Welcome to my blog on housing, culture, and design, where I explore all the facets of real estate, shelter, and home. I’m Steve Fudge, and I’ve been selling real estate in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for over 30 years. Today I’m continuing my exploration of the topic of affordable housing.
With the rising cost of just about everything these days, affordability is top of mind for Canadians these days. While eroding housing affordability has long been an issue in Toronto – due in part to a lack of supply and steady demand – in the past few years, the issue has grown to startling proportions, with equally significant results. At this time, it is a quagmire requiring generous support – both in policy and land development – to alleviate concern and economic strain.
With scant supply and the growing ‘financialization’ of housing, the playing field for hopeful property purchasers is certainly not level. I explore this burgeoning phenomenon in my blog, ‘The Growing Trend Of Financial Landlords In Toronto Real Estate’. To this point, housing affordability was a major campaign issue for all the parties in last year’s federal and the recent provincial elections.
The challenges of affordability in housing are not new to our generation. And commonly, society has turned to policymakers to assist in creating access to housing. I recently wrote a retrospective of initiatives taken across Canada – and across the decades – in the ways our country has created economical (was it / is it affordable?) housing in my post –> Does Canada Have A History Of Building Affordable Economical Housing?
Toronto is beginning to take steps toward trying to alleviate the supply crunch with inclusionary zoning. But as with all public policy – there are pros and cons- depending on who you ask, which I discuss in this post: What’s Being Done To Create Affordable Housing In Toronto?
While the erosion of housing affordability is pronounced in Toronto, we are certainly not alone, as numerous other locations the world over have similar problems- and creative solutions to affordability, which I explored in Making Housing Affordable… Around the World!
As I mentioned in that post, part of affordable housing might just begin with the perception of what affordable means – and what it looks like in terms of housing.
In a number of countries, contrary to our North American philosophy of ‘max-out the mortgage to buy the biggest-built-dwelling we can’, houses are constructed gradually and ‘piece-meal’ as people literally live within their means. In Jamaica and Mexico, rooms are added to shelter as savings allow. Similarly, in Chile, there are developments where residences are built with a structural framework that allows them to be expanded over time, aiding with keeping initial acquisition price points low – and allowing owners to customize to suit over time enriching the streetscapes with architecturally unique homes.
Along the same lines, there are a number of creative design and build approaches being taken in various global locales to make housing more affordable.
Part of the issue with housing affordability is the cost of materials and of lack of skilled trades to get the work done, meaning that home buyers will ultimately have to pay premiums. In a bid to make home construction more efficient – and therefore more affordable- more and more consumers are investigating the economics of modular homes. First, modular, factory-built or pre-fab homes are different monikers that essentially describe the same thing – dwellings that are built off-site and delivered to the location for installation – have been trending for many years now, but we’re beginning to see them in a new light; perhaps less a fancy and more a necessity. So let’s look at one example that’s very on point and not something we see in our country very often, but stay tuned for a future post on modular housing firms operating in Canada.
Popular in Europe, Estonian design firm Kodasema creates Koda homes – a modular flexible shelter solution. They are built off-site and quickly making them appropriate for emergency or for temporary housing. When they are transported to the building site, they can be erected in a single day. This innovation came about by looking at ways to make a smaller footprint – which is more affordable, simply because of size efficiencies in that they’re cheaper to build and cheaper to maintain – and by mass-producing them economies of scale can keep costs down – which makes them more affordable. This firm claims their construction process makes their product 15 to 20 percent less expensive than conventional on-site construction methods.
With flexible designs, sustainable materials, easily transported and can be designed to be stackable creating even more units in smaller land spaces Kodasema estimates that their construction process is about 15-20 percent cheaper than conventional on-site construction methods. And in addition to their micro homes, they offer a concrete model and a floating option for on-water living. Just like visiting a model home in a suburban development, or a model suite in a condominium development, purchasers can pick from a variety of finishes and upgrades.
Another company that is innovating on the building process to make it more efficient – and therefore more affordable – is Enterkera with their FIOSS® off-site construction process. Using a highly automated process, they manufacture all their products and deliver them ready to construct – quickly on site.
In traditional construction, stick-framing can take a crew of five people about 14 days to accomplish. With the FIOSS process, a crew of four people can accomplish the same task in just four days! This increases productivity by 500 percent, according to the company, which works out to about $25,000 in cost savings.
It’s no surprise that Toronto is proceeding with its own Modular Housing Initiative including this news release by the City of Toronto in April 2022 announcing “the delivery of 59 new permanent modular homes at 540 Cedarvale Ave“. Here are more buid specifics in UrbanToronto.
Back To Basics? Is It Possible?
In our HGTV-obsessed world (click here to read my piece Behold The HGTV Effect On Toronto Real Estate), we are fixated on the fashion and finish of our residences. Design media is great for inspiration, but it has also fundamentally changed what we as dwell hunters (and property owners) perceive as desirable, aspirational, and demonstrating we are ‘biographically on schedule’ based on what our ‘status marker’ looks like.
It is important to acknowledge, that while housing functions most importantly as physical shelter, there are a number of other simultaneous roles that it plays, including satisfying a number of physiological and emotional needs, which I explore in Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And Toronto Real Estate For Buyers & Sellers. Similarly, homes are a canvas for self-expression, which is what the allure of all of those HGTV-style, dramatic, transformation reveals tap into – our collective creativity.
But in the face of affordability, are quartz countertops and soft-close hinges a want or a need? Truthfully, there are those (and growing numbers of) citizens who might place that in the ‘need category’. And, as a child of the media, a realtor, and a housing conceptualist who launched his career with the adaptive reuse conversion of factories into loft condominiums back in the mid-1990s, I unintentionally contributed to this trend as I share in my post: The Affordability Conundrum For Toronto House Buyers: Location, Condition & Costs.
As much as I fed the trend for high-design living in the loft conversion projects I was engaged, based on my findings in my graduate research the developers I was fortunate enough to work with were willing to offer the spaces for sale as ‘unfinished shells’ – completed to meet the building code requirements of having a 3-piece washroom and a kitchen sink with running water so that the could be sold for the lowest price possible (with the developers earning a 15% return on investment) so that anyone – but in particular artists who didn’t seek ‘fancy’ but rather practical art studios. Most developers also offered custom design-and-build services to appeal to the growing creative class who were seeking spaces that served their non-conformist lifestyles including live/work living. Developers today argue that the final finishing of space represents about 5% of the total sale price of a suite which doesn’t translate into a significant ‘cost savings’, especially when most buyers are so heavily invested in what the finished product looks like. But surely – somehow – there is a holistic way to scale back our shelter so that it’s more basic.
Back To Basics –> With The ‘Naked House’ In England
This article from RENX called “The Naked House: The Future Of Housing Affordability” talks about a group in the UK who is leading a bare-bones design development in the name of housing affordability. Similar to what Chile has implemented with social housing, in the UK homes are being constructed with bare design essentials, with plenty of room built-in for the homeowner to finish to their tastes and budget over time.
In Chile, the social housing project comprised row housing, whereas in Enfield UK, Community Led Housing is building 22 single family detached homes. They are built with a kitchen sink, heating, basic electrical and a washroom, but that’s about it. The shell is built in such a way to allow for people to maximally change the floor plan as they like (i.e. including adding demising walls/partitions. Etc.). The development group offers support with skills training so that homeowners can understand what they may or may not be capable of prior to taking on projects.
What is interesting about this is that it is geared toward the middle-class who have been priced out of the market in the UK. They earn too much to qualify for social housing, but their incomes have not kept up in relation to rising real estate prices.
3D Printed Homes
Innovations in tech can help with efficiencies, reducing waste and creating better- more affordable buildings. And the next big thing in housing may just be 3-D printing. Using a machine, following a digital plan designed by the 3-D printer, the machine pours concrete in layers, according to the plans to construct a home. The benefits of using this tech are that it is cost-effective, energy-efficient and also quite customizable also is good for safety purposes, as less employees are required on the job site, and are less likely to experience job-related injury because of the nature of the equipment.
Late last year, Habitat for Humanity built the first 3-D printed home in the U.S. The 1200-square-foot home’s exterior was built in a mere 28 hours using 3-D printing technology. Check out the video below! This organization is fantastic, and while I understand the design considerations here (more specifically, that it appears rather conventional and conformist in its post-war suburban vernacular), I’d rather live in the groovy Dwell Magazine 3D House in the photo above. Visually arresting, with its undulating textural curved printed concrete walls, expansive glazing, and wood timbered ceiling – all of which could be done more economically – to me is a more liberating enlightening space I’d prefer to see the direction of our shelter landscape to go. Wouldn’t you agree?
To build a traditional wood-framed home of this size would cost about $150,000. According to Alquist, a 3D-printing construction company who completed the project, using the 3-D printing tech reduces those costs by 15 per cent. This is significant, with the cost of building materials – especially lumber, having risen so much during the pandemic.
Here’s the CNN story: “Virginia Family Gets Keys To Habitat For Humanity’s First 3D-Printed Home In The US“. The significant achievement was also covered in Time magazine: “How The Company Behind TikTok’s Viral 3D-Printed Houses Wants to Help Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis”“. This tech is really taking off in the U.S. with many embracing the cost-effective opportunity to ramp up much-needed housing supply. Read “ICON Just Unveiled Plans for a Massive Neighborhood of 3D-Printed Homes In Austin, Texas“.
This phenomenon is arriving to Canada too. The first single storey fourplex built with 3D printing is under construction near Windsor, Ontario. It’s the first multi-unit project in North America using 3-D printing. Here’s a pic:
CTV led the story here: “First Of Its Kind 3D Project Printing Off New Affordable Homes“. The same company – Nidus3D – is currently building the first 3-D printed 2-storey home (in 2 weeks) on Wolfe Island, just off the coast of Kingston, Ontario featured in this CTV article, “First Two-Story, 3D Printed House Being Built On Wolfe Island”“. Incidentally this tiny island is big on sustainable innovation; the Wolfe Island wind farm is located there as well as a renewable energy supplier to Hydro Ontario.
New Materials… + Recycling The Old
An Australian technology to build homes affordable using lower-cost materials is gaining traction and being used throughout China and India, where the need for affordable housing is dire, with a swelling population.
Using Glass Fibre Reinforced Gypsum (GFRG) provides an affordable walling and roofing system, that could cut costs over traditional materials by some 30-40 percent, according to some estimates. Using these GFRG panels, homes can be constructed very quickly as well, reducing overall costs. It’s also known as the rapid wall system. It’s a durable construction system, able to withstand a number of climate events, like earthquakes. cyclones and fire. Structurally, a GFRG building does not require beams and columns. Panels are long-lasting with a lifespan of 60 years. GFRG panels have been designated a green building material by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Panels are made from glass fibre reinforced gypsum, and can be used to construct every aspect of the home, with the exception of the basement and foundation. These panels don’t have to be cemented over, which is how they are cost-effective and quicker to construct. Their smooth surface can be painted over directly. They also have cavities, which can be filled with concrete or other material as needed to reinforce the structure – or be used for electrical or plumbing work. With properly reinforced foundation, GFRG buildings can go up to 8-10 storeys high. Gypsum is a widely created waste material in India, so supply is abundant, keeping it cost-effective and environmentally friendly, as it is reducing overall waste. Panels are constructed in factories and delivered to the construction site, where they can be assembled relatively quickly.
For a short summary or and further thinking on how gypsum can have a positive effect on housing costs, here are a couple relevant reads from Construction World and Common Floor: “GFRG To Speed Up Affordable Housing” & “Everything You Need To Know About The GFRG Panel In Building Construction.”
As these innovations all demonstrate, design isn’t just about cutting edge aesthetic. Good design at its base is functional. Beyond a sensible space plan, part of the functional nature of relevant design these days is affordability so that more people can benefit financially, socio-economically and physiologically from home ownership.
That’s why innovative is so crucial when faced with a challenge. The solution lies in creativity – and thinking outside of the “box”- which is quite literal when it comes to creating Shelter. For more reading on innovation in tech and design for affordable housing, check out these links for articles from SSIR and Curbed: “Innovative Solutions For The Housing Crisis” & “Solving Affordable Housing: Creative Solutions Around The U.S.“.
What Will Your Next Dwelling Be?
The process of choosing a property and its location is complex. First, we define our practical needs such as the number of rooms required for sleeping, living and working. Second, we determine what location and style best reflect our social values and affiliation to the community. Third, we define our budget and evaluate how realistic we can tend to our needs and wants with our finances.
During this evaluation, we discover that our housing choice reflects our age, status, identity and family size. From urban edge to bucolic suburbs, some neighbourhoods are geared to celebrate urban cultural amenities, others to raising children. Whatever your particular case, research on housing and identity indicate that owning a home, as part of the Canadian Dream, is seen as a sign of financial and personal success, as well as reflecting one as “biographically on schedule”.
So, if you were to move, what kind of dwelling would you choose? Would you choose an English Tudor? A French Chateau? An American Colonial? How about a rancher, a saltbox, a chalet, or a cabin? In Toronto, you’ll most likely choose either a detached house, a semi-detached house, a row house, a co-op, a condominium, or a stacked townhouse. But maybe you’d prefer something unique like a coach house, a converted grocery store, or an authentic loft in a century warehouse? Or how about a luxe penthouse, a stately mansion, or a cottage with a white picket fence?
Whatever your preference, each type of dwelling conveys its own kind of domestic bliss. And most of us see ourselves living in one…or several! How do you decide? How will you search for your perfect home?
Do you need help defining your housing needs? At Urbaneer.com, we know dwellings, as meaningful objects and settings, are non-verbal signs defining and communicating who we are. Because we know the dwelling place and our identity, whether social or personal, are inevitably linked through its form, style, interior and exterior decorations, we know it’s vital to define your needs, your wants, and your wishes for the perfect home. We are here to help you define your housing dreams and develop a strategy to achieve them!
Anxious about affordability in Toronto’s housing market? While I’ve been writing and forecasting the rising cost of housing for decades (and the associated detriment and fallout), here are three extremely relevant reads I’ve posted in the past two months:
Does the high price of shelter have you re-thinking your Dwell Hunt strategy? Are you wondering when the best time to sell your property might be as we navigate inflation? With decades of expertise, wisdom and insight to guide you, we are here to help!
Thanks for reading!
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-8000
– we’re here to earn your trust, then your business –
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*Love Canadian Housing? Check out Steve’s Student Mentorship site called Houseporn.ca which focuses on architecture, landscape, design, product and real estate in Canada!