The city of Montreal lies in the east of Canada, just 50 miles north of the border with the USA. It has a total population of 3.3 million and is situated on an island in the Saint Lawrence River and on its adjacent shores. It has a predominantly French-speaking population, nearly three quarters of whom rent their homes. A combination of growth in the number of young first-time home buyers and economic recession in the late 1980s meant that a large and increasing number of Montrealers had no alternative to spending a large proportion of their income on rental payments. Large detached homes on sizeable plots of land were the typical product of the private building sector, the government had severely reduced its social housing programme and there was little knowledge and few design strategies for the construction of affordable housing.
The Affordable Homes Program was established by staff in the School of Architecture at McGill University in 1989 in order to identify possible ways in which homes could be built for sale which would be affordable for low income households. In June 1990 the Grow Home demonstration house was built on the university campus and was opened to the public. The concept was embraced enthusiastically by private sector builders and to date over 6,000 such dwellings have been built in Montreal, with an estimated further 4,000 throughout Canada and the United States.
The Grow Home is a narrow-front three storey townhouse with a floor plan of 14 x 36 ft. Its external design is drawn from that of the vernacular architecture of Montreal, although a change had to be obtained in the city’s building regulations in order to build with frontages of less than 18 ft. An innovative internal design allows space to be used efficiently, ensuring that there is no reduction in comfort for the occupiers. The total cost of construction is £16,000 and a Grow Home is typically sold for between £26,000 and £32,000 according to location. This compares to a cost of £105,000 for a typical home in suburban Montreal. Households with incomes of £9,500 (i.e. below the official poverty line) can afford to buy these homes and will often be paying less to buy their Grow Home than they had previously been paying in rent.
These significant cost savings have been achieved in a variety of ways. Firstly, by using a smaller plot the land and infrastructure costs are reduced by 60 per cent. The smaller building envelope also gives rise to significant savings in building materials and labour costs. A menu of 33 different costed options are offered to potential home buyers to allow them to make a trade-off between amenities and budget. For example, a sloping dormer roof with window could be added for £400, architectural mouldings at door and eaves for £150, a balcony for £140 etc. The second floor or basement can be left partially finished, reducing construction costs by £2,000 per floor. Households are then able to complete these themselves, or pay a builder to do so at a later date, as and when needs and resources permitted. Hence the name, the Grow Home. Buyers can also make modifications to the original layout prior to construction if they wish.
The simplicity of the Grow Home design and the use of standard construction methods appeal to the small private builders who make up Canada’s building industry. The approach is in line with their building traditions. The Grow Homes are built in small groups, with careful attention given to parking and circulation, green open public space as well as private space. The wood-frame structures are for the most part clad with bricks or masonry stucco, in the traditional style.
Seventy per cent of buyers are young couples, either with or without children. Unfinished basement space is often converted to provide extra living space as the family expands. The remaining thirty per cent of buyers are either single parent households or single persons who had not been able to gain a foothold in the ownership market.
There are inherent environmental advantages associated with the design. Building at a higher density means fewer roads and shorter car journeys. The terraced house construction method produces significant savings in building materials and energy consumption through the use of shared walls. The typical Grow Home has only one third the area of exterior walls and one half of the roof area of a conventional detached house. Savings on heating and air-conditioning costs are reduced accordingly and are essential for low income households. On average heating costs are reduced from £960 a year to £380. Environmentally sound and energy efficient materials are used throughout.
The main principle of the Grow Home is to give owners the option of having unpartitioned space for completion at a later date. Most often this is in the basement. Research carried out by McGill University has shown that two thirds of all households actually did convert this space. The most popular uses are a family room (for recreational activities, hosting a guest etc.), a laundry room, an additional bathroom or additional storage facilities. Nearly three quarters of people carried out this work themselves or with the help of friends and neighbours, rather than have the work done by a builder.
The market success of the Grow Home was immediate. Over 1,000 units were built within a year, all by private sector builders and with no government support. Over 10,000 dwellings have been built to date throughout North America and 50 units have been exported to the Czech Republic. The Grow Home has now become the common prototype for first-time buyers housing in Montreal. Variations on the basic Grow Home have been developed in recent years and these include the Green Grow Home and the Next Home, which reduces costs still further by enabling households to choose whether to buy one, two or three stories of the Grow Home. Teaching and research programmes at McGill University continue to meet the challenge of designing innovative, affordable homes for low income households.
Academic/research, private sector