Facing extreme housing pressures, the City of Vancouver is making use of temporarily available space to build modular affordable housing. With support from CMHC, Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency started with a building at 220 Terminal Avenue, and garnered support for more modular construction – providing quality space for people at risk of homelessness and alleviating pressure on the whole housing market.
3 Key Goals
Putting moveable modular buildings on temporary sites is a key selling feature. It allows the building to be easily relocated when it is time to move on.
By starting with 1 modular building, rather than taking on several at once, a municipality can better understand the modular approach. A city can then refine and apply the approach to other neighbourhoods and budgets.
Political will helps to overcome local resistance to the novel approach of modular housing. Being open to the public about the development also helps.
Project scope and expected outcomes
Vancouver is famous for its mountain and seaside views, its distinct architecture, its rich and diverse culture – and, in recent years, its sky-high housing prices. While the city continues to attract more residents, it has little room to grow. So, the pressure on those unable to afford housing grows with it.
It may seem odd, then, that the City of Vancouver has taken an interest in building temporary housing, because any available land would be in high demand from developers. Yet, in 2017, this is what happened at 220 Terminal Avenue, nestled between the city’s railyards and its iconic Science World, near Main Street.
Liza Jimenez, a Planner with the City, sums up the situation: “We have so many people experiencing homelessness here and many more in precarious housing situations. Most of the land here is spoken for, but there are sites with future development plans that are nevertheless vacant. They could accommodate people for now, even if they eventually have to deliver something else.” In short, Vancouver’s high-pressure market forces housing providers to be nimble. “In other cities, you can secure 40-year leases for affordable housing, but the land value in Vancouver is too high for that,” says Liza.
The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA), an independent City organization that aims to create innovative below-market housing options, took an interest in filling these gaps. This would mean committing to moving on when the City or private land owner’s future development plans were finalized. But how could this be made economically feasible? The answer lies in temporary modular housing, which can make use of vacant or underused sites temporarily while permanent social and supportive housing is being built.
Bringing modular housing (close) to Main Street
A study in contrasts: Abbotsford, Bella Bella, and Iqaluit
Vancouver may be well situated for modular housing, but most of Canada’s housing markets cannot compare to Vancouver’s density and prices.
CMHC also funded a study by RDH Building Science Inc. on modular housing across Canada, comparing three projects:
- A 44-unit apartment in Abbotsford, BC that was replicated elsewhere in the province
- Housing for healthcare workers in Bella Bella, BC, which is accessible only by boat
- A hotel in Iqaluit, Nunavut, which can also alleviate local homelessness during low-demand periods.
Each of these projects faced unique challenges from manufacturing to hand-off. From these, RDH gleaned a variety of lessons learned from each stage of the development process.
For more information, read CMHC’s case study on the RDH bulletin.
VAHA applied for a grant from the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund, which is part of the National Housing Strategy. Administered by CMHC, the $200-million Fund encourages innovative financing and building techniques for affordable housing – with the aims of creating inclusive and accessible communities and contributing to the fight against homelessness. For 220 Terminal, CMHC granted $1.5 million to VAHA to support the $3-million budget. The City funded much of the balance, with most of the funding coming from a generous endowment donation of $1 million from the estate of Mr. Jimmy Chow.
City-owned and operated, the building at 220 Terminal Avenue provides 40 units of affordable housing. Each of the 23-metre squared units has a combined bedroom, living room, kitchenette, and private bathroom, allowing each resident privacy and independence. Four accessible units are located on the ground floor featuring a slightly larger floor area (25 metres squared). These units have features that adhered to the BC Building Code accessibility requirements at the time. While the building is not supportive housing, administrative and maintenance staff are present.
The design, manufacturing, transportation and installation of 220 Terminal Avenue was carried out by Horizon North. The company was recently acquired by NRB Modular Solutions, a Canadian company with 40 years’ experience in modular construction. This process involved manufacturing the units at NRB’s facility in Kamloops. The units were then shipped to downtown Vancouver, craned onto the site, and interconnections were sealed. “This project is one of our earliest applications of modular construction in the affordable housing segment, says Dawn Nigro, President of NRB Modular Solutions. “It was very much a proving ground for the design attributes and benefits of modular, including speed from project initiation to occupancy, quality and execution certainty.”
An artistic tribute to the land
To a passerby, perhaps the most striking part of the 220 Terminal building is its colourful mural, painted by Bracken Hanuse Corlett, an Indigenous artist who is based on the Sunshine Coast and lives on and off in Vancouver.
Bracken says that, in creating the work, he was “focused on relationships to land and how land has been used/occupied since settlement.” He observed that Vancouver is built on unceded land – and, despite the continual rebuilding of the area since colonization began, it was once biologically rich and used by the səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations. “The areas we walk, drive and live upon have place-names and a history of lived experiences,” he says.
The artwork, though on a temporary building, bridges a gap between generations. “Visually, it is important for me to work in continuum with my ancestors,” says Bracken. “It is also important for me to note that these images do not represent the space they will temporarily live upon, but reflect a relationship and respect for the land and water that my ancestors carried.”
More details about Bracken Hanuse Corlett and his work may be found at the YVR Art Foundation.
Manufacturing and construction took about 6 months – far less than the usual 14 to 16 months needed for traditional construction of a building of this size. The modular approach also saved construction costs – at the time it was built, costs were about $2,142 per square metre, compared with $2,153 to $2,906 per square metre for traditional wood-frame construction.
Residents pay the provincial shelter component of income assistance of $375 per month, while average market rents in the area (albeit for larger units) run at about $1,268 per month. The building has a common indoor amenity area with a kitchenette, and is located near public transportation and several amenities. These include retail, restaurants and community services. At 3 storeys high, the building does not feature an elevator, notes Mark Simpson, Project Manager with VAHA. This saved on development and future maintenance costs, but also limited how high a resident could be expected to climb. “The general intent of the City’s first modular development was to explore this form of construction using off-site prefabrication, maximizing building scale, functionality and replicability, while also meeting the needs of the prospective residents and housing operator,” says Mark.
Residents were generally pleased with their new accommodations. In a 2018 survey, led by Morrison Hershfield, 84 per cent of responding residents reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their housing. There were some points of dissatisfaction, such as the size of the fridges, a lack of Internet access and noise levels – partly because of the proximity of a core arterial route and occasional noise from kitchenette exhaust, which has been resolved.
BC Housing conducted another survey of tenants from several of Vancouver’s supportive temporary modular housing buildings and learned that a large majority of tenants reported marked improvements to their well-being, says Liza. “With the staffing , there are people to check in on them to ensure that their needs are being met and to connect them with the services they need.”
Moving on …
However well things work at 220 Terminal, the arrangement will not last indefinitely: completed in February 2017, the building is regulated as temporary modular housing and therefore has a time-limited development permit for a maximum period of 10 years at any one site.
The building was designed and constructed with disassembly in mind from the beginning, with a foundation system that can be deployed above grade and reused on future development sites. That means much less effect on the site and the potential for significant cost savings over time , as the foundation system can be relocated with the building. The building modules can be transported to a new location and reassembled in the same layout or reconfigured to suit local needs. “To address environmental impact and waste reduction, the design minimizes the number of new components and building materials required for assembly on a new site,” Mark notes.
… but also branching out.
Nevertheless, 220 Terminal will leave behind a foundation that is much more lasting: as Vancouver’s first moveable modular housing project, it serves as a model for other developments in the city. The government of British Columbia has invested $291 million to build 2,000 more units of modular housing across the province. It’s also allocating $170 million over 3 years to ensure all new modular housing buildings in the province have 24/7 staffing. “The main benefit of 220 Terminal is that it demonstrated to the Province that this kind of project can work,” says Liza. “Since Terminal, we have worked with the Province to develop more than 750 additional temporary modular homes.” 220 Terminal was also instrumental in documenting the benefits of building housing rapidly to address the urgent needs of people experiencing homelessness. These learnings helped inform the development of the Rapid Housing Initiative. This program is also part of the National Housing Strategy and launched in October 2020.
Partnering with BC Housing and non-profit housing operators, VAHA has since developed a further 14 modular buildings on 11 temporarily available sites, 3 of them privately owned. This was made possible in part with an additional CMHC contribution of $3.89 million from the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund. In doing so, VAHA has put learnings from its earliest projects into practice. Technology and energy efficiency being one example, says Mark: “The newer buildings have evolved with modernized mechanical systems and technologies becoming more efficient and more airtight.” There were also changes to meet the needs of the new program and residents, says Liza, as newer Type 2 temporary modular housing buildings feature a commercial kitchen to provide meals, increased programming and office spaces for staff and residents. The indoor amenity area has also quadrupled in size. Improvements to unit layouts, finishing and furnishing have also been undertaken, and unit floor areas have grown to 30 m2 (320 ft2) per unit.
Along with more buildings comes a greater awareness of design changes for the cultural needs of the populations these buildings serve – for example, one site has an Indigenous operator and needed culturally appropriate spaces. As Liza puts it, “They wanted to do smudging, but that would trigger the fire alarm, so the outdoor amenity area was used for smudging.” Another building on Union Street is geared toward both Indigenous and African-Canadian tenants. “We worked with an experienced operator and a Black-serving non-profit who brought a cultural lens. Their input directly shaped some aspects of the project design, such as the landscaping and outdoor amenity space. This meant changing the small, square pods for big, round tables and introducing more vibrant colours and traditional harvestable plantings to be grown and used on site. However, more customization to the unique cultural needs should be incorporated in future designs if the population it will house is known in advance,” Liza says.
The idea could also see adoption across the country, says Dawn of NRB. “This project was really a springboard for the various modular affordable housing projects that have followed, not only in Vancouver, but in many areas within British Columbia and Ontario. These projects have been critical to communities in providing much-needed homes to those who need a fresh start.”
Though modular housing in Vancouver will no doubt continue to evolve, VAHA will also continue to learn from its successes – and find more opportunities to improve. Mark notes that it was important to start with a building such as 220 Terminal, “that we were allowed to build in this form, so that the modular approach could be understood, and to see whether it’s the best fit for the area, the population and project budget.”
The building also set the stage for future design improvements, as newer buildings have no centralized ventilation and the modules have fewer penetrations. They are more airtight and more efficient, acting more like individual heat pumps.
As a general principle, Liza says, political will is vital. “We had great political will to get it done. City Council and staff knew it would be a challenge to introduce such a development, especially in an area surrounded by houses. But having the political will behind it helps with the tough conversations we had to have.” However, local community appreciation for the projects also grows when they understand what services the buildings provide, their build quality and overall appearance: “We had a public tour in spring of 2018 before residents moved in, and it really shifted people’s opinions on what the project and the buildings represent. It’s much more homey than people thought, and we were able to show that we’re providing quality homes, building communities and supporting job creation.”
Initiative Name: 220 Terminal Avenue
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia
Total Federal Funding Amount:
- Affordable Housing Innovation Fund: $1.5 million
Project Collaborators / Partners:
- Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA)
- The City of Vancouver
- NRB Modular Solutions
- Horizon North
Vancouver’s first modular housing project (time lapse construction)