Kim Aitken is about to turn the housing market upside down … literally.
Huntsville, Ont.’s Aitken Frame Homes wants to build the roof and second floor of your new home first, and then have you move in. And you’ll do so happily because you’ll save money, get a more energy-efficient product and be handed the keys in a third of the time it would take if you built traditionally.
“You’re buying your top level,” Ms. Aitken, 34, clarified. “It could be your third level; it depends on what you’re interested in doing [later]. … You’re paying for the most expensive elements of the house, which are your foundation and the roof structure right off the bat. You’re living in your roof structure, in effect.
“We get you into a house that’s attainably priced to begin with," Ms. Aitken said, with the flexibility built-in to enlarge the house later if your space needs grow. A traditionally built house is much more difficult to add to. "It’s very hard to … jump two rungs of the ladder to get into a 2,000- or 2,400-square-foot home [if it’s] traditionally built.”
The Aitken home, for which a patent is pending, includes triple-glazed windows and an airtight frame, and is designed with future expansion in mind. The home is engineered to be lifted to allow one or two storeys to be added underneath.
The light-bulb moment came, Ms. Aitken says, after helping friends through the process of adding a large addition to their small house. Their existing roof was in poor shape, which created a roadblock to construction, so she suggested that they go to a truss company to get an entirely new roof made, which wouldn’t cost more than a few thousand dollars.
“And then, within about five minutes, I was thinking, you know, I could afford to build a house if all I needed to do was buy the roof. So," remembered the Irish-born engineer and product designer who moved to Canada in 2011, "I designed a house that can be built by a truss company that functions equally, if not better, than a traditional house.”
Ms. Aitken’s proprietary drawings can be handed to any truss factory to take them from building roof systems to fully livable homes: “All I’m doing is taking a new design to their computer system – which is state-of-the-art because they use it to engineer big, complex roofs – so why can’t they engineer a full house, where we’ve fused the floor joists, the wall joists and the roof trusses into one unit?”
Subcontracting the factory saves money. Creating zero waste saves money. By using a steel “pin to bedrock” foundation, Ms. Aitken can build on difficult, rocky sites, which costs less. By having preassembled pieces arrive on site (where a new foundation awaits), she saves money, because instead of building from the foundation up, the roof is completed first, which allows workers to be “indoors” at the very beginning. To save additional costs, Ms. Aitken plans to employ workers during the winter months, when competition for the best trades is at its lowest.
In other words: Take what works with prefabrication, mix in the advantages of on-site subcontractors accustomed to stick-built, add a healthy dose of smart engineering and Aitken Frame Homes is poised to become an industry disruptor – a sort of Housing Uber, if you will.
Right now, however, the company is only just moving from the proof-of-concept phase.
The first proof was Ms. Aitkens own home. After establishing the company in November, 2017, she acquired a $50,000 lot in Huntsville. Sixteen weeks later and for a build cost of $200,000, she was the proud owner of a top floor, three-bedroom, 1,380-square-foot, split-log affair with dormer windows and a gabled roof sitting curiously close to the ground. Add $18,000 for servicing and $12,000 for landscaping, and she was all-in for $280,000. The home was recently appraised at $360,000.
The company’s second project began in January, 2018. For a build cost of $450,000, Rosseau Lake College, a boarding school in the Muskoka region, Aitken Frame Homes built two buildings containing eight bedrooms. And due to immediate pressure for additional student housing, Aitken Frame Homes is preparing to lift and add a ground-level storey to one of those buildings in March, 2019. “That’s the beauty of expandability,” Ms. Aitken said, “you can choose to use it, or you can wait.” And the school doesn’t have to go through any planning, since that’s built into Phase 1.
A few custom homes are in the planning stages as well and there is another plan to build 40 to 50 homes in a new Huntsville subdivision if the company’s bid for a piece of land (mostly bedrock) proves successful.
It was a dramatic change in Ms. Aitken’s own life plan that has driven the company’s quick growth. Finding herself homeless after leaving her husband, Ms. Aitken had to relocate every month “as we worked our way though the court systems.” During that time, as she lived in tiny homes, cottages, shelters and couch-surfed at friend’s places – all with her two young boys in tow – she spoke with dozens of people about the lack of affordable housing. So, each night, after tucking her sons into bed, she’d “frantically” work on her housing idea for hours and hours.
“I was my own demographic: I was a single parent, I had a young family,” she offered. “I have a solution for myself and other people, and I felt like every day I wasn’t putting it out there were days people were hitting the same walls I was hitting; it’s like having that antidote … let’s find a way to get it out there.”
With private investors already in place, a relationship with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. established and an “altruistically driven” mandate, Aitken Frame Homes’ literal top-down approach might be an uber-solution to the age-old problem of affordable housing.