an equally important question, the two authors continue. “An innovation revolution must move us away from building car-oriented subdivisions or in locations at risk of adverse weather events, such as flooding,” they write. “Instead, low-rise housing blueprints—the first catalogue the federal announcement plans to develop—should aim squarely at scaling the missing middle. Repeatable, preapproved designs for backyard homes, multiplexes, and stacked townhomes could bring down costs and drive uptake by homeowners and home builders alike,” and they could be built as infill in established neighbourhoods that already have access to schools, transit, amenities, and infrastructure.

A return to past government practices would also include financing for a range of household sizes and incomes, and federal investment in purpose-built rental apartments, social housing, non-profit housing, and co-ops, Burda and Haley say.

The combined menu of innovations “can add to a stack of savings to make non-market housing viable,” they write. “Building near transit can reduce or eliminate the need for underground parking, which significantly reduces building costs while helping households save money on transportation. Profit margins are removed with not-for-profit developers and housing co-operatives, and leveraging public lands for housing reduces or eliminates land costs. All this, together with preferential federal financing, construction grants, and streamlining from other levels of government, could yield a war-time output of non-market affordable housing.”

On LinkedIn last month, Rachel Samson, vice president of research at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, pointed to a diagram in the Affordability Action Council’s November, 2023 Retrofit Reset brief that showed how Fraser’s plan could meet a full range of targets for affordability, energy performance, and climate resilience. “If we don’t build that way, low-income households will face higher energy and transportation costs and greater vulnerability to climate-related events such as heatwaves and storm-related power outages,” Samson wrote.

The diagram identified energy efficiency, water efficiency, climate resilience measures, and cost-efficient, low-carbon materials and construction as opportunities for homes of all sizes, along with resilient battery backup and electric vehicle charging as options for multi-family dwellings.

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