Handcuffed Housing

Why can’t you get a good house, cheap ? In many parts of Canada the main reason is—It’s against the law

John Caulfield Smith,W. Bruce MacKinnon April 15 1947

Handcuffed Housing

Why can’t you get a good house, cheap ? In many parts of Canada the main reason is—It’s against the law

John Caulfield Smith,W. Bruce MacKinnon April 15 1947

Handcuffed Housing


Why can’t you get a good house, cheap ? In many parts of Canada the main reason is—It’s against the law

John Caulfield Smith

W. Bruce MacKinnon

WHAT is wrong with housing anyway? We don't mean just. today's shortage. Why has every census since 1881 shown that we haven't enough houses to go around? Why, year after year, do we take it. for granted that a quarter of a million families won't have enough shelter for themselves but will have to share with others–to double up (and not with laughter). What's the answer? It's so simple you may laugh at it:

Houses aren’t cheap enough.

That’s all there is to it.

If houses were cheaper we wouldn’t have slums.

If houses were cheaper we wouldn’t be such hidebound conservatives about our architecture, wouldn’t be so slow to adopt the improvements our inventors are always thinking up for us.

If houses were cheaper we’d build more of them, be more willing to tear them down when they got in the way of town planning. We’d give the housebuilders better, steadier jobs and take some of the dip out of depressions.

And if houses were cheaper, our taxpayers wouldn’t be so tightfisted about civic improvements,

Before we go any further let us tell you what we mean by a cheap house. We mean something that will sell at about $500 a room—a price so low that you could “carry” a brand new, spick-and-span six-room house for about $25 a month, including heat and taxes.

Fantastic? Sure it’s fantastic. Just as fantastic as today’s Mercury would have been to Henry Ford when he built the last T-model 20 years ago. Just as fantastic as atomic power would have been to President Coolidge.

Why Dreams Don’t Come True

1VTO, THERE’S nothing fantastic about a 1 i revolution in the housing industry. The only thing that’s fantastic is that it should have been so long delayed.

What we find amazing is the realtor who will praise brick as the standard building material since the time of the Pharaohs and find nothing surprising in such a situation.

We find it peculiar when people tell us that Canadians just don’t like prefabricated houses— when almost all our modern factories, office buildings, power plants and bridges are to a great extent prefabricated.

We think it odd that builders can tell you soberly that quantity production will not reduce the price of housing—although we cannot think offhand of anything made by man that has not been made both better and cheaper by the quantity methods of modern industry.

There’s nothing fantastic about a revolution in housing, but we will admit that it may be impossible —not from an engineering point of view, but because the political and psychological barriers are too great.

To give you an idea of what we mean by “barriers,” let’s consider the Faircraft House.

You may have seen

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one or two of these houses, articles about them, or newsreels. They were built in t he Fairchild Aircraft factory near Montreal, were conventionally planned one-story, four-roomed frame houses with aluminum siding in place of clapboard and double-glazed windows. They folded up small enough to go on a railw’ay flat car, and “expanded” to 25 feet by 30 feet when they were set on a lot. They originally cost $3,300 at the factory.

But they’re not being made any more. Why?

There are quite a few reasons. One was that while the factory cost was low, the cost of the complete house, delivered and erected on a lot, sometimes ran twice the cost of the bare house at the factory. That’s a common difficulty with prefabricated houses—the saving at the factory is wiped out by transportation and erection costs, because this final part of the job is still performed by oldfashioned methods. What that means, of course, is that the buyer pays nearly as much for a prefab as he does for a conventional house. And house buyers won’t take a chance on the unconventional when it doesn’t mean a real saving.

To get the full benefits of quantity factory methods you have to match them with equally efficient methods at the homesite. Faircraft, and most other prefabricators, have so far failed to do this. You can put it down in the book that you won’t get really cheap housing until all the elements of your home are produced cheaply under the control of one individual or firm. How cheap would an automobile be if the maker shipped you a body and wheels and left it up to local labor to provide you with engine and other parts?

Important though this organizational shortcoming was, it was secondary to the fact that t he Faircraft house was illegal. That’s right, illegal. In the midst of the worst housing famine the country has seen we had laws against one of the most promising means of ending the shortage!

Right in Longueuil, Que., the town where Faircraft houses were made, the by-laws called for houses to rise 21 feet above the street level. The Faircraft is only 13 feet high.

It was the same in many other Quebec towns in the ring around Montreal: Montreal South, 21 feet ; St. Antoine de Longueuil, 15 feet; Chateauguay, \x/¿ stories; Outremont, 2 stories; Ste. Anne de Bellevue, \.}/¿ stories; Ville St. Pierre, 2-story 1 ouses of brick veneer or stone required; Senneville, Iff, stories, stone or brick; Plage Laval, 20 feet. Montreal at first prohibited the Faircraft, then allowed Wartime Housing to erect it in five of the city’s poorer wards. The homeless Montrealer couldn’t buy one and have it erected on a vacant lot.

That’s only a partial list of the woes the Faircraft house ran into. In Halifax the house fell foul of the electrical code. Wiring must be locally installed and inspected on the site. The electrical boards of Quebec and Ontario had both approved the Faircraft wiring, but that didn’t cut any ice in Halifax.

The Snags in Toronto

TN TORONTO the Faircraft was as illegal as a fan-tan game. Toronto insists on interior walls being plastered, three coats at union rates. It insists on plumbing being installed by local plumbers, on solid masonry construction, on a masonry chimney.

The Faircraft house didn’t have a chance. Its walls were frame and aluminum, its chimney was steel with an asbestos liner, its partitions were of plaster board, its plumbing installed at the factory. Everything about the house had been okayed by fire underwriters and the National Housing Administration (whose code is so strict that many of the houses actually being built in Toronto wouldn’t pass its requirements), but that, doesn’t mean much to local by-law makers, who are supreme in their own bailiwicks.

Out in the Toronto suburbs Faircraft ran into the same sort of restrictions. One suburb turned it down because its studs (uprights) were 2 by 3 inches instead of the 2 by 4’s required. Its floor joists were 2 by 6 inches

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instead of the required 2 by 8 inches. This was the same old run-around since these features of the Faircraft had also been okayed by NHA and the underwriters. Only one township in the Toronto area permitted the Faircraft houses to go up, and that was only in limited numbers.

Now if you put these various restrictions together, (and it’s within the power of any municipality to combine and add to them in any way it sees fit) you find that the factory-built house is virtually prohibited in some of the biggest housing markets in Canada.


The conventional answer is that the by-laws protect the health, safety and wealth of the property owner. There is some truth in this answer; building restrictions are necessary. But isn’t it amazing how building restrictions also protect the monopolies of local workmen and suppliers?

Just how well local organized labor likes the prefab is shown by the following comment from the president of the Toronto Building Trades Council, C. J. Woolsey. He was commenting on an article that recommended prefabs:

“It must also be considered that a plan of this nature would not only shorten the hours of work of the build-

ing trade mechanics, who even under the present system of home building suffer to a great extent through lack of work, but if the plan was carried out to the extent mentioned in your article of using war plants built for war purposes, when the need for which they were built no longer exists, and utilizing them for préfabrication of building material, while certainly providing a necessary means for continuing these plants and their personnel, what would happen to the established building material industry and their personnel? An industry that has been in operation down through the years and not something hatched through the war?

“Therefore, on behalf of organized labor, I must at this time strongly oppose any plan that would tend to place the building industry into the method of production peculiar to the automobile industry.”

The Code Busters

That statement would make it clear that construction labor is extending the same warm welcome to the factorybuilt house that the livery-stable boys gave to the automobile.

Faircraft is not the only outfit that has had trouble with local by-laws and other restrictive practices. Wartime Housing, the government building

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agency, has had to get really tough about local building codes. Wartime Housing ignores them.

This outfit can buck the load code makers because it builds only in municipalities where the housing shortage is so bad that the local authorities are willing to petition Ottawa for relief. Then Wartime Housing will come to the rescue only if all local restrictions are waived. Because conditions are usually desperate at this stage of the game the local boys take it and like it.

As a result Wartime Housing is able to build houses quickly and reasonably cheaply (somewhere around $5,000 apiece). But even WTH has had to bow occasionally to the local powers. One case was in the matter of plumbing ventilation, where the government company gave in to the demands of master plumbers. There has been a great deal of argument in technical circles as to whether the earlier WTH plumbing was adequate, and quite a few feel that the plumbers were in the right.

Housing Enterprises, the big organization that is turning out rental housing for the insurance companies, follows a different policy. It plays along with local by-laws, letting its contracts to local builders who know the local rules. Yet even Housing Enterprises has its troubles.

They’ve found, for example, that although vitreous soil pipe is satisfactory under the concrete floors of basements, most of the 29 cities and towns where they are building require precious cast-iron soil pipe.

They’ve found that Vancouver requires rigid conduits to contain electric wiring, although the other cities permit flexible conduits.

One city insisted on a size of soil pipe larger (and considerably more difficult to obtain) than the pipe permitted in other cities.

Montreal insisted that a prefabricated bathroom have a specially designed trap.

These things are comparatively minor headaches for Housing Enterprises, because its housing units are not factory-built and are aimed at conformity with the local laws. But the divergence in by-laws often slowed construction because they made it impossible to use standard materials.

All these examples indicate pretty clearly that the by-law setup is an effective barrier against the cheap, factory-built home. Any town that insists on locally installed plumbing or wiring, on masonry walls, on fancy plumbing ventilation or a specified number of stories, is putting up an insurmountable barrier against factory methods. At least three of the most promising new forms of housing—-the Bungalow Biddy of cast concrete, the Fuller aluminum house, and the numerous adaptations of steel houses, would be ruled out of the principal housing markets of Canada, we believe. We have to add the “we believe” because the Biddy and the Fuller have never been sold in Canada, and there is only one steel house in the Dominion that we know of. As the by-laws stand it certainly does not look as though this sort of house would be permitted.

When Codes Disagree

While these by-laws are defended on the ground of health, durability and so on (and everyone will admit that some standards should be enforced by law), the argument breaks down when you look at the differences in the by-laws themselves:

Toronto and London insist on a separate outside ventilation pipe for the plumbing between house and sewer.

No other city that we know of regards this as a necessity.

Winnipeg insists on a shallow seal bathtub trap, but, although Wartime Housing has used thousands of them with satisfactory results, no other city that we know of will permit this type of trap.

Vancouver does not permit metal chimneys for houses, but Prince Rupert does.

Toronto requires a ventilator for the bathroom—not a real ventilating ventilator, just a small circular pipe from the ceiling to a heated flue. Most other cities don’t bother with it on the ground that it doesn’t do a good job of ventilating anyway.

Chaos Costs Money

Montreal won’t allow concrete blocks for the foundations of a house, insists on poured concrete. Other cities find concrete block perfectly satisfactory.

Ottawa demands that a three-story residential building of more than 1,600 square feet in area have 12-inch, 12inch and 8-inch walls for the first, second and third stories respectively. Most other codes are satisfied with 8-inch walls for all three stories. Either Ottawa is wrong or the other cities are wrong. They cannot all be right.

The only valid reason for differences in building codes is climate, and even the climatic factor could be handled in a national code, since it is largely a matter of frost and moisture penetration, insulation and snow loading. The by-laws governing health, safety and sanitation should not vary across the country.

If they shouldn’t vary, why do they?

For two reasons, say the men in the Dominion and provincial governments who are trying to get things standarized:

1. Fundamentally the problem stems from the way we run our cities. Only property owners—the people who already have houses—vote on money by-laws, hence have the real municipal power. Odds are that cities will be run by, and for, those who have an interest in keeping the prices of homes up. Not only is there a tendency to keep prices up to protect past investments, but low-cost homes, lightly assessed, would pay lower taxes.

2. Few municipalities have the money to hire competent help in drafting their local by-laws. As a result most municipalities get copies of the codes of

other cities, then the town officials go to work making minor changes, usually end up with something that’s a hodgepodge and far from being well-adapted to the municipality’s needs.

Makes it look pretty hopeless, doesn’t it?

It’s not hopeless, and if you tackle those reasons one by one, you’ll see why.

There’s not much doubt that the property owner is a pretty conservative fellow. But don’t forget that no one has yet planked a satisfactory $3,000 house under his nose and said, “Here it is, now make room for it!” You ain’t very well expect the city fathers to scrap their existing codes in favor of an unknown quantity. (Although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to demand that they adopt uniform codes.)

But your property owner isn’t dumb. He’s beginning to find out that his building and zoning by-laws didn’t protect him after all. They didn’t stop someone from building a huge apartment house right next to his singlefamily house. Sometimes they didn’t keep stores and factories away from what he had thought was a “restricted” residential neighborhood. Above all they didn’t prevent slums.

Property owners are finding out that slum crime, slum disease, slum vice and slum fires are costing them money.

Already Toronto has adopted a slumclearance plan, the first Canadian city to do so. But Toronto still has its laws against low-cost housing, which means that Toronto’s property owners will still have to subsidize the slum-clearance housing project. If new houses sold at $500 a room there would soon be enough of them to drain off the people from the slums, and subsidies would not be needed. If Toronto can talk its property owners into coughing up hard cash for slum-clearance the same property owners could also be talked into permitting building methods that would permanently solve the slum problem.

Now for reason number two, the one about municipalities not being able to pay for competent advice on bylaws, planning and so forth.

Don’t give it a thought. The Dominion and some provincial governments are already giving assistance.

Ottawa has drafted a National Building Code, which has given municipalities‘a really good yardstick. It hasn’t yet been adopted holus-bolus by any municipality, but it is widely used as a reference work.

Quebec has adopted a provincial plumbing code that will be enforced in

all its municipalities. The western provinces already have provincial plumbing codes. Ontario is working on one, and Nova Scotia has a draft plumbing code.

The electrical codes of the various provinces are already nearly uniform.

Town-planning assistance can be had from provincial or Dominion governments; Ontario’s Planning and Development Department is an outstanding example. Town-planning firms have come into existence, able to provide any municipality with services it could hardly expect to provide alone.

In short there’s no longer any physical or financial barrier to good building and zoning by-laws. Federal and provincial governments are in favor of uniformity, and if they want to the provincial governments have the power to force uniformity on the municipalities.

So while we still have screwball by-laws it’s obvious that we can get rid of them quickly if we really want to. Will that, by itself, get you that home at $500 a room?

No, it won’t, although it’ll be a big help. There are still several other parts of the puzzle that will have to be put together. For a good, cheap house, you have to have:

Cheap land.

Factory-building methods.

Quantity production.

Quantity selling.

Cheap land is going to be provided under a new measure brought in by the Dominion Government at the present session. The new legislation will permit the insurance companies to enter the land-development field for the first time. This will make it possible for the insurance companies to buy up raw land on the fringes of the cities, install the sewerage and water supply, then sell it to home builders at a closely restricted profit. In effect the home builder gets his residential land at something close to farm land prices. It might easily cut the price of residential land in half.

Factory-building methods have been introduced in Canada by several prefabricating firms, including Faircraft, some of which have been operating successfully for decades. Complete bathrooms are being built in one Ontario factory at the rate of 15 a day and have been shipped as far as the Pacific coast. The same firm has successfully built a “mechanical core,” an assembly-line unit which combines all the equipment and appliances of modern kitchen, bath, laundry and heating facilities in one piece, ready to hoist or slide into a house. “Storage wulls,” a sort of wall and closet cupboard combination, which promise to add to living comfort and economize on space at the same time, are now being built in a Canadian factory.

Suies Methods Outdated

As far as the house itself is concerned housing people seem agreed that factory methods are essential, but are divided on where the factory ought to be. Some think a sort of portable factory should be taken to the building site, an idea which is now being tried out at Winnipeg. It’s also the principle in the “Bungalow Biddy” operation, in which a large self-propelled machine moves on your lot and casts an entire house in concrete. Others think the entire house should be built in a factory and shipped to the site. This was the Faircraft approach and is also the basis of the Fuller aluminum house. Still others ride the fence, say the house should be built in big sections in a factory, shipped piecemeal for erection on the site.

Quantity production is supported pretty well unanimously, provided it is

j true quantity production with all the j fixings. It’s not good enough to build 100 houses using the identical methods j you would use to build one house. That j sort of quantity production might actually add to costs. What’s needed is j adoption of factory methods, mass I buying and other tricks that have been j effective in turning out autos, radios, i washing machines and so on.

Finally we’re going to have to find a ; way to match our quantity production Í with quantity selling. Many housing students who believe we can lick all the I other problems fear that the selling j problem will kill the cheap house, j They think we’re too conventional, too j wedded to the idea that a house must be built like a castle, must be built to last for centuries and look like it.

They may be right. Certainly as long as houses are as expensive as they are today, it pays to be conventional. You can’t sew up two or three years’ total income in a house so radically designed that you couldn’t find a buyer for it in an .emergency.

Even if you wanted to buy an unconventional house, you couldn’t— unless you were able to carry it without a mortgage. Not only that, but there aren’t many honest-to-goodness radical houses around. There are quite a few houses with fiat roofs, big sun decks and so forth, but while the architecture is unconventional, you’ll find that the method of construction is as old as time. And the prices are high, often higher than for conventional houses where there is less risk.

So until somebody comes along with a radical house that is substantially cheaper than the conventional type, enough cheaper to make it a worthwhile risk, no one can say for sure j whether we’re really as conventional as j we seem. Fundamentally it’s a question of price.

There’s also the question of ignorance, j As we pointed out Canada has yet to see its first “Bungalow Biddy” or its first Fuller house, and we know of i only one steel house in the Dominion.

In spite of magazine and movie pub! licity the Faircraft house only got one major public demonstration. That was when a Faircraft was erected in Montreal’s Dominion Square. Toronto folk who wanted to see it had to go out to a suburb, and then all they could see was the outside, unless they happened to be present at the erection or knew

one of the occupants.

In other words we’ve yet to develop in housing the same sort of sales organization we have for cars, radios, and refrigerators. Somehow or other we’ve got to let people see these new types of houses, try them out, perhaps buy them on a money-back guarantee basis. So far the only feature of quantity selling that has been adapted to housing is the easy-payment plan. You can now borrow $1,000 to put into a house for less than half what it used to cost in monthly payments. Thanks to Ottawa we’ve got longer terms and lower interest rates.

Ottawa, too, may solve the problem of demonstrating new ideas in housing, an obvious essential if radical changes in building are to be “sold” successfully. There’s talk of an “experimental station” at Ottawa where new ideas in housebuilding can be put to the test. The only criticism of this idea is that there should be a dozen or more experimental stations, so that the customers in all parts of the country can see what’s going on, perhaps even spend a week or two living in the dream houses. In that way the business of testing and of “breaking down consumer resistance” can go on simultaneously.

There would really be nothing new in such a situation. The Government develops and tests new types of farm products. It’s recognized that the individual farmer can’t gamble his all in experiments, so why not recognize that the individual homeowner can’t afford to gamble either? *

That, we think, is the real answer to the supposed conservatism of today’s home builder. Cut the price and give him a chance to see what new methods of building can give him for his money, and he’ll buy. As soon as he realizes that he can get twice as much for his money, he’ll probably buy a standardized streamlined house just as he bought a standardized streamlined automobile.

But if all other problems are settled, you still couldn’t get a cheap house so long as screwball by-laws are allowed to remain in force. If we keep our laws against cheap houses businessmen will stop trying to produce them, and that will be that. Faircraft has already given up the struggle. Maybe we’d better curb the local dictators before they do permanent damage. +