November 26, 2015

Observer Classics: Sustainable Housing and Communities: Industrialized Housing

The modern era of factory-built housing began during the Second World War. Homes were built in a way that would take as little material away from the war effort as possible.

These days, the most common forms of factory-built housing are referred to as manufactured and modular homes.

Manufactured homes

These complete factory-built houses are delivered to their final destinations and placed onto wood or concrete-block piers (to create a crawl-space) or on full-depth basement foundations. Cabinets, flooring, appliances and electrical and plumbing systems are installed and ready to be connected to municipal utilities networks. Homes are built in compliance with a series of standards and are certified before leaving the factory.

About 14.5% of all single-family housing starts are manufactured homes.

Annual building residential starts,1 Canada, 2004 – 2014

Annual building residential starts,1 Canada 2004 – 2014
  Annual Factory-built, single-detached starts Share of all single-detached starts
2004 11,790 7.1%
2005 13,483 8.6%
2006 13,874 8.9%
2007 15,681 10.0%
2008 13,859 10.9%
2009 12,579 12.5%
2010 11,747 9.4%
2011 14,693 12.8%
2012 13,667 11.5%
2013 15,436 14.1%
2014 16,532 15.0%

1 "Starts" is Canadian residentiaal manufactured building productions, less exports, plus imports.

Source: Altus Group Economic Consulting, based on data from Statistics Canada and CMHC

Modular Homes

Factory-built modules are transported and assembled onsite and typically placed on full-depth basement foundations. Modular houses are subject to the same codes as site-built homes as it involves on-site construction processes.


In other housing processes, prefabricated panels are often used for walls, floors, and roof assemblies. Manufacturers have developed approaches to interlock the panels together so that the joints are air tight. With panelized construction, the outer walls can go up in as little as one day leaving a weather tight home for the trades to work in focussing on interior completion.

Engineered wood products perform better than traditional cut lumber. They are less susceptible to warping, shrinking, and twisting, and they reduce the impact of residential construction on our forests.

Other housing components that are commonly prefabricated include

  • window assemblies,
  • door assemblies,
  • cabinets
  • kitchen and bathroom pods


Producers of manufactured homes sell through retailers or dealers whereas modular housing producers increasingly sell through on-site builders, often with the producer and the builder sharing the credits in the promotion of the project.

Strengths Challenges
Shorter on-site construction time Larger capital/high fixed costs vs. site-built houses
Precision construction and quality control Transportation freight costs and restrictions
Potential for improved energy efficiency  
Reduced waste generation and improved
reuse-recycling possibilities
Easy to disassemble and reconfigure  
Labour cost advantages and bulk buying power  
In-house design and development  

For a more in-depth discussion seeSustainable Housing and Communities — Industrialized Housing from the 2013 Canadian Housing Observer.



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