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One module at a time: The future of affordable housing

November 10, 2022

By Colleen Dixon and Jody Bielun

How can modular builds help shape our future for more affordable housing?

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn socioeconomic inequities into focus. This includes a housing affordability crisis that deeply affects those most vulnerable in our society. It’s certainly a troubling trend across North America. And it should give us pause to look at our various financial and community planning strategies that put affordable housing front and center in major municipal capital plans across countries.

The Government of Canada’s National Housing Strategy consists of a $72 billion investment in affordable housing facilities across the country, with a goal of reducing homelessness by 50% over a decade. Filtering down to provinces and cities, the strategy must tackle many complex issues that affect the unhoused and those at risk of homelessness. This allows for a more rapid response to delivering housing.

Over the last two years in British Columbia alone, we’ve seen an uptake in need for more affordable housing. We’ve especially noticed it in Metro Vancouver. There’s a real need for a more effective and streamlined design and construction process that will allow us to stay ahead of the trend. One solution? Modular builds. 

Modular design doesn’t have to look “modular.” It’s important to create character through public art. 

The King Edward Affordable Housing building leverages modular design and construction to provide 14 floors of quality units on a rapid and repeatable scale. As the lead architectural designers, we’ve seen three underlying benefits in this build type that allow our cities to stay ahead of the housing crisis.

1. Modular building allows for design repeatability

To create a genuine feeling of home, we must move away from the cookie-cutter template. For many, that’s what’s associated when they hear the word “modular”—so let’s break that myth.

Yes, modular builds are prefabricated off-site, with discreet and repeatable elements that can be used and potentially reused on multiple buildings and project sites. At the same time, designers can customize modules to fit the requirements of the resident demographic and site parameters, with exterior cladding, engineering systems, and materiality to suit the environment and building conditions. That’s a key design factor for housing as we look beyond standardization to create a feeling of home. Modular doesn’t have to look modular. Instead, it’s a construction type with all the benefits of fabrication—such as quality control and economy of scale—but is customizable where the designer needs it to be.

Many aspects of the building serve as a model for what all builds should be and can act as the primary figure upon which other iterations of affordable housing are based.

One of the key benefits of modular design? The ability to easily replicate this model to quickly provide housing to at-risk groups.

The King Edward Affordable Housing building in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers a welcoming exterior at the street level. The use of tree-like characteristics in color and materiality pay homage to the adjacent city parks. 

2. The factory-controlled setting can complement energy-performance targets

Energy targets are becoming more stringent as the construction industry takes strides to tackle the climate crisis. Because of that fact, energy considerations have become part of how we approach design and constructability.

Modular construction is prefabricated off-site in a factory-controlled setting. This contributes to the strict air tightness requirement of Passive House, one of the most rigorous voluntary energy-based standards today. The Passive House Standard stands for quality, comfort, and energy efficiency. Passive Houses need minimal energy to reach a comfortable temperature.

The King Edward Affordable Housing project is targeting Passive House Certification. Modular design has been instrumental in targeting Passive House’s standard requirements due to its high levels of airtightness.

Modular doesn’t have to look modular. Instead, it’s a construction type with all the benefits of fabrication.

3. It standardizes the process but creates a canvas for customization

We approach modularity like a sculptor who creates something unique after using standard methods to construct a common framework. When we look at standardizing affordable-housing design, we focus on the design frameworks and construction methods that provide an opportunity for replicability, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability.

Modular buildings can be creative canvases on any city skyline. They allow designers to leverage material, color, light, and art throughout the built environment to make tenants feel at home and part of a community.

Designers start with stacked modules. Then, they add or change facades until they find an expressive building envelope that suits the demographic of its residents and neighborhood.

The King Edward project uses references to tree trunks and bark to break up the modular mass effect. We also wove Indigenous-specific patterns, materials, and art into the fabric of the building. The tree references serve as a powerful metaphor as they reflect the natural environment and a sense of place adjacent to city parks. The biophilic nature of these references enhances human health and comfort. 

The King Edward Affordable Housing building integrates outdoor amenities to enhance wellness.

This method of customizing a building allows it to use repeated elements while still creating a distinct character and responding to its unique urban context and community of users.

Building community from within

To build a socially resilient community, we must first look inward. We must cultivate a level of safety, security, and comfort on an individual scale.

It’s rewarding to have the chance to transform something simple into something elegant—an authentic experience of an urban home. In doing so, we can enable people to truly thrive—not just survive.

  • Colleen Dixon

    An architect, Colleen has worked on a wide variety of projects that range from master plans to buildings and urban design She’s also worked in a variety of settings, including institutional, industrial, mixed-use residential, and retail.

    Contact Colleen
  • Jody Bielun

    An intern architect with Stantec’s Buildings group in British Columbia, Jody has a practice history that spans the globe. She brings her professional experience to design safe, enriching, playful childcare facilities, and community-based buildings.

    Contact Jody
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