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Fenestration Forum: December 2012

Wartime housing


December 12, 2012
By Brian Burton

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In 1941, a Crown corporation created by federal legislation called
Wartime Housing Ltd., which later became the Canadian Mortgage and
Housing Corporation, constructed over 32,000 houses to provide what was
originally planned as emergency rental housing for munitions workers and
returning Second World War veterans and their families.

In 1941, a Crown corporation created by federal legislation called Wartime Housing Ltd., which later became the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, constructed over 32,000 houses to provide what was originally planned as emergency rental housing for munitions workers and returning Second World War veterans and their families. These homes are sometimes referred to as Victory Housing.

It is truly remarkable when one considers that these homes, which were originally intended to serve for 10 years as temporary shelter, are still in serviceable condition today. It is estimated that 70 to 80 per cent of the structures are still standing and, assuming 3.5 residents per unit, these structures are providing affordable accommodation for a significant number of Canadians.

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This supports my long-standing contention: when it comes to cold-weather construction, we are world leaders. The same is true for the quality and performance of our manufactured fenestration products. These amazingly resilient structures were eventually sold, usually to the tenants, for between $2,500 and $4,500 depending on the location and size.

Most have been renovated to various degrees, resulting in an extremely wide range of building performance characteristics depending on the materials used, applied expertise and overall quality of the renovations. But many are in serviceable condition and represent a tremendous stock of affordable housing. We would be challenged to replace them, to say the least. They are also well suited to the application of various revitalization strategies that involve enclosure renewals completed in conjunction with upgrading of HVAC systems, appliances and hot water heating systems. Revitalizations can result in significant improvements in energy efficiency, thermal performance, airtightness, air quality, acoustics, general comfort and resistance to formation of mould and mildew.

Revitalization is generally viewed as more financially and ecologically reasonable than demolition and reconstruction. These renewal investments can eventually pay for themselves as a result of energy savings. Rarely mentioned is the significant increase in home value, which quickly translates into increased municipal tax revenues.

Although refurbishment would create a considerable economic stimulus, the challenge undoubtedly lies in the funding. However, if retrofit activity were approached in the same intensive manner as the units’ construction – especially in light of the fact that they are located in clusters and given the economy-of-scale factors that would come into play – the cost of the retrofits could undoubtedly be reduced. Innovative funding approaches could likely be developed based on the energy savings produced and the increased long-term municipal tax revenues that would result.

CMHC did undertake a research project that demonstrated the revitalization process was feasible and resulted in substantial improvements in energy efficiency. The cost was approximately $80,000 for a single retrofit: approximately one-fifth the cost of rebuilding. The cost of these retrofits could likely be substantially reduced through partnerships with industry, building sector associations, product manufacturers and government agencies.

Revitalizing wartime houses could also present an opportunity for the building science sector to demonstrate leadership and innovation in preserving affordable and environmentally sustainable housing. 

A good starting point would be to commission a feasibility study of several clusters of wartime housing units, preferably focused on some of the 32,000 original wartime houses, to demonstrate the benefits of preserving these sustainable and affordable homes.


Brian Burton is the author of Building Science Forum and is serving on CSA’s Fenestration Installation Technician Certification Committee. Brian is a research and development specialist for Exp. He can be reached at brian.burton@exp.com.


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