Modular construction is picking up the slack 
to deliver critical infrastructure 

As the construction industry continues to grapple with rising labour costs due to shortages in skilled labour and the demand for more and affordable housing, pushed by population growth, shows no signs of slowing down, an opportunity for innovation has been created and filled by modular construction.

Modular construction is used in many applications, including residential, commercial, health care, and others. Infrastructure Ontario has employed modular construction as part of its accelerated building program to deliver long-term care homes, such as the recently opened Lakeridge Gardens at Ajax Pickering Hospital. Most existing modular buildings are low or mid-rise, however, there have been several high-rise modular buildings constructed in the last decade and demand appears to be increasing. 

The benefits of modular construction, including the lower cost of off-site labour and shortened project schedules are continuing to drive the growth of the modular construction industry.

Taking initiative

In the City of Toronto, modular construction provides a unique opportunity to respond rapidly to Toronto’s urgent need to create more permanent affordable homes for people experiencing homelessness while reducing pressure on the city’s emergency shelter system. 

According to Valesa Faria, director with the Toronto Housing Secretariat, the city has set a target of creating 1,000 modular supportive homes as part of the Housing TO 2020-2030 Action Plan, which was approved by City Council in 2019. Launched in Spring 2020, the Modular Housing Initiative (MHI) was intended to expedite delivery of these modular homes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent need to create new permanent and safe homes for people experiencing homelessness.

“Modular construction also supports the city’s climate change action, as these high-quality and energy-efficient homes are prefabricated in a factory and transported to the site, where they are assembled,” says Faria. “The benefits of modular construction, compared to traditional construction, include speed, cost efficiency and lower carbon emissions.”

Toronto’s use of modular construction has been successful to-date and currently, seven sites have been completed or are underway, creating a total of almost 400 modular homes, including at 39 Dundalk Drive (formerly 7 Glamorgan Avenue), where earlier this year, the site welcomed delivery and craning in of the first modules that will become new permanent supportive homes for 57 individuals.

The homes at this site are part of the second Phase of the MHI and funded through a partnership between the City and the federal government. This unique partnership allows the city to leverage land already within its portfolio for the purpose of building more affordable and supportive homes. The land at 39 Dundalk Dr. is owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) and is subject to a lease between the city and TCHC. 

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The City of Toronto has used modular housing as an effective tool to help reduce pressure on the emergency shelter system. Despite this success, the current housing and homelessness crises, driven by the lack of affordable housing supply, increased cost of housing, lack of access to mental health supports, and growing rates of poverty, have resulted in new inflows into the shelter system, says Faria. Currently, Toronto’s 9,000-bed shelter system is operating at full capacity each night, and unable to keep up with the growing demand for spaces.

“New and enhanced investments from all orders of government are urgently needed to scale up the supply of new affordable homes, including both modular and traditional construction. Investments in wraparound support services (including mental and physical health services), are also critical to effectively improve housing outcomes for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness,” adds Faria.

NRB Modular Solutions of Grimsby, Ont. was selected for the Phase One sites at 11 Macey Avenue and 321 Dovercourt Road and was also selected as the successful proponent to manufacture the modular buildings for Toronto’s Modular Housing Initiative Phase Two.

With more than 40 years of experience in the modular residential housing industry, NRB has successfully delivered hundreds of modular homes in British Columbia, including Margaret Mitchell Place in Vancouver.

The supportive housing building at 39 Dundalk Drive (formerly 7 Glamorgan Avenue) built as part of the City of Toronto’s Modular Housing Initiative will house 57 people experiencing homelessness. (City of Toronto)

The process for construction of the modular housing is largely similar to traditional residential construction, according to Faria. The process begins with site selection, design and engineering, followed by planning approvals and building permits and finally on-site preparation and foundation work. During site preparation, modules are manufactured in a factory off-site, making the process faster than traditional construction.

Just in time

Housing of a different sort was also leveraged for the expansions at Kenora Jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre. 

Completed in 2022 by Bird Construction’s Stack Modular business, the two projects featured a 50-bed medium security correctional facility at each site with multi-use spaces, yard space and a cultural area to support multiple programs and educational opportunities. The project introduced prefabricated modular elements for the cell blocks integrated with a central site-built hub housing high ceiling day rooms and the mechanical mezzanine to meet the requirements of rapid delivery. 

In partnership with Bird Construction, Stack Modular manufactures purpose-built structural steel modular buildings in China for the residential, hospitality, commercial and resource sectors. 

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For both projects a combination of off-site prefabricated modular construction components and site-built foundations supported an aggressive schedule, increased the quality of construction, reduced the overall costs and time to fabricate, and demonstrated sensitivity to reduce environmental impacts in contrast to traditional site-built construction.

All of this is the result of what Stack Modular president Jim Dunn refers to as the “controlled environment” of building off-site in a factory.

“The fact that we’re buying a majority of the materials up front means we’re not subjected to the just in time model, which is what construction is. So, if you’re building a 10-storey building, you might need 300 shipments of drywall and if just one or two of those shipments of drywall are late there’s a ripple effect.”

The use of steel in the construction of its modular buildings means Stack can go higher than codes allow the use of wood, such as a 14-storey project—Canada’s tallest modular build—recently awarded to the Bird Stack partnership.

The $50-million project for BC Housing’s Permanent Supportive Housing Initiative, will be located on East King Edward Avenue in Vancouver, and consist of 109 studio homes. 

The project design was supported by Bird’s pre-construction design services, with the final design delivered by Stantec and Bird’s Stack Modular business. The seamless exterior design will include elements that represent Coast Salish and Urban Indigenous Peoples, with the facade highlighted by timber-like panels and blank exterior wall space for culturally themed murals. It will follow the Passive House green building design standard, and the prefabricated modular construction method will reduce construction waste, expedite the construction process, and reduce costs.

As the first modular project of this height in Canada, the volumetric steel modular tower offers 14 floors of quality units on a rapid, repeatable scale. With off-site design and construction of the units, the modular approach substantially reduces construction time, facilitating faster occupancy than traditional builds and reducing the impact on the local community during construction, while ensuring strict quality control, rigorous safety standards, and significant energy performance in line with Passive House standards. 

“We are proud to be selected to provide our forward-leaning accelerated construction method to communities in need of housing,” said Teri McKibbon, Bird’s president and CEO. “Modular construction is gaining considerable momentum in North America and our Bird Stack team has been actively demonstrating the benefits to build more efficiently and fast-track delivery of important infrastructure to the market.” 

The benefits of modular construction offer an answer to Canada’s housing crisis and long-term care capacity challenges, as well as for the delivery of other vital infrastructure.  

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Future Student Housing Stacking Up Well

Stacking of the pods at Selkirk College’s Silver King Campus required precise work and attracted crowds of onlookers who observed outside the fence. (Selkirk College)

Nearly 150 Selkirk College (B.C.) students at the Castlegar and Nelson Silver King campuses can look forward to new on-campus housing with construction underway on the projects.

The modular build process being used in the construction of the $33.9-million project saw the Silver King Campus three-storey building erected quickly in early-May and the massive crane used to stack the prefabricated rooms is now on standby for the Castlegar Campus where it will be used for a similar outcome in mid-June.   

“There is a Lego feel to it,” says Stephen Monahan, Selkirk College’s manager of capital projects. “This is an efficient way to build housing of this type and as the project progresses, we are seeing those advantages.”

In alignment with the Provincial Government’s Homes for People Action Plan and funded by the Ministry of Post-Secondary Education & Future Skills—with a contribution of $1.65 million from Columbia Basin Trust—the finished project will increase on-campus housing at Selkirk College by 71 per cent. Once complete, the Silver King Campus will have 35 units available for students and the Castlegar Campus will add 112.

The project broke ground in November 2022 under a design-build contract with Scott Builders. After months of work preparing the foundation at both sites, the modular units began arriving on transport trucks to the West Kootenay earlier in the spring from southern Alberta where they were fabricated by ROC Modular.

Built indoors at a massive temperature-controlled facility in the community of Bow Island, the modular units come complete with drywall, insulation, windows, cabinets, interior paint, electrical/plumbing and flooring. A crane is used to stack the modular units in a process that takes only a few days. The modular units are then sealed and weatherproofed in preparation for the next phase of construction.

Incorporating modern design, the buildings align with BC’s Wood First Initiative and meet Step 4 of the province’s Energy Step Code. The finished buildings will include welcoming common spaces, spacious communal kitchens, an allotment of family units and the all-important study rooms. 

The project is expected to be complete in early-2024 with full operation at both campuses in September 2024.

John Tenpenny is the editor of ReNew Canada.

[This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: The expansions at Kenora Jail and Thunder Bay 
Correctional Centre (pictured) leveraged both 
conventional site construction and modular construction. (Stack Modular/Bird Construction)

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