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Prefab maker uncrates new housing ideas in Calgary

Minneapolis-based architect Paul Stankey is talking about the time Canada saved his bacon – or was that peameal bacon?

It was during the crippling economic downturn of five years ago, when work had all but dried up for Hive Modular, a company he'd started a few years before with two former workmates. Although orders for Hive's slick, fully customizable, factory-made homes were practically non-existent in the U.S., the company took an order to build a residential-style information centre for a Calgary housebuilder; soon after, they'd build their first house in Cowtown.

"That's when we shifted gears and said 'I think we can do this,'" Mr. Stankey said. "And so Canada was the ultimate saving grace for us."

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Since then, the company has built 11 houses in the Great White North, with nine in Alberta and one each in B.C. and the Northwest Territories. And now, with the recent christening of Hive Modular Toronto, they're ready for Ontario and points east; while West Coast homes have come out of a Mennonite factory in Altona, Man., the eastern half of the country will be serviced by an established Quebec plant in Rivière-du-Loup.

It's a product savvy consumers in the GTA will understand, too, since Hive's language of clean lines, generous glazing and flat roofs is already well-spoken here. The trick, says Mr. Stankey, is to ensure designs are in place for the more restrictive road infrastructure and smaller lot sizes.

To that end, Mr. Stankey thinks one particular Calgary house a few blocks from the Bow River on Broadview Road NW is worth highlighting. It's compact, at only 19 feet wide, but the open-floor plan, 10-foot ceilings and gobs of glass – especially two skylights that allow photons to punch into the centre of the house – make it seem twice that. Since Hive always tailors their designs for specific lot sizes and conditions, this plan could be modified to match even the tiniest T-Dot lot.

And, no matter how thin, it would arrive on site with everything inside, as this one did: painted drywall, all electricals, fireplace, flooring, windows and the entire kitchen (perhaps, like here, with sexy, motorized "Plyboo" cabinets – a plywood-type material made from bamboo – featuring exposed edges that look like marquetry); only the stair, which lies flat during transport, is lifted into place once the second floor module is attached (this Calgary house consists of two modules, one on top of the other).

Total cost, in this case, including transport, foundation prep and other associated on-site finishing bits, was just $285 per square foot. "That's turnkey, less the dirt," jokes Mr. Stankey. In Toronto, he adds, costs would be about the same, except that T.O. dirt (i.e. the cost of the lot) would almost certainly be higher than the $425,000 paid by this Calgarian.

The low-cost/high-end result comes from the tried-and-true prefab rulebook, of course – no weather-related delays, less waste, efficiency amongst trades – but the increasing sophistication of factory workers in recent years has also kept costs down. Back in the early 2000s, when Mr. Stankey was working with Geoffrey Warner on the "Wee House" (a prefab also based in Minneapolis) and even as recently as 2005, when Hive started as a "night job" for Mr. Stankey, Marc Asmus and Bryan Meyer, "a factory wouldn't do anything outside of their comfort level." Indeed, Hive learned this firsthand during their first project, Mr. Stankey's own home: basic "shells" were delivered to the site, which then took the architect and his wife (also an architect) another two months to complete.

Today, homes arrive with any features, finishes and flourishes the customer fancies, and unless faucets are super-expensive bling that homeowners feel protective of, the factory will install those, too. "It's as custom as the client needs it to be," Mr. Stankey said. And while Hive is happy to deliver homes with unfinished areas for DIY-ers, he cautions that, at best, this translates into a savings of only 10 per cent.

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For those in the GTA who do secure large lots (I've heard rumours there are a few left!), Hive can gang together as many modules as necessary. For example, a two-storey, four-bedroom Calgary home near Confederation Park is made up of six. Homeowners Adam and MaryAnne Wells are justifiably proud of their double-height living room capped by a birch ceiling, large master bedroom with private balcony, full in-law suite, and, outside, bright yellow front door (from Crestview Doors) and cedar and blue cement board cladding, but they didn't start by looking for a prefab home.

The couple's first thought was to renovate the existing split-level on the big sloping lot. When the Calgary natives decided to go with a new build instead, they began extensive online research, which brought them to Hive in 2009. However, with only one Calgary project under construction at the time, they travelled to Minneapolis: "I wasn't so sure, I needed to see a finished [house]," says Mrs. Wells, who was surprised to find "they were just like a regular home."

The design process with Bryan Meyer began in 2010, and while a few big life events got in the way – one was Mrs. Wells giving birth to twins–and construction didn't begin until a few years later (they moved in in August, 2012), Mr. Wells says he was "exceptionally happy" with the process. His only caveat, however, is that extra time should be spent choosing finishes, since things move rather quickly once the factory gets the go-ahead: "You'd start getting pictures, and half your house was built," laughs Mr. Wells, adding his mother, now going through a traditional renovation, would "never have survived what we did."

"I think it works for some and it doesn't work for others," agrees Mr. Stankey.

Hive is betting its back bacon it will work for enough Easterners to continue the Canadian love affair.

Editor's Note: Some of Dave LeBlanc's travel arrangements for this story were paid for by Hive Modular LLC. It did not review or approve the article.

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