Why is housing so d*** expensive !?

Affordability of the basic need for a roof over our heads is always a concern but has become more so in the last few years where Canadians have experienced a marked increase in the cost to purchase a home. Reasons for this are discussed in this post.

1) Scarcity (for many urban markets).

  • Lack of supply is the single largest factor driving up home prices in urban markets.

Policies for municipal development that limit sprawl and encourage greater density have made land less available and the land that is available is more difficult to develop.

  • Urban settlement patterns - more people now living in cities has exacerbated the lack of supply.

NOTE: this issue makes both the land under the house more expensive, and the cost of the house itself (due to its scarcity and therefore desirability) higher.

It is also important to note that scarcity and expense to purchase a home means greater pressure on rental units. Over the past 20+ years, it seems property owners have been reluctant to develop multi-unit buildings expressly for rental due to a variety of market reasons, including the prevalence of rent-control, and the increase in zoning regulations and development fees by municipality's that discourage such projects.

Ontario’s urban municipalities tendency towards densification has created the unintended consequence of more expensive housing.

A recent study down by Ryerson university illustrates this effect.

https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/cur/pdfs/Projects/CUR%20Report_Will%20GTA%20homebuyers%20give%20up%20ground-related%20houses%20%20for%20apartments.pdf

This is a problem in many (most?) urban centres but note that for those who have the ability to be mobile and can either work from less urban locations or are simply retired, there are plenty of locations where demand is low, so prices are as well.

An extreme example, but here’s an article discussing properties available for $1 each !

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/information-morning-fredericton/segment/15639557

2) Buildings and Development today are very different than even just 20 years ago.

a) Canada first created a National Building code in 1941, loosely adopted by provinces in the 20 years following. Ontario created its own provincial code in 1974. A home built 50 years ago may not have been subject to any code, and one built 25 years ago followed a code that resulted in a very different building than one built today.

As building science offers more knowledge and energy /environmental issues are necessary to address via improved building codes, this adds costs. The less tightly built, less insulated home with simple windows and medium efficiency furnaces and appliances were less expensive to build and....not even possible today.

Greater Ottawa Home Building Association (GOHBA) estimates $30K has been added over the past decade. This is set to rise yet more in 2019. New standards for roof trusses and minimum electrical panel standards (to allow every new home to support roof mounted PhotoVoltaic panels and electric car-chargers) are proposed in 2018 and will add $1500 to $3000 to the cost for every house, when they take affect.

b) More complex planning and regulation environment. Planning requirements that restrict grade changes, tree removals, protect certain animals, that dictate certain uses/shapes/formats, or mandate certain features, protests by neighboring property owners and neighboring communities and heritage preservation, are all now common hurdles. These planning issues were uncommon 25 years ago and unheard of 50 years ago. As important or necessary as some of them may be, they add to the cost of creating homes.

Another built-in cost to this complexity - it requires expertise and considerable documentation. That provides designers like myself with valuable work but it unquestionably adds cost. An example of that is the following illustrations, perhaps a bit extreme as the “before” example is nearly 100 years old but it illustrates the point.

Documents you needed to build a house in 1925:

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What you need to build a house (in Ontario) in 2018:

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blog image$3.jpg
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Shown is only 4 of a 13 page Architectural Set. Also required is :

Engineered Set consisting of a certified Site Grading Plan, Floor and Roof Truss plans and Structural specifications for Posts/Beams within the Building.

HVAC set showing heating/cooling appliance types and spec’s and compliance / compatibility with wall, roof, foundation specs and the mandated Energy Efficiency portion of the Building Code (SB-12).

Depending on the location and zoning regulations governing the project site, a Significant Tree Removal Study, Dangerous Materials and Rehabilitation Study, Streetscape Analysis Study, and a Sun/Shade Study may also be required before a Building Permit can be issued.

The above is an Ontario example and the requirements will differ in other areas of Canada but unless its a remote area, not greatly so.

3) Policy versus Practicality.

Contributing to the reduction in affordability is the recent tendency for Governments (federal and provincial) to use the building code as policy vehicle instead of a technical one. For the 2019 Ontario Code, Ontario government has proposed that all new homes have:

  • roof trusses capable of supporting Photovoltaic cells. ($500-$1000)*

  • a 200 Amp service (instead of 100Amp) to ensure allowance for install of Electric Vehicle charging stations, in the case of singles and townhomes. ($500-$1500)*

* cost per dwelling as estimated by Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association. Range is dependent on design and location of building.

These policy ideas seem to add uneccessary cost to all homes. For instance, currently, less than 1% of the Ontario population drives Plug-in Electric Vehicles.

According to ieso.ca 26,000 microFit contracts for the install of Photovoltaic panels were awarded between 2009 to 2017, when the program was closed. Conservatively assuming a 7 year operation given that the program needed to gear up, that is an annualized basis of 3714 contracts per year of which I will assume 50% were put on roofs instead of on pedestals or stand-alone in fields and yards (there is no data on this that could be found).

CMHC statistics show that Ontario generally builds about 73,900 new dwelling units per year of which the information reveals 65% are singles, semi-detached or row homes of the type that could put photovoltaic panels on the roof.

Meaning of 48,045 dwellings built per year, 3,714 (7.7%) put panels on the roof.

Both the above behaviors will undoubtably grow but given that the current need is so low, its seems far more reasonable that new homes only be built with those features when required by customers (or perhaps as an added feature chosen by builders in order to market their homes versus competitors) instead of 100% of the time to the detriment of affordability to all Ontarions.

4) Taxes versus affordability.

Development Fees charged by municipalities, land transfer taxes levied by provincial governments, and HST all add to the cost of homes in Canada. Despite recognizing that affordability is an issue for many Canadians, so far, no tax relief has been proposed by the various govenrments who recieve fees and taxes as part of the creation and transaction of housing.

Depending on the source, the price of a home in Canada includes 20 - 25% taxes and fees.

https://vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/anne-mcmullin-regulations-taxes-fees-drive-housing-prices-higher

https://www.gohba.ca/the-next-tax-on-new-home-buyers/

https://globalnews.ca/news/4311558/property-land-transfer-taxes-cities-canada/

All of the above four issues have an affect on the price of homes in Canada. However, it is my observation that a concerted effort on behalf of provincial and municipal governments to increase land availability, and reduce regulatory and development costs would have the largest effect of improving affordability.

Even simple things can make a difference. Revising zoning regulations to allow more or smaller dwelling units or lane homes and tiny homes. Many municipality's regulations disallow these housing forms. Coach houses are also currently required to meet such setback and size regulations that make them restricted to very few property's and no less expensive to build and offer for occupancy than a regular house.

Regulators are also in the position to incent developers and builders by offering to reduce regulatory and development fees and to operate the management of multi-unit low-cost rentals for those families in need, but few municipal or provincial agencies are willing to do so.

Property owners, quite naturally, seek to make the most profitable use of their valuable asset. It is not reasonable to expect them to do differently. If there is a social need to add more rentals or more affordable dwellings within a municipality because it serves a public need, it falls on government to either 1) create a regulatory and financial environment that allows the private market to accomplish it or 2) take on the task of creating / operating these affordable dwellings themselves.

The link below is an article that discusses how current regulations in the GTA dissuade builders from constructing town-homes. This small change is simply an example of an action that would be an efficient way to create more homes in a desirable format and would be a positive step to improving supply and hence improving affordability.

https://tvo.org/article/current-affairs/why-toronto-needs-more-townhouses

That alone won’t solve the problem but it illustrates the influential power that governments can wield to address the issue.

That’s my two cents ! Happy designing and Happy building all ! - Renzo

Traditional or Contemporary?

If you were asked to take one minute and draw a house, you would likely draw this:

Not this:

So what’s better ? 

Its not news to say that housing styles, same as other things, change over the years. Culturally, attitudes towards aesthetics change and forms / details of clothing (quickly), cars (not so quickly) and houses (slowly) change along with them.

Another aspect that changes the details of homes is technological innovations and material development. As new materials and processes are developed, it has an effect on the construction and the look of homes. 

Usually neighbourhoods are “built-up” over a rather short period (say, 10-15 years?) as they are first opened up for residential development. That means they often have a level of uniformity.  

In the collection of images above (developed to satisfy the City of Ottawa’s need for a Streetscape analysis and with thanks to Google Streetview) note that the homes vary in size, number of storey’s, exterior material and colour but...are generally traditional in style with gabled fronts or pitched roofs, and traditional style windows/doors and trim. They also feature front entrances and porch/steps marking the entrance. This gives it the uniformity spoken about.

Houses built with the timber-frame construction that is common in North America are capable of lasting over a hundred years, but usually require repair every 20-40 years or are subject to renovations/additions as they transfer from one owner to another.  Sometimes zoning changes or properties passed over previously due to size or other site restrictions lead to streetscapes changing significantly or “gaps” later becoming infilled. Eventually a residential neighborhood is subject to being filled with different styles of homes. Some people embrace this and others.....not so much.

A considerable amount of the conversation at neighbourhood gatherings and the large portion of the internet that discusses this topic is testament to the judgement and emotion surrounding any new construction to “fit-in” to existing places. 

Given the emotion surrounding the topic... should you build a “modern” styled home?

Just as “doesn't fit in” is the over-riding criticisms about modern infill, it is a reasonable argument that building something new that looks like something old can be considered an equally disparaging design criticism. So lets agree that both judgments wash each other out. That leaves a property owner with using his/her own sensibility and willingness to endure either criticism.

There is, of course, no right answer to such a question, but my response is build (or renovate) in the style that you are are comfortable with.

Couldn’t possibly tolerate the notion of being accused of building something safe and conservative? Then embrace the new forms and contemporary materials and build something modern.

Can’t see yourself living in a building that causes people to look twice and might stir controversy among the existing neighbours? Opt for something more traditional.

Keep in mind that choice of scale, setbacks, massing, materials and colours applies equally when constructing any type of building. Get those wrong and and even if neighbours can’t quite explain why the building seems wrong, they will know it doesn’t measure up.

Of, course you could avoid the whole decision and just live in a shoe.

(photo credit, Pinterest)

Happy designing (and building!)

Is this Architecture?

Creating buildings, spaces and environments often involves different kinds of design and drawings.

Is this Architecture ? (below)

Or is this architecture ? (image below)

I'll use a situation that occurred to me recently to illustrate.  A few weeks ago (mid-February) the temperatures dropped to a very cold -25°C (-13°F) here in Ottawa.
Just a week before the cold snap my family had taken possession of our new house.  On the day following the second night of cold temperatures, we went to the house only to find that a pipe had froze!  Thankfully it had not burst. This meant no mess and limited damage. However it also meant no idea where in the web of water pipes it was actually frozen.
The house is 70+ years old but new to us so we had no knowledge of the mechanical infrastructure and little idea where the supply pipe might be at risk. After a fairly lengthy investigation and quite a number of holes in the drywall we uncovered the section of pipe that froze, very near to the service feed into the house.
It turned out that the plumber had installed pipes directly against the exterior basement wall, above grade where it would experience the greatest cold. Seemingly without thought that it would be at risk of freezing.

Thankfully not that difficult to fix. It required rerouting approximately 8 feet of the pipe and reinstalling / repairing the drywall. This solves the problem and will allow us or any future occupants to sleep easy forevermore.

The curious aspect of this is why? This is a rookie error and surprising in a country with 100 years of history of installing indoor plumbing in homes. And yet......frozen pipes in my house and all over Ottawa and other municipalities within the cold zone show that this is a surprisingly common occurance.
The installation in our house could not be attributed to a contractor cutting corners as installing the pipes away from the perimeter danger area would not have costed more labour or material.

Below is a sketch of the existing install plus another indicating the preferred or best practice install.

Homer simpson installation

Homer simpson installation

best practice installation

best practice installation

So back to my original question. Are these small but important things architecture and the responsibility of your designer? Or is architecture the 'big' idea or concept behind the look or major theme of the building?

My thought is ........Yes to both.

Your architect or designer should be both the instigator and provider of compelling insights and solutions to the overall big picture and themes behind your space or building. Plus, he/she should be the technician that prevents this sort of frozen pipes error. In short......both artist and geek.

The Building Code is a great assistance but it doesn't cover this simple example and many other construction details. It's not possible to eliminate all "D'oh" types of mistakes within the Building Code.
The training, knowledge, and experience of your designer, and the rest of the professionals on your project, is what you should depend on to prevent operational surprises.

How should I build my project?

So....maybe you’ve got a design already or you are thinking that it's time to design a custom home for you and your family.

What’s the best method to construct it? 

We are fortunate in Canada that there are numerous technologies available to us. 

  • Site-built wood frame construction (This is the time-tested typical method in Canada and elsewhere)
  • Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)
  • Concrete Blocks. Not often used as the walls require the addition of considerable insulation to be effective in Canada, which usually results in the addition of wood frame walls.
  • Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)
  • Light Gauge steel frame (similar method to wood frame using cold-rolled steel components).
  • Factory-built Panels, assembled on site (Panelization)

There are other very uncommon methods;  Log construction, Straw Bale construction, and Rammed Earth walls. These methods are used rarely and usually to correspond to the needs of sites that are remote or offer the correct material on-site and the interests of extreme D-I-Y-ers.

My experience has been most clients don't spend much time thinking about what construction method to use, opting for the typical site-built wood frame method.  As this method is so common and known, it is simple to find builders and compare quotes. It’s also simple to understand the process / timelines and therefore have reasonable expectations and understanding regarding the schedule, cost and outcomes.

All the methods have pros and cons but the one method I feel should enjoy more popularity is panelization so that is what I’ll discuss here.

Why does Panelization compare favourably to site built?

PROs

  • Despite the panels being assembled in a factory, the construction is still wood-frame so complying to municipal and provincial building codes are not a barrier and building officials are not confused, leading to little or no regulatory headaches.
  • Controlled build environment leads to faster wall construction and quality not compromised by rain, wind or other site conditions.
  • Optimum material use, less waste.
  • Faster on-site assembly, quicker close-in, less safety and theft risk on-site.
  • More ability to construct year-round, shorter construction time, often reduced financing costs.

CONs

  • Ability to change walls due to unforeseen site conditions or client decisions reduced.  Changes after factory fabrication is possible as these are, in the end, just wood studs and sheathing, but when site-building there is the added ability of adjusting while you build versus after you build.

Cost aspects are arguable and dependent on project specifics. Generally though, factory labour is less expensive than the on-site labour it replaces and the decreased material, time and site management cost (waste removal, theft risk) should lead to decreased overall project costs. 

Depending on the factory chosen to build the panels for your home, it's also possible to to have studs predrilled for electrical cabling and wall chases pre-constructed for HVAC needs. This saves labour for the mechanical sub-trades and can improve quality as well. Some factories can even pre-install mechanicals, further reducing labour costs.

Some study’s show 15%+ of cost reductions.

http://www.canadiantimber.ca/build_panelized.html

General and cost information.

https://www.canadianarchitect.com/features/panelization-takes-command/

 

Is there a reduction in design flexibility?

The short answer is no.

Panelization factories convert your Permit draftings (stamped by a BCIN designer or Architect to ensure it meets local municipal zoning regulations and building codes) to individual wall panels. So you start with a building site and blank sheet of paper, same as other construction methods. Having said that, many factories offer stock plans so if you go that route, your design flexibility is more limited.

Reduced time, improved quality, cost equal or less than traditional construction. It seems like a method waiting to take off!

In the Ottawa area there are numerous factories that can provide this service. An internet search will reveal options. As always, its worthwhile to discuss with your designer these options as part of the design process in order to take full advantage.

 

Can the average Joe/Jane still afford a home?

6 ways to improve the affordability of a home.

Has purchasing a home become out of reach? The comfortable house with all the features that you want; granite countertops; island range with the stainless steel hood; rustic beams on the ceiling; slick lighting fixtures and bathroom with tiled shower and multiple shower heads.

You know you can’t afford that house because you’ve looked around and nobody’s building homes for anything near what you can afford. It seems the only way to hold down construction costs on a house is to strip all the features away. The only reasonably priced homes for sale seem to be made of disposable vinyl, styrofoam or unattractive piles of brick and drywall.

You’re half right. A typical builder’s “spec” home price gets into the stratosphere when you add all the goodies. But, the good news, you’re half wrong, too! The reason most spec houses get ridiculously expensive is that they’re pretty poorly planned. Plan better and you can get what you want and keep some loonies in your pocket.

Here are 6 ways to beat the high cost of construction and home improvement:

1. Smaller is smarter (really!). Perhaps obvious but, making a home smaller makes it less expensive. But random hacking away with a machete is the wrong approach – we need a scalpel and a surgeon. So think carefully about redundancy – why do you need a dining room AND a breakfast room AND five stools at the kitchen counter? A living room AND a study AND a family room AND a sitting area in the master suite?

Most of these uses can be combined into the same space – one nice large place to eat, for example, and another space for the family to gather or to entertain. When designing your space, think about the furniture and how you arrange it – when you don’t plan how a room is going to be used you often make it much too big.

Carefully trim out the wasted, unused space and put the cash into that homey board-and-batten wainscot or whatever it is you love.

2. Use it where it counts, simplify where it doesn’t. Go ahead, put the granite countertops in the kitchen and the master bath, but not in the laundry room. And your kids can do without solid brass faucets, crown molding, and a hand-painted tile backsplash in their bath. (Go ahead, ask them – they don’t care!)

Same with floor finishing’s and trim, fixture selections. Good stuff in the family room, cheaper in other rooms. Put the money in finishes and fixtures where you’ll be able to enjoy them every day.

3. Design for low maintenance. This one sounds like a paradox: Spend more here to save more later. Cheap siding, roofing, and windows will cost you way more in the long run than quality components will now. There are entire industries built around the hope that you’ll buy replacement windows and a new roof for your house someday, probably much sooner than you think. Even if its not your plan to occupy the house long enough, the new buyers will see that effort and expense was made to select durable components and pay accordingly.

Quality is the tortoise in this race. Do it right the first time.

4. Lower your energy bills – dramatically. This goes way beyond insulation, Argon-filled glass, and geothermal systems, and could fill an entire article of its own. Simplicity is key though. Ensure the home is climate and site specific and don’t try to force it to be too highly energy efficient – as you’ll likely be putting your effort and expense where it doesn’t count as much.

It’s not hard to resolve how your house DESIGN responds to the climate and the site. An example is; don’t put a big wall of glass facing prevailing winter winds where the heat will get sucked out like a black hole. Do put glass on the side where light and warmth can come in and provide passive heat benefits. Also, shade it (with an awning, an exterior architectural shade specific to your latitude, or simply with a deciduous tree!) so it doesn’t bake the interior in the summer.

Do this right, along with energy conscious and careful construction and you get a big bonus – a tight, energy-efficient house that won’t need an expensive geothermal heating system at 3 times the cost of a regular furnace.

5. Boxy can be beautiful. We have millions of really great-looking homes in this country, though most were built over 70 years ago. The designers and builders of the first homes had little choice but to make them simple. In spite of this or, perhaps because of it, they were also elegant and attractive.

Good-looking homes are usually based on relatively simple box forms, properly proportioned, composed, and detailed. Today, many designs compensate for their lack of proper planning by loading the exteriors up with as much stuff as they can – gables, complex roof forms, heroic-scaled arched windows, inappropriate details, etc. Lots of money spent, not much aesthetic quality created and nobody benefits but the builder installing all these details.

A long time ago, some really smart people figured out that if building materials were all designed on a common module, they wouldn’t have to use or waste so much of it. So sheets of drywall and plywood are both 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Which works great on an 8-foot x 16-foot wall, but not so good when it’s 9.5-feet x 17 feet. Lots of wasted material and plenty of additional labour to cut and install it. Work with your designer to create a house as much as possible on the established modules of building materials. This saves you money and stops the dumpster from being filled with scrap, so you even save more money on disposal costs!

Simple forms can mean improved aesthetics plus reduced costs.

6. Good design sells. Good looking, energy-efficient, less expensive, low maintenance, smaller homes, sell faster and for better return on your money. Ask your real estate agent.

I’ve had clients inform me that even though they were worried about spending $X to design and build or renovate their home, they were able to sell their home faster and for a substantial amount more than the $X they invested.

Don’t be afraid to invest in good planning and quality components!