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B.C. cannot tackle its housing shortage without fundamentally changing the way homes are built, experts and builders say: We need less of a custom-made work-of-art approach and more of a factory assembly line.

A report going to Metro Vancouver’s regional planning committee this week will examine ways to shift toward more off-site prefabrication for construction rental housing, as a way to add more homes faster and cheaper.

The demand for rental housing in the Metro region is significantly outpacing supply of purpose-built rentals, the report says. Between the 2016 and 2021 census periods, the number of renter households in Metro Vancouver increased by 13.2 per cent, a growth of 46,010 renter households, while the purpose-built rental stock increased by just 5.6 per cent, a net increase of only 6,195 homes.

“British Columbia will never, ever meet housing supply and affordability targets without a significant shift to off-site construction. It’s not possible,” said Alex Boston, an urban planner specializing in climate, housing and land use. “We’ve got to move to an assembly line.”

A major reason for that is labour, Boston says.

More than 38,000 construction workers in B.C. — or 20 per cent of the workforce — are expected to retire in the next decade, according to a report this year from BuildForce Canada, an organization that tracks and analyzes labour market trends. Unless something changes, BuildForce estimates the province’s construction industry could have a deficit of 18,700 workers by 2032.

On Sept. 22, during the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ annual conference, Boston is moderating a panel discussion about off-site construction with representatives of municipal governments, non-profit and Indigenous housing, and the construction industry.

Former Victoria mayor Lisa Helps, who is housing adviser to B.C. Premier David Eby, will deliver a presentation to Metro Vancouver’s planning committee this week on streamlining rental housing construction by using pre-approved plans and off-site construction.

The province will shortly launch a pilot project to explore pre-approved building plans and off-site construction with municipalities that are interested.

The report going to the Metro committee this week says that the average amount of time it takes to build an apartment project in B.C. is longer than most other Canadian provinces, and has only got longer over the past decade.

Off-site construction can reduce costs by 30 per cent and cut a project’s build time in half, Metro estimates. But only about five per cent of new builds in B.C. use off-site construction today. In Sweden, a leader in this area, about 80 per cent of detached houses use this method.

There are a few local examples of prefabricated housing construction, including the temporary modular housing projects that have been built in Vancouver and some other B.C. cities in recent years, providing supportive housing for people at risk of homelessness. Off-site construction has also been used for some market rental buildings, including King Edward Villa, a six-storey mixed-use development in east Vancouver completed in 2017.Much of King Edward Villa building, including mass timber components, was fabricated at Mitsui Home Canada’s huge factory in Langley. Every day, Mitsui’s plant prefabricates walls, stairs, elevator shafts, and floors. They then stack the components onto trucks and ship them to construction sites where they’re quickly assembled.

“We’ll do a condo an hour,” said Chris Naychuk, Mitsui Home Canada‘s senior director of business development.

This method is significantly faster and more efficient than regular on-site construction, he said. “That’s the only way we do it. … There’s less mistakes, and there’s no wasting time.”

Naychuk points to the success of the so-called Vancouver Special, a style of house that became widespread across the city in between the 1960s and 1980s.The Vancouver Special’s standardized design aimed to build the largest house allowed on a typical lot under city rules at the time. As the Vancouver Heritage Foundation writes, “Although the Vancouver Special had a negative reputation because of their boxy design, they were a practical choice.”

Vancouver Specials provided affordable homes for countless families, including many multi-generational households. After a contractor had built a few Specials, they would know exactly how to do it efficiently, Naychuk said, “and then they went up all over the place. We’re not talking about art.”

Now, Naychuk wants to apply the Vancouver Special concept to multi-family housing.

Currently, every wooden four- to six-storey project in B.C. is a “prototype,” Naychuk said. “Each one is unique.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Naychuk has been developing a concept for what he calls a Multi-Special: an efficient, easily replicated 100-unit, six-storey project that could be built all over the province using wood products from B.C. mills. The exteriors could be customized, but the “bones” would be the same.

Pre-fabricated homes are more common in Japan, where Mitsui’s parent company is based, Naychuk said. “There’s the Japanese mindset about efficiency and simplicity.”

Naychuk has been talking to the provincial government about the Multi-Special concept, and it “needs a provincial push,” he said. “We’re not saying Mitsui would supply all those projects, but the concept needs to be pushed out across the province.”

“Imagine being able to put out 10 of these in a week? That’s 1,000 people you’re building homes for. And it can be done.”


Story by: Vancouver Sun