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A modern rendering of a house modeled on a CMHC plan book design from 1947.

Thomson Architecture/Enzyme APD

My heart actually skipped a beat when I opened the file on my iPhone. I might have even gasped. Here, in three dimensions and full colour was “Model 57” from 1947, and I could go from a bird’s-eye view to a close-up of the front door with a flick of my finger. I could spin the little house around as if it was on a turntable to view all sides in seconds, or I could walk, slowly, down the hallway and peek into every room.

Now, if only I could find a nice plot of land – and the money to purchase it – to build this architect-designed Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation gem of a plan.

While I may not have the money, Barrie, Ont.-based architect Andy Thomson is about to make it extremely easy for someone else to see a bricks-and-mortar version spring to life. Or any of the thousands of plans the CMHC released to the public via its Small House Designs plan books from 1947 to the 1970s (reports vary as to when the final plan book was published). Most under 1,500 square feet, these homes were built by the thousands, and in all parts of the country, by amateurs and seasoned builders alike.

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First handed a CMHC book during a basement cleanup at a firm he was working at in Pembroke, Ont., the now-50-year-old experienced an ah-ha moment when he flipped through its yellowed pages. “It kind of blew my mind that there was this entire history of, not just plan books by CMHC, but architects that participated in competitions and won based on the excellence of their design,” he says. Later in his career, as he became more and more obsessed with small houses – he received a lot of attention in 2007 for his eight-by-36-foot “miniHome,” including a write-up in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine – he’d think back to those designs and wonder if there was a way to incorporate them into discussions with clients.

New 3-D renderings of homes found in old CMHC books are now available for purchase.

Thomson Architecture/Enzyme APD

“They almost never bring us plans that are really well thought out because they don’t have the education in architecture [and] we don’t expect them to,” says Mr. Thomson, who lives in a CMHC house himself. “But rather than have them spend all this money on our fee to teach them about relationships and spaces, and where you want windows and where you want privacy … [it would help] to have some kind of resource where you could just say, ‘Look at all of these plans and try and find something.’”

So, Mr. Thomson contacted the CMHC to ask about the old plans. Would he be allowed to give them a “reboot” to bring them up to 2021 standards? And what if he wanted to go even further than the Ontario Building Code to make these little bungalows and split-levels into net-zero dwellings (so that they’d produce as much energy as they’d consume), meaning better framing, insulation, triple-pane windows and all of that other green stuff, would they object?

“The goal is net-zero for everything we do, so operationally zero carbon,” he says. “They’re all air source heat pump, no burning of fuel onsite, induction stoves, it’s a 100-per-cent electric building.”

Amazingly, he was told that since they had always been available to the public for a small fee, he was welcome to have at them as long as he credit the organization and the architect responsible (and, as a side note, some very prominent architects submitted plans to these books, including Toronto’s Henry Fliess and Jack Klein & Henry Sears, Montreal’s Ray Affleck and Winnipeg’s Gustavo da Roza).

The original page from the CMHC 'Small House Designs' plan book released in 1947, Design No. 47-57.

Thomson Architecture/Enzyme APD

But, in order to properly reintroduce them to a (possibly) fickle public, he needed some technological pizzazz. Luckily, Mr. Thomson is proficient in using Building Information Modeling software, as was his friend, Hong Kong-based architect Jorge Beneitez, who was immediately interested, despite never having encountered a CMHC plan book in his native Madrid.

“We were amazed,” Mr. Beneitez says of the plans Mr. Thomson sent. “First by the quality … but it’s also like going back in time to this beautiful architecture from [the] mid-century, almost like all of these mini versions from the James Bond movies. And when Andy said, ‘Look, we can build a few of them [virtually] for when a client comes [to] start a conversation’ … it sounded really, really smart.”

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So, the pair got to work and came up with the model that made me gasp. And it would likely have made the original architect, Toronto’s Charles R. Worsley, gasp as well, for not only can one zoom in and out and travel from room to room (in VR goggles, too, if one wishes), one can also strip away finishes to reveal framing, enlarge a window or the entire kitchen in the wink of an eye (something Mr. Thomson thought was necessary since the 1947 version was crazy-small), view energy models and even generate a shopping list of materials for the builder.

And because Mr. Thomson and Mr. Beneitez are well on their way to developing an automated process to convert these “ancient plans” into up-to-date ones, they have decided to offer full sets of drawings – upwards of 50 pages – for a price of $7,999 for a limited time. It’s only fitting since, next year, the first CMHC plan books will turn 75 years old.

But will folks who aren’t obsessed with the mid-century era respond in kind? Well, not only is there room “for a number of additions or customization that can be done easily,” Mr. Beneitez says, the language of modernism hasn’t really changed, Mr. Thomson finishes.

“That’s the crazy thing about modernism,” he chuckles, “you look at some of the best modern designs and they’re from 1920 or 1947 … I think design, well done, is timeless, I truly believe that.”

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