Canadian Manufacturing

Materials used more efficiently when building prefabricated homes

"Factory environment is always better from construction standpoint," green building consultant says

VICTORIA—An interest in green and efficient building techniques is leading to a comeback of prefabricated homes—with a modern twist.

EcoTec Homes in Sooke, B.C., on Vancouver Island began as a pilot project after parent company Westco Construction of Victoria was approached to build a micro cottage development.

“Building in a controlled environment means you’re really cutting down on inefficiencies like material use and material waste,” said Jen Young, sales consultant with EcoTec.

“If you could imagine having three or four homes built at a time you could use the cut-off from one building and put it into the next, whereas a single project in a neighbourhood would see a lot of those cut-offs go into a waste bin and not be used again.”

Cut-offs are the bits of wood cut from bigger pieces.

EcoTec began with a project called Wild Coast Cottages in Port Renfrew, B.C., a remote community of about 200 people with no hardware stores, making it difficult to find materials and people to put them together.

Westco had done prefabricated walls in the past for their larger developments like townhouses and condominium buildings, but Wild Coast Cottages was the first time they had fully assembled a home right down to the cabinets, drywall, fixtures and shipping them fully finished.

Even though prefabricated homes have been built since the 1950s, Young said there is a conception that prefabricated means mobile homes.

“For us it is traditional construction in terms of the materials used for the home, but it’s actually built stronger to sustain shipping and moving it around,” she said.

“If you were to take a cross-section of the home it’s really what you’d expect to see in a modern house that was built on site, but there may be slightly more material to really make it a rigid structure.”

But the interest in prefabricated homes doesn’t simply come from convenience.

For Gary Lands, managing director of Toronto’s Nexterra Green Homes, it was a great way to combine his love for modern architecture and the efficiency of prefabricated homes.

Lands worked with California’s LivingHomes to build Toronto’s first prefabricated home development.

“There has to be a better way to build than a messy site that drags on and on,” he said. “I think prefabricated is a better way to build. It seemed to be a more elegant way to get the job done.”

Creating the homes for the LivingHomes development in partnership with California architects and builders meant addressing specifications around insulation and strength for snow loads.

Lands said the completed project received a lot of interest from those who had followed the progress of the project, and when people learned the houses were prefabricated they became more intrigued.

“Toronto is a big, forward-looking, international city,” he said. “People are beginning to be more interested in new products that aren’t just pseudo-Georgian, Victorian or any other architectural style from the past. They are looking towards modern buildings, and this suits that very well.”

The efficiency and environmental aspects of prefabricated homes have also been big selling points, and Laura Felstiner, green building consultant for Nexterra Green Homes, said building in a factory is the best way to achieve those goals.

“The factory environment is always better from a construction standpoint,” said Felstiner. “The factory is safer and it’s not weather dependent.”

In Toronto, for instance, you could be working 60 per cent of the time because of the weather.

“From a trade availability perspective it is better because everyone is in your factory, which means there is a lot of efficiency.”

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