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Condo construction is shown in Ajax, Ont., on Nov. 30.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Cherise Burda is the executive director of City Building TMU at Toronto Metropolitan University. Brendan Haley is an adjunct professor at Carleton University and policy director at Efficiency Canada. They are members of the Affordability Action Council, a group that seeks to address the affordability and climate crises.

The idea of a “war-time effort” to build more homes in Canada has sparked energy into what feels like an unmovable affordability crisis. This month’s federal announcement to develop a catalogue of standardized housing blueprints – harkening back to the speed and replication of new houses constructed after the Second World War – has gained support across industry sectors and other levels of government. British Columbia, for example, has already started along this pathway.

While Canada’s postwar housing boom resulted in millions of single-family houses that regular people could afford; it also paved over farmland and wetlands and facilitated stubborn-to-change car-dependent sprawl along with rising emissions from tailpipes and energy-leaking houses. While we need to harness this same get-’er-done approach to a housing boom today, we need to do so with contemporary challenges and goals in mind.

The new federal initiative aims to change how homes are built in Canada: speeding up the approvals process and accelerating construction with prerubber-stamped, repeatable building designs and floor plates. Canada should deploy this innovation strategy by also addressing what we build, where, and for whom, especially if we hope to tackle both housing affordability and climate change in an integrated way.

Simple, yet elegant, blueprints can provide the design prerequisites for ultra-efficient net-zero or passive house building standards. New housing can be built to perform with greater energy efficiency and be constructed with less carbon-intensive materials, while being climate-resilient. For example, designed to maintain safe indoor temperatures for days in the event of a power outage.

The mass production of low-carbon energy-efficient housing blueprints also requires investment in housing factories to manufacture components offsite that are then assembled on-site faster and more cost-efficiently. Factory production can make the numbers work for these repeatable designs.

Allan Teramura: The revival of pattern home designs will do little to solve the housing crisis

Then there is where we build. An innovation revolution must move us away from building car-oriented subdivisions or in locations at risk of adverse weather events, such as flooding. Instead, low-rise housing blueprints – the first catalogue the federal announcement plans to develop – should aim squarely at scaling the missing middle. Repeatable, preapproved designs for backyard homes, multiplexes and stacked townhomes could bring down costs and drive uptake by homeowners and home builders alike.

For instance, since 2020, without the help of a game-changing catalogue, the Region of Waterloo in Ontario issued housing permits for secondary suites at five times the forecasted rate; last year, 14 per cent of the region’s total permits for housing units of any kind were for these accessory dwellings. Imagine the potential with preapproved plans to deliver tens of thousands of family-friendly, low-rise housing suites quickly throughout Canada’s residential neighbourhoods that already have schools and transit, amenities and infrastructure.

We can also adopt the boom-time for-whom playbook that built homes for end users and provided options for a range of household sizes and incomes. While Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. financed these attainable ownership houses, the three postwar decades that followed also saw the federal government invest in purpose-built rental apartments, social housing and not-for-profit housing and co-operatives at a magnitude never seen again.

It was so long ago that most Canadians have forgotten or are too young to know that non-market housing – homes built by the public or not-for-profit sectors, rather than the private sector – offer a fiscally viable solution to the affordability problem with the right conditions for financing and other enabling mechanisms.

The combination of innovations in construction and design described above can add to a stack of savings to make non-market housing viable. Building near transit can reduce or eliminate the need for underground parking, which significantly reduces building costs while helping households save money on transportation. Profit margins are removed with not-for-profit developers and housing co-operatives, and leveraging public lands for housing reduces or eliminates land costs. All this, together with preferential federal financing, construction grants and streamlining from other levels of government, could yield a war-time output of non-market affordable housing.

We truly have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get new housing right and build homes that Canadians can afford, borrowing some past lessons, while employing new innovations toward a more affordable and climate-safe future.

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