Infill housing plays an important role in rejuvenating older communities. It can help to achieve greater density in urban areas, make effective use of existing infrastructure and address other municipal goals in some of Canada’s larger centres.
But infill is not without its problems and challenges for those who live with the reality of new construction in old neighbourhoods. Even when the new house is a welcome addition to the street, the process of getting there can be tiring and wearing on the neighbours.
The noise, the dust—competing with construction equipment, trucks and vans on streets that were not designed for heavy traffic–an infill project at best is inconvenient, and at worst can become chaotic for residents.
“Enter modular construction,” says John Froese, President of the Canadian Manufactured Housing Institute (CMHI), and General Manager of Grandeur Housing—a factory-based building company in Winkler, Manitoba. According to Froese, modular building cuts down the construction time on site and reduces the disturbance in a neighbourhood significantly by moving the building of the house off-site, into a factory or manufacturing plant.
“On-site construction time is easily cut in half by going to modular,” says Pieter Venema, President of Royal Homes in Wingham, Ontario, who has built prefabricated homes for 40 years. In recent years, Royal Homes has built a number of infill homes for clients in Hamilton, Georgetown and Toronto, Ontario, including several in The Beaches in Toronto.
“Our clients are experienced homeowners, buying their second or third home–they are very sympathetic to the impact that the construction of a new home will have on the community. They want the quality of factory-built construction, and they know that modular means less disruption to the neighbours.”
While the foundation is being prepared onsite, the modules for the home are constructed in the factory at the same time. The number of modules varies with the size and design of the home, but typically a two-storey home takes four modules, although six to eight modules are not uncommon.
Every home is different, but generally, a home is about 75% complete when leaving the factory. For instance, the walls are insulated, with siding on the outside and painted drywall on the inside. The modules are pre-wired and pre-plumbed, the flooring may be in place and bathrooms and kitchens may be completely installed.
The modules are transported to the building site and assembled on the foundation. Then the site crew takes over, finishing the house inside and out, hooking up services, and possibly adding a front porch, deck or garage.
Before any work begins on site, Royal Homes staff meet with the neighbours to explain the project–what’s about to happen on the street, what’s involved and how it might affect people living close to the site. Most neighbours are pleased for the new homeowners, and the company doesn’t get many complaints during construction. Still, “people won’t hesitate to call us if any construction waste ends up on their property,” says Venema. We know this is a sore point and take great care in keeping the building site clean and neat.”
Venema points out that factory building creates much less waste and garbage, not only on site, but also in the factory itself. In a factory setting, everything can be carefully mapped out—the building process is well established and materials are used very efficiently. There is no waste due to mistakes, and packaging is kept to a minimum and recycled whenever possible.
When the modules are almost ready to be transported to the site, the neighbours are contacted again. Usually, the street has to be closed for a while, as the modules arrive on big transport rigs and are lifted into place by a large crane. Neighbours may need to move their vehicles out of the way, and movement on the street may be restricted for a number of hours.
The arrival of the home often becomes an occasion for a community gathering. Neighbours bring out their lawn chairs and cameras and enjoy the show, which sometimes attracts media attention too.
It is a show that requires a great deal of coordination and logistical precision. The route to the building site is meticulously planned, and arrangements are made with local authorities and utilities to minimize disruptions to traffic and services. Once at the site, the modules are lifted off the truck, high enough to clear hydro wires and other hindrances, and carefully set in place.
There is little doubt within the factory-based building industry that modular construction can help ease the pressure of “the urban build” and the imposition on neighbourhoods. Rejuvenation and intensification of Canada’s urban neighbourhoods is already in progress as it becomes more and more necessary to replace an aging housing stock and accommodate an increasingly urban population. “Modular building is a great solution for infill projects,” says Froese. “If you’re living beside a construction site, there’s no doubt there will be some amount of inconvenience—but with modular, we can put a reasonable limit on that inconvenience. And the result is a better neighbourhood for everybody who lives there.”