Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thank You Think City

According to the Think City website, "since 2002, the Think City Society has helped citizens understand the issues facing their communities while developing collective solutions to protect the environment, strengthen local economies, advance democratic rights and ensure access to quality public services."

I first became involved with the organization during the last municipal election campaign. It organized a workshop and subsequent candidates' debate (moderated by the Georgia Straight's Charlie Smith) addressing housing affordability, community participation in the planning process, and electoral reform. I was impressed.

I was therefore pleased to accept a recent invitation to submit an article on my proposal to provide interim affordable housing using factory built modules. Below is my 'op-ed'. You can learn more about Think City at

By Michael Geller

I have been interested in the idea of using factory-built relocatable modules as affordable housing since 1970 when I won a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) traveling scholarship.

That was the year of "Operation Breakthrough," a US government initiative to promote factory built housing, and my travels included visits to housing factories across America. I subsequently developed this idea as my university architecture thesis. Today, I see the opportunity as follows:

Throughout Vancouver there are vacant sites that could be used for interim housing for the homeless and others seeking affordable housing. These sites vary in size and location. Some are 'infill' locations along urban streets; others are larger undeveloped 'brownfield' locations. Some are privately owned; others are publicly owned.

While each property will ultimately be developed at some time in the future, many could be available for short term use with certain incentives. The resulting housing would not be a replacement for permanent homes. Rather, it would be an interim solution which could be available until adequate permanent homes are developed. Thereafter, the housing modules could be put to other uses.

I see an opportunity to develop different housing solutions including:
• a modified version of 'workforce housing' with individual sleeping rooms, shared bathrooms and cooking/living areas;
• small units comprising a sleeping/living area and a private bathroom; and
• self contained units for singles and families with cooking facilities

In addition to the housing units, there would be communal living spaces and live-in manager/support units, where appropriate.

This housing could be owned by government, non-profit organizations, or private companies and installed on private and publicly owned lands. Support services could be provided by the same non-profit organizations that are currently providing services to those in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels and other more permanent forms of housing. While priority would be given to those who are homeless, the communities might include other households, resulting in a broader social mix.

In terms of design, the units need not look like 'trailer parks' as some critics fear. The housing could be one or two storeys in height and very attractive with a variety of exterior design treatments to fit the neighbourhood. One approach might be to create decorative murals, such as a forest or urban views over metal siding. The units would be designed to applicable provincial and municipal building codes.

Based on my research with two major modular housing companies in the lower mainland, I have determined that the housing would cost approximately $110 per square foot. When one adds in the costs of installation, site servicing, consultant and other fees, the cost per unit ranges from $37,000 to $46,000 depending on unit size and bathroom arrangements. Design, approvals, construction and installation would take approximately four months.

In summary, this is not the solution to house the homeless. However, it could be a cost effective and speedy solution for many people desperately seeking decent shelter.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with four decades’ experience in the public, private and institutional sectors.

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