Toronto leverages off-site construction for speed, quality and durability

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In Toronto, house prices and roaming are reaching all-time highs.

Pauline Lierman, vice president of market research at Canadian housing research consultancy group Zonda Urban, said market prices have risen more than 10% in the target geographic area. For example, in the city of Toronto, small 260-square-foot condominium units are priced at $ 360,000, and a 500-square-foot one-bedroom condo costs over $ 550,000. These are the cheapest entry-level new homes in the city.

The city typically has a rental vacancy rate of less than 2% on average, so supply is really tight and demand continues to be strong with a turning influx of international students to the many universities, as well as new jobs. Thus, the lack of supply is pushing buyers and tenants out, causing a jump effect in small towns and villages in southern Ontario, according to Lierman.

Those who would previously have landed in the urban area now have to look outside the city for the right size and price, causing a proliferation of grade separations. This only exacerbates the problem, putting pressure on other markets and pushing up prices across the board. Price growth in some southern Ontario cities, such as London, has increased by more than 20% in the past 18 months.

Toronto is not alone. Many other cities in the United States and Canada are experiencing similar housing issues – incredible demand challenged by politics, regulations, lack of supply, and many other factors. However, City of Toronto leaders decided to take action by hiring Montgomery Sisam Architects to tackle the city’s crisis with its modular housing design and process.

Daniel Ling, director of the architectural firm, said the concept is proving to be very efficient from a speed standpoint.

“It all started as a reaction to the pandemic in 2020, when there was a lockdown,” Ling said. “Toronto had a housing problem around the homeless. Shelters were at full capacity before the pandemic. We had people who lived in tents in parks, in tent cities and people who camped for months. The government really needed to start the process to get the homeless off the streets.

Montgomery Sisam was hired to do the work in May 2020 and was able to deliver a 50-unit project by the end of December 2020, along with a second project of the same size just days after. The company partnered with NRB Modular Solutions, the largest module builder in Canada, which was able to complete the modules from start to finish in three weeks.

“The intention is not really to reduce costs, but to reduce time,” Ling said. “The city chose the modular because of the urgency to get people off the streets.

Heba Ahmed is Project Manager East at NRB and said that despite the tight labor market in Ontario, the company is able to optimize manpower in the manufacturing sector.

“By building in-house in a controlled environment, we can avoid inefficiencies,” Ahmed said. “The assembly line allows you to build at a faster pace. Thus, we are not reducing the workforce, but we can create efficiency gains of 30 to 40% by bringing all the subcontractors under one roof. With regular 40-hour shifts per day, we can produce around six buildings per year.

The modular units are all 300 square feet in size and cost $ 150,000 per unit, far less than the city average. The projects have common amenities, including offices, a kitchen and dining room, meeting space, and on-site services provided by the city to help residents achieve and maintain housing stability.

The projects use a modular wood manufacturing process and no steel at all, so they are low carbon and also designed to be fully electric.

Under the all-electric design, the projects do not have a centralized air system. A packaged terminal air conditioner, or PTAC, is mounted around the perimeter of each unit and has its own control. Another essential element of the strategy is the design of the building envelope, including R-values, airtightness and windows.

“The challenge with design is sometimes too much glass,” Ling said. “We looked at how to minimize the amount of glass. Each bedroom has a generous window, but that’s it.

Ling reports that the first two fully electric buildings have been running for 10 months without problems, but the team continues to monitor and will have better measurements after a full year.

The City has engaged the company for an extension of the first two buildings with six other sites, where they will have the opportunity to integrate the lessons of previous projects in order to improve the life experience, to better integrate into the communities. and advance sustainability performance. .

These next six projects are in a variety of locations, requiring more design work to make them site specific. Montgomery Sisam rises to the challenge, and at the same time, finds ways to fit into the urban fabric and connect these compact sites of around 50 new homes each to city amenities.

Ling contributes much of the improvements as more of the project moves off-site.

“The intention is to do as much as possible offsite,” he said. “All the finishing touches are done in the workshop. The siding and windows are installed in the shop. The only parts made on site are the foundation and its assembly, such as the trim and joinery and some aspects of the mechanics that connect.

The timing of each project is very precise, unlike typical on-site work. From the moment the first module is delivered to the project site, it only takes two and a half weeks for the 50 modules to be stacked. After that, the only part of the process that’s left is the trim and carpentry.

Ahmed says the job at the site depends on the site and the complexities.

“It can take around 8-10 weeks, reducing the overall duration of projects by 50-60% with off-site versus on-site,” she said. “We can build modules while we prepare the sites. “

The focus on sustainability is also enhanced by the off-site process, as quality control in the store is better than on-site. In the second phase of the modular housing projects, the new design was able to achieve a value of R37 for the roof and R25 for the wall, and the triple glazed windows have a U value of 0.24.

Ahmed says that NRB Modular Solutions also pays attention to the sustainability elements of modularity.

“By opting for modularity, there is less trucking and transport of material inside and outside the site, which saves a lot in terms of carbon footprint,” she said. declared. “Being all under one roof also contributes to sustainability. All the equipment is electric. In addition, we optimize with multisensory LED lighting to achieve sustainability goals. We also have a recycling program and can manage the programs well in a controlled indoor environment relative to on-site activities. “

What the future holds

Ling is excited to improve the process project by project and what this can mean for the future.

“We are exploring how to improve the use and energy efficiency of a cost effective PTAC system,” he said. “We are also using solar energy on another project. We find out how to move the system into a passive house and being fully electric is part of that solution. It also requires a much tighter envelope design. We perform airtightness tests on every unit before it leaves the store and then back on site.

Currently, NRB Modular Solutions is also working on a micro-habitat pilot project for the homeless and another supportive housing project.

“Modularity is the future because the industry is trying to do more within tighter time frames,” Ahmed said. “There are always misconceptions about quality, but modularity actually improves the performance of versions. We build to the same standards and follow the same design codes and the same results. We do a lot of work and innovation in the modular space which will lend itself well to the demands of the industry.

While not yet cutting costs, the process certainly deserves credit for the difficult combination of speed and quality that is delivered, making it a more attractive option for more than just the city’s needs.


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