Could pre-fabrication be the key to unlocking B.C.’s housing supply crunch?

Click to play video: 'Metro Vancouver studies ways to speed rental home construction'
Metro Vancouver studies ways to speed rental home construction
What if we could cut the time to build rental homes by weeks or even months and have it cost 30 per cent less? Metro Vancouver's Regional Planning Committee is being urged to consider incentives to have new rental construction done in factories, off-site. One planner argues it may be the only realistic option for the future. Aaron McArthur reports – Sep 5, 2023

Cities in Metro Vancouver are being asked to look at the use of pre-fabricated components as a way to tackle the region’s persistent housing crisis.

A report headed to the Metro Vancouver Regional District’s Regional Planning Committee this week seeks to find cities willing to incentivize building components for rental housing in factories, instead of on site.

The staff report argues the use of pre-fabricated components could cut the cost of new builds by up to 30 per cent, while speeding up construction by 20 to 50 per cent.

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British Columbians frequently worried about affording housing

It’s an idea whose time has come, according to Chris Hill, president of B Collective, which uses an off-site factory in Invermere to produce housing components.

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Using pre-fabricated panels, the company is able to throw up the first two storeys of a detached home in about three days, he said.  Meanwhile, as the components were being assembled in the factory, his crew was able to get the site ready to build.

“That was happening while we were pouring the foundation, and building the first floor, backfilling, all the other sequences … which can really speed up our timeline and deliver more houses faster,” he explained.

“We have a really advanced sawmill infrastructure for our wood that we can utilize. So we just have to regionalize what they do overseas already to what we do here.”

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Federal housing minister tours Lower Mainland

According to the Metro Vancouver report, B.C. is far behind jurisdictions in Europe on the use of pre-fabricated components.

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Sweden, which is the world leader in the technique, builds 80 per cent of single-detached projects and 10 per cent of multi-family projects with off-site components.

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It’s those multi-family developments Metro Vancouver wants to see incentivized, as purpose-built rental projects face a slew of challenges ranging from inflation to interest rate hikes to growing labour costs.

The proposal comes amid a brutal rental crunch in the Lower Mainland.

The average vacancy rate for purpose-built rental in Metro Vancouver in 2022 was 0.9 per cent. Meanwhile, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit the City of Vancouver surpassed $3,000 in July, according to data.

New housing stock isn’t keeping up, according to Metro Vancouver. Between 2016 and 2021, the region added more than 46,000  new renter households, while just over 6,000 new rental units were created.

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The district is pushing for a regional regulatory approach that would help standardize the use of factory-made housing components and “could create a sustained pipeline of similar projects, and further enable economies of scale.”

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“Standardized guidelines and zoning regulations, including pre-approved reference plans could be made available open source, and wouldn’t need to go through additional design review,” it argues.

“Actions to drive consistency would simplify and expedite the delivery of six-storey rental buildings in the Metro Vancouver region.”

Urban planner Alex Boston told Global News that without a shift to off-site construction, B.C. will “never resolve” its affordability and housing supply problems.

Boston said projections show up to 40,000 construction workers in B.C. set to retire in the next decade, meaning the industry needs to get more efficient.

“We’re never going to meet the demand in our construction workforce without transitioning to off-site construction where we can surge forward in terms of productivity,” he said.

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Vancouver housing advocates urge permanent solutions to modular units

But Boston said the initiatives like what Metro Vancouver is proposing will be critical to driving demand that will allow the industry to flourish.

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Without a regulatory framework that makes using off-site construction easy, timely and cost effective, builders won’t have the incentive to switch, he said.

“B.C. is at the cutting edge of off-site construction in the multi-family sector, but we really need public players, the province, municipalities, to get behind it to dramatically augment growth,” he said.

To that end, the industry could get a boost in the near future.

Metro Vancouver says the province is preparing to launch a pilot project “to explore pre-approved building plans and off-site construction to streamline the delivery of rental housing” with cities looking to sign on as early adopters.

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