“Homes built by Wartime Housing Limited in Peterborough, 1943,” Photographer J.B. Scott, Library and Archives Canada, PA-145331

Results of consultation and next steps expected this spring.

The federal government has received more than 75 written submissions from stakeholders since January on how to design and deliver a standardized design catalogue to speed housing construction.

 A series of roundtables was also held in March with non-profit housing providers and municipalities.

The initiative is reminiscent of a WWII program to house workers, and then returning veterans and their families, another time in history when there was a severe shortage of affordable housing.

The primary objective of these consultations is to develop designs, features, and amenities for the design catalogue, and to discuss how it can be adopted and implemented, the federal department of Infrastructure, Housing and Communities said in a March 29 email.

Additional outreach with provinces, territories and Indigenous partners is planned for the coming weeks, the government said.

The results of the consultations, and next steps, will be revealed in late spring, with the first iteration of the catalogue of housing designs expected late in 2024.

To what extent the latest version of a wartime housing initiative will reflect the highly successful one of 80 years ago is not yet known, and probably won’t be until the government announces its plans at the end of this year. But that hasn’t stopped the condemnation of the plan by critics.

Criticism includes the following:

  • Such pre-approved designs don’t work with urban infill development where sites often differ in size, soil conditions, etc., that necessitate customized drawings;
  • The government doesn’t have a plan to fund construction. During the war, the government paid for some of the construction;
  • People today may expect more than a basic, low-cost house with only one bathroom.
  • These houses aren’t likely to hit the market for at least three years, offering no relief to people who are suffering today;
  • The program could be vulnerable to exploitation by real estate speculators;
  • The drawings would have to conform to the regulations of hundreds of municipalities, which are always changing.
  • The initiative focuses on architectural drawings which are “relatively cheap and quick,” when there are “much more important impediments to construction.”

The Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA) is perhaps one of the stakeholders most impacted by the initiative. The organization, which represents home builders across Canada, said it too has had to opportunity to give the government feedback.

“CHBA advised that there are indeed many challenges with getting approvals through the system at the municipal level and is therefore understanding of why the idea of a catalogue to ease the approval process is being tabled,” the home builders group said in an email. “CHBA has advised that given the rapidly changing building codes, the many processes beyond building code that encumber development, and other intricacies of regional approvals, an expansive catalogue of specific plans may be very difficult to develop and keep updated, so a broader view of a solutions catalogue may be more appropriate.”

With both the promise and problems with the current program in mind, it’s worth looking at the program from the 1940s on which it is ostensibly modelled.

Economic collapse during the Great Depression in the 1930s, followed by the Second World War, created both a great need for housing and a shortage of workers and building materials. The Canadian government created a Crown corporation in 1941 to directly address these issues.  Called Wartime Housing Limited (WHL), it operated as both a large-scale contractor/developer and as a landlord, explained a 1992 history of Canadian housing, authored by H. Peter Oberlander and Arthur L. Fallick, for what was then called the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

“After conducting surveys of local residential conditions to determine the best locations for projects, (local Wartime Housing Ltd committees) contracted local builders and architects to erect rental units of three standard design types ordinarily requiring a progressive, semi-prefabricated, construction method for quick on-site assembly,” says the text, entitled “Housing a Nation: The Evolution of Canadian Housing Policy.”

The developments often made use of municipal or federal property or land expropriated from private owners that already had municipal services to speed development, says a June, 1986 article in Urban History Review, entitled Wartime Housing Limited, 1941 -1947: Canadian Housing Policy at the Crossroads, by the late academic Jill Wade.

There were three basic designs, often a simplified version of a Cape Cod style home. Because it was expected that the homes would be removed after the war, they were often built as temporary structures that could be easily moved, resting on blocks, without basements. The basic, rectangular, house plans were 700-800 square feet and included a living room, kitchen with a dining area, bedrooms, a bathroom and a woodshed. WHL used the same standard house types for both its two-bedroom and four-bedroom bungalows.

Since most of the houses in a project used the same standardized materials, cut to the same size, much of the work could be done in a shop at the project location and erected and finished “with remarkable rapidity,” Wade wrote.

“By 1944, WHL houses displayed a more permanent character, being built of frame construction and resting upon a foundation running around the periphery of the entire structure rather than upon posts or blocks,” Wade said. “Although originally the homes were considered temporary, thousands survive to this day through improvements like the addition of a full basement and proper maintenance.”

In 1947, CMHC took over the war workers’ and veterans’ operations of the WHL, and soon sold off the rental units, essentially ending the wartime housing program.

“It was Canada’s greatest housing success – and also its greatest housing failure,” concluded Carolyn Whitzman, an expert advisor to Canada’s Housing Assessment Resource Tools (HART) project and author of the recently released book, Home Truths: Fixing Canada’s Housing Crisis: https://www.ubcpress.ca/home-truths.

“It was a success because it involved coordinated action at all levels of government to create homes at a low to moderate income price point. The federal government purchased land, financed construction with long-term guaranteed mortgages, and facilitated rapid construction through ‘model’ designs for homes and subdivisions. It was a failure because, when the homes were sold instead of leased (and the government could have kept the land permanently affordable, as was the case in Singapore two decades later, or by using a mechanism such as a community land trusts), the homes were only affordable to the first buyer.”

The consultations with housing sector stakeholders on the new catalogue were expected to focus first on a series of standardized low-rise designs, including modular and prefabricated homes, before expanding to potential high-density construction plans. Recent grant approvals by the federal government for municipalities include commitments to develop standardized housing that can get quickly through the approval process.

Sean Fraser, federal Minister of Infrastructure, Housing and Communities, said this revival initiative will differ from the post-war era builds in a few ways, including offering a series of different kinds of home designs within each category such as garden suites and laneway homes, as well as multiplexes that could be used for student housing or seniors’ residences.

“It’s important that we have multiple designs in each of these categories, so communities have some agency in determining what their communities look like,” Fraser said. The builds will be aligned with existing building codes so that the pre-approved designs will move more rapidly through the approval processes, potentially leveraging new technologies such as 3D printing.

“We want to create designs that can actually be built quickly and can be built cheaply without compromising on quality or sustainability,” the minister said. “It’s also going to ensure that people who live in these homes have reduced power bills month-to-month and can continue to manage with the cost of living.”

Those interested in receiving the housing design catalogue consultation paper and submitting feedback may email catalogue@infc.gc.ca.