Firm bets prefab housing is city’s future
Builder plans to construct demo project of a modular midrise in east end to test flat-pack homes
In a weekly series, the Star seeks simple, aaffordable solutions to the everyday prob- l lems faced by Torontonians and the city as a whole. The problem: The cost of housing construction is high and rising, making life in Toronto difficult for many to afford.
What if you could go to Ikea and purchase ccpurchase an entire house — flat-packed, ready to assemble?
That is the basic idea behind R-Hauz Solutions Inc., founded by veteran Toronto builder Leith Moore.
He wants to prefabricate panelized midrise and laneway homes that could be sold cheaper and assembled faster than traditional construction. Property owners would select the design they want, have the panels and materials shipped
and then the building would be assembled and finished on-site.
It’s common in Europe, it is catching on in the U.S. and it could be the future of Canadian home-building, some housing
experts say. Moore, along with Dumar Construction and Waverley Projects, has purchased two properties on Queen St. E. near Coxwell Ave. that will serve as a demonstration site for the concept that could be one solution for creating the midrise format Toronto wants to encourage on its streetcar avenues.
He is targeting places that are ripe for densification but dominated by two-storey mom-and-pop owners who might like the idea of expanding up to six storeys but don’t want to sell their property.
Uniformity and repeatability are the kkkeys to making R-Hauz work, Moore, 61, said.
The more standardized the box and the more often the assembly is repeated, the more efficient and cost-effective it becomes.
“We’re slab on grade, we’re six storeys, wwwe’re five or six units per 20-foot (wide) build. So we’re fast and not too intrusive,” he said.
Compared with traditional “stickbuilt” homes that are constructed on site, “slab on grade” means there is no basement — no digging down potentially disturbing neighbours’ foundations, no water table issues — just an approximately six-foot deep pit for an elevator.
“We’re only doing up to six storeys so wwwe have a little crane that sits on the ground. g
“We don’t block the street, we don’t close the street, we don’t close lanes. WWWe’re four weeks to put our structure up aaand then the crane is gone. We just do finishing f inside.
“At peak we’ll be a four-and-a-halfmonth build. The first one will probably be five-and-a-half,” he said.
Moore spent much of his 30-year homebuilding career at Sorbara Group and has taught at the University of Waterloo.
Moore is a past chair of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) and past president of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association. He travels in Europe extensively and had just returned from a trip to Denmark and Italy when he met with the Toronto Star at the Tulip diner, a Queen St. institution next to his development sites.
He is a pioneer, said Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute.
“He is trying to do smaller scale developments that are innovative in terms of their construction and design and fit them into Toronto’s residential neighbourhoods where we need more density,” she said.
Moore said R-Hauz will be able to save homebuyers money because, once the system gets rolling, he will be able to amortize costs in the same way as a big builder.
He figures an 800- to 900square-foot laneway home will cost about $300 to $350 per square foot compared with about $500 for a custom build. There are also some costs for hydro upgrades and sewer connections — that could add up to about $15,000.
“Our six-storey infill hard cost is about $350 per square foot and is comparable to midrise concrete construction. But our design costs are included in that number whereas they are an additional cost to traditional midrise,” he said.
Burda points to Britain, where modular construction has brought down the cost of some midrise by as much as 40 per cent.
“If this could be scaled it could be affordable,” she said, referring to Moore’s plans.
Burda isn’t sure that is possible in Toronto, where midrise land costs are about the same as highrise, which offers developers a better return on investment.
“Right now I don’t know if it’s cost-effective because it’s not scaled. Every building’s a prototype,” she said of R-Hauz.
“It’s really hard to build that type of nice architecture, gentle density at scale and be cost competitive,” Burda said. “We’re in a situation where midrise becomes boutique.”
The per-square-foot cost of his Queen St. sites would be comparable to that of a 200-unit building, Moore said. But, he said, “My labour is less, my time is less, my financing is less.”
He isn’t the first in Ontario to try prefabricated construction. About 12 years ago, Canada’s biggest homebuilder, Mattamy, opened a plant in Milton to manufacture homes. The facility was shuttered two years later, reportedly because it wasn’t able to supply the range of designs and features homebuyers demanded.
Moore expects the R-Hauz laneway homes to sell for about $300,000. Prices will vary according to the depth of the lot. Initially, he doesn’t anticipate substantial customization. The two-storey laneway models will offer “mid-range condo” type finishes in laminate floors and cabinetry. But in a couple of years, he hopes to have a system that will allow consumers to build a house online the same way they can customize a car with paint and upholstery.
Moore is planning wood construction, which provides a significant opportunity in terms of carbon sequestration, said Mike Collins-Williams, the Ontario Home Builders’ Association director of policy.
Even though Canada is only a small part of the equation, “Concrete production for construction alone worldwide is something like 8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “As we need higher levels of energy efficiency, we also need to consider lower carbon building materials.”
Ontario’s building code allows wood construction up to six storeys, but there are exceptions and plans for taller structures at the University of Toronto, George Brown College and the Sidewalk Labs proposal for a high-tech district on the waterfront.
While many builders were excited about wood construction initially, few wanted to be the guinea pigs. That is changing, Collins-Williams said.
“It’s not the same as building a stick-brick house. It’s not a tall house on steroids. It’s actually different techniques so there was a bit of an education gap in terms of the skilled trades but we’re definitely seeing a lot more of the five- and six-storey wood in 2018 and 2019,” he said.
“The economics are a little better than concrete but it’s not a huge gap. You can also build the wood faster,” Collins-Williams said.
Why hasn’t Ontario moved to factory-built homes?
Collins-Williams puts it down to a construction industry that has pockets of innovation in the midst of a well-established system of stick-building, particularly on lowrise housing.
Moore said it is better established in Europe where there are many plants that produce cross-laminated timber, which is necessary for taller wood structures, and there is less available labour.
“They don’t build stuff on site. Even concrete they manufacture off site, bring it in and tilt it up,” he said.
Introducing new materials and building techniques aren’t Moore’s only challenges.
He has been after a building permit for Queen St. for a year. “It’s been painful,” he said.
“The city’s not good at little things. So the entire regime — the types of reports you need to submit, the pre-consultations, the process — are all built around big projects. I’m driving staff crazy,” Moore said. “They’re busy with a lot of big things and I come along and say I need a lot of attention to get this thing done.” Kyle Knoeck, manager of community planning at the city, acknowledges the city’s planning process takes work but Moore’s Queen St. applications are close to the finish line.
“The process itself is kind of the same for a building of this scale as it would be for a much larger building,” he said.
The R-Hauz midrise concept would be built on a smaller lot than Toronto’s midrise guidelines anticipated.
Because the Queen St. proposals don’t sit as deep on the site as many apartment buildings, parking, loading and amenity space can likely be located behind the building — the types of requirements that often mean midrise developers have to assemble a series of plots.
“Ultimately our goal is to make use of the city infrastructure by intensifying and accommodating our public growth in places where we have the infrastructure to support that and land assembly often is a hurdle to that happening so this kind of overcomes that,” Knoeck said.
It’s hard to know what services and amenities might be required if the R-Hauz concept were repeated many times in a small area, said Knoeck.
That’s more than part of the point for Moore, who said he still believes in economist E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy.
“I actually do believe that the next big thing is a whole bunch of little things,” he says.