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Reviving the Past

Giancarlo Randazzo

Having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy with designations in Applied and Practical Ethics with an emphasis on business transactions, Giancarlo�...

Having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy with designations in Applied and Practical Ethics with an emphasis on business transactions, Giancarlo�...

Dec 12 8 minutes read

In the aftermath of World War II, Canada found itself in a unique position of rebuilding and redefining its urban spaces. The housing landscape of that era became a canvas for innovation and adaptation, laying the foundation for what would later be a significant influence on the nation's architectural heritage.

As veterans returned home and families expanded, there was an unprecedented demand for housing. This period witnessed a surge in construction, with architects and planners grappling to create efficient, cost-effective, and aesthetically pleasing designs. The resultant Post-WWII Housing Design Catalogue emerged as a compendium of solutions, reflecting the spirit of renewal that defined the era. 

The designs encapsulated in the Catalogue were more than just blueprints; they embodied a vision for community living. The emphasis was on functionality, utilizing space wisely to accommodate the growing population. These designs not only stood as architectural monuments but also served as a practical guide for future urban planners.

Fast forward to the present day, and Canada faces a housing crisis of unparalleled proportions. In the initial half of 2023, the housing supply in Canada's major cities experienced a mere 1% growth, as contrasted with the corresponding period in 2022.

The government's decision to revisit and revitalize the Post-WWII Housing Design Catalogue is a nod to the successes of the past. Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs, Sean Fraser, succinctly captures this sentiment, stating, "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 influence of historical designs is not confined to federal initiatives alone. Provinces, particularly British Columbia (BC), have been moving in that direction as of this year. BC's proactive measures, such as curbing speculation and promoting affordability, have set a precedent for the nation. The federal government's decision to follow suit and revive proven designs aligns with the collaborative spirit that has historically defined Canada's approach to urban development. 

The revival of the Housing Design Catalogue not only draws inspiration from historical efficiency but actively seeks to replicate it. In the post-WWII era, speed was of the essence, and designs were crafted with the urgency of a nation in rebuilding mode. By resurrecting these proven designs, the government aims to accelerate approvals, mirroring the success of an era where time was a critical factor in reconstruction.

Dr. Mike Moffat,  Founding Director of the PLACE Centre and an Assistant Professor in the Business, Economics, and Public Policy area group at Ivey Business School, supports this approach, pointing out that efficiency in the approval process is key to addressing our housing crisis and revisiting proven designs is a pragmatic move that aligns with the urgent need for timely solutions.

Historical designs are more than blueprints; they encapsulate the spirit of innovation that defined their time. The revival of these designs not only preserves architectural heritage but also injects a sense of proven functionality into the contemporary urban landscape. It's a nod to the architects and planners of the past who, under similar pressures, managed to create enduring and efficient housing solutions.

The post-WWII designs were born out of necessity, emphasizing cost-effectiveness without compromising on quality. Developers of that era found ways to create housing that was both affordable and durable. By reintroducing these designs, the government aims to provide developers with a roadmap for cost-efficient construction, echoing the lessons learned from a time when resourcefulness was key.

While historical designs were effective in their time, the contemporary housing landscape is marked by diversity in needs and preferences. The challenge lies in adapting proven designs to meet the varied demands of different regions and demographic groups. The government's task is not only to streamline processes but also to ensure that the solutions offered are inclusive and adaptable.

Critics argue that transplanting historical designs into a contemporary context may risk overlooking modern amenities and sustainability features. The delicate act of balancing heritage with innovation requires a nuanced approach. It necessitates not just a revival of historical blueprints but a thoughtful integration of modern necessities to ensure that the housing solutions of today meet the expectations of a rapidly evolving society.

"A war-time-like effort is needed for Canada to build the 5.8 million homes the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates need to be built by the end of 2030 to restore affordability," says Dr. Moffat. He identifies three critical failure points that a traditional strategy might encounter: speed, labour shortages, and climate change.

According to Dr. Moffat, the federal government can address these challenges through a robust industrial strategy that changes both what and how we build. His suggestions include curating a list of climate-friendly, less-labour-intensive building methods like mass timber, modular homes, panelization, and 3D printed homes.

In a move reminiscent of the 1940s, Dr. Moffat proposes that builders adopting these designs could be fast-tracked for regulatory approvals, streamlining the construction process. 

Moreover, the government can act as the first customer for such projects, further accelerating their uptake. The government can begin to alleviate the identified shortage of housing units for Canadian Armed Forces families and allocate funding to colleges and universities to construct on-campus student housing, a vital response to the escalating number of international students. Failing to do so may jeopardize their status as designated learning institutions, thereby compromising their capacity to admit international students. 

Tweaks to the tax system, streamlined approvals processes, amendments to building and zoning codes, and incentives for municipalities to alter their zoning codes are part of Dr. Moffat's comprehensive strategy. He asserts that viewing this strategy as an investment, not a cost, is crucial, as the economic opportunities are enormous.


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