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Opinion: The revival of pattern home designs will do little to solve the housing crisis

Allan Teramura is the past president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

That the federal government is taking an interest in housing design is welcome news, as it’s an issue it has long ignored. Housing has largely been left to the market, with any initiatives to improve affordability coming in the form of tools to enable first-time buyers to borrow money more easily. However, Housing Minister Sean Fraser’s recent announcement that it will provide a set of “pre-approved” home designs to help ease the housing crisis is naive.

The federal government plan to create a catalogue of designs for multiplexes, student and senior residences, and other residential buildings is a reboot of a policy from the years following the Second World War, when the Central (later Canadian) Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) created “pattern books” of house designs to accelerate the construction of badly needed homes. Designed by up-and-coming young architects, they offered sophisticated, modern designs for people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider procuring professional design services.

Today, the situation is far more complex. Rural land adjacent to cities is largely in the hands of developers, who have a pre-established model for exploiting its commercial value, which does not include one-off, nonmarket projects. Providing them with templates they can copy-and-paste into place is not likely going to change that. Inner-city infill sites, on the other hand, are all unique, and cannot be retrofitted with prototypical buildings. The simple duplication of more complex buildings across the country would already be standard practice if it was technically feasible, but climate, orientation, soil conditions, and the regulatory particularities of a site make outwardly identical buildings quite different beneath the surface. And for any house designs to be “pre-approved” requires the consent of hundreds of municipalities across the country, unless the federal government is proposing to accomplish this by fiat.

The more concerning implication of this line of initiative, however, is that somehow the time spent on the design of housing is a major impediment to lowering its cost. This is a fallacy. Canadian building codes and planning regulations do not require houses and small multiple-family dwellings to be designed by architects, and therefore, almost none of them are. The housing industry is already based on a model of the absolute minimum of time spent on design.

If anything, the housing market suffers from a lack of investment in more unorthodox housing solutions, which is where government assistance could really be useful. Incentivizing landowners to redevelop moribund strip malls and other underutilized sites into family-friendly mixed-use developments would allow for more intensive use of land already serviced by utilities and public transportation. And the sensitive issue of significantly intensifying existing neighbourhoods is one that cannot be resolved with off-the-shelf designs, as each neighbourhood has its own specific challenges and opportunities: some have laneways, providing access to possible interior sites, while others have an older tradition of small walk-up apartments.

Most neighbourhoods would benefit from a critical reappraisal of regulations deemed untouchable for decades, such as minimum parking, height, and setback requirements. Strategies for increasing density while preserving a mature tree canopy are needed in many, and the historic character of the existing architecture is a serious concern in still others. Existing homeowners feel increasingly empowered to oppose every change they feel may threaten the value of their property. Exclusionary zoning makes even the reproduction of historic, higher-density building patterns illegal in many places. Finally, few existing homes allow for dignified aging-in-place, an increasingly important societal priority.

Another factor contributing to the complexity of addressing the housing crisis is the concurrent need to radically improve the energy performance of new and existing buildings. The German Passivhaus standard, which reduces energy consumption by 90 per cent compared to current Canadian codes, was derived from a standard developed by the Canadian government in the 1970s but abandoned shortly thereafter. This standard, already part of some European building codes, should have more widespread adoption in its country of its origin.

Reconciling the competing demands of more economical construction, difficult sites, conflicting regulations, and the need for radically improved energy performance is a difficult challenge, but it’s not rocket science. It is, however, architecture, and there are architectural solutions. Given how little time is spent on thoughtful, low-cost housing design in Canada already, attempting to further minimize the effort spent on design is, in my view, performative misdirection.

Rather than copying the CMHC’s old idea of reproducible plans, the government should honour the intent of the pattern books by implementing a program to democratize good design and promote regulatory reform to foster its construction. Building significantly more housing in today’s complex urban and climate reality may require large direct investments in public housing, pilot projects in co-ordination with local jurisdictions, and other bold initiatives. Solving the housing crisis will require acceptance of risk, political leadership, and most of all, creativity.