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Canada consulting on reviving ‘wartime housing’ design catalogue

In its latest efforts to address Canada’s housing crisis, the federal government is launching consultations to revive a revised version of a wartime housing effort: a standardized pre-approved design catalogue, with the aim of helping speed up construction.

“We are living in a housing crisis, but it’s not the first time Canada has been here. After the Second World War when many thousands of soldiers were returning home to be reunited with their families at once, Canada faced enormous housing crunches,” Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Sean Fraser said Tuesday.

“One of the tools that was deployed at the time to respond to the challenges they faced… was the development of simple pre-approved designs… We intend to take these lessons from our history books and bring them into the 21st century.”

The consultations with housing sector stakeholders on the new catalogue will begin in January, focusing first on establishing a series of standardized low-rise construction designs including modular and prefabricated homes before expanding to potential high-density construction plans.

Fraser said the federal government will be focusing on home designs that are “cost effective, labour efficient, and energy efficient.”

This move is hearkening back to a post-Second World War Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CHMC) initiative that saw the federal Crown corporation create a series of housing design catalogues to help build more homes faster, for returning veterans.

Known as “victory homes” or “strawberry box homes” the government considers this sizable federal effort undertaken between the 1950s and 1970s key to addressing the housing shortages and construction capacity challenges of the time, and many of these homes remain standing across Canada.

But, Fraser 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.”

Mike Moffatt, an economist and founding director of the PLACE Centre at the Smart Prosperity Institute, advised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet this fall that the current housing crunch needed a war-time response, suggesting specifically re-offering a free catalogue of designs.

Reacting to the news that the Liberals will be heeding this call, Moffatt said the move “has the potential to be massively beneficial,” if the implementation is well-executed.

Fraser said he is aiming to have the catalogue of pre-approved blueprints ready for builders to see by the fall of 2024, but the minister could not provide an estimate of how many new housing units he expects to see built through this program. 

“We expect to get an estimate over the course of the consultation,” Fraser said. “I have seen estimates from experts in the field indicating this could cut up to one year off the time for construction on a project, so more than just getting more units, getting units built more quickly will also be part of the advantage.”

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Hanes