Ten Years Old and Growing

In June 1990 the Grow Home was inaugurated on the campus of McGill University in Montreal. The two-storey 14-foot-wide and 36-foot-long slice of a row house was meant to demonstrate that well-designed and well-built smaller homes hold the potential for significant cost reduction relative to conventional market housing. Witold Rybczynski and I maintained that an untapped market segment–a result of demographic and economic change in North America, and largely ignored by builders–would likely express interest in such a design. We also argued that a strong drive for home ownership on the part of renters could lead to several trade-offs, including the willingness to live in a smaller space, drive further to work and purchase finished yet unpartitioned space. These were unorthodox thoughts during the reign of the McMansion; we did not know what the market reaction would be.

Six months later, in the grip of a local recession, Leo Marcotte, a small builder, offered the Grow Home for $76,000 to first-time home buyers. An advertisement in a weekend newspaper drew a line-up of buyers to a lonely trailer on a large plot of land on the outskirts of Montreal. That first weekend, 24 units were sold, and the entire development of 87 units was sold within two weeks. Marcotte’s success triggered a mini building boom, with 1,000 units constructed by the end of the first year. An estimated 10,000 Grow Homes, at prices ranging from $69,000 to $85,000, have been sold since the campus demonstration.

The projects were constructed primarily in small towns on the outskirts of Montreal, with an average driving time of about 20 minutes to the city centre. Developers built on land that was originally subdivided for large detached homes; the 100-foot-deep lots were re-divided to accommodate Grow Home row houses. The number of built units ranged from 12 to 87 per project, and the homes were clustered in groups of three to eight units per row. In 85% of the projects the parking was above ground, either at the back or in front of the row. In some of the projects, a common parking lot was designed for a group of homes.

The front setback was 20 feet, which resulted in front yards of about 280 square feet, and some 616 square feet were left for the backyard. The homes had 2 x 4 or 2 x 6 wood-frame structures with a minimum R-20 insulation on the exterior walls and R-32 in the roof. The common wall was also constructed of 2 x 4 studs on each side, sound insulation, and two layers of drywall, as required by the fire code and acoustic standards.

The faades of the units were clad with brick or stucco. Windows were aluminum or PVC. The developer commonly provided lawn landscaping in front and rear yards, but no fences between units, which were added by the buyers themselves.

Why did Montreal builders and buyers rush to the Grow Home? Can the success be replicated elsewhere? Is the architectural profession and the construction industry missing an opportunity to develop the Honda Civic of housing, overlooking a large segment of the market?

The reasons that led to the success of the Grow Home can be attributed to characteristics inherent in its design. Simplicity made it easy to construct. Eliminating load-bearing partitions contributed to its flexibility and adaptability to local markets. Both aspects fit the design to the modus operandi of the small building firms that make up 80% of all contractors in Canada. But perhaps its greatest value resides in its small size.

Construction costs–kept below $40,000–were minimized by a simple layout and efficient use of conventional construction materials. Assuming a construction cost of $40 per square foot (in 1990 dollars and in the Montreal construction market), savings of $12,000 were achieved simply by reducing the size of a dwelling from 1,300 square feet (the average-sized unit) to 1,000 square feet. A rectangular configuration, for instance, has about 20% less perimeter than an L-shaped unit with the same floor area. As a result, builders reduced labour and material costs by simplifying construction tasks and standardizing the dimensions of the structural and cladding elements. Complex joints and details were also kept to a bare minimum. The 14-foot-wide dimension represented the maximum span for a conventional floor structure. To add even a single foot to the width, for example, would have increased the cost of structure by 25%.

The Grow Home concept yielded greater savings on the macro scale. Using a land cost of $7 per square foot, a typical 50-foot by 100-foot lot in Montreal cost $35,000. A Grow Home lot measuring 14 feet by 100 feet, on the other hand, cost $9,800–a remarkable saving. The narrow-front configuration further resulted in a significant reduction in infrastructure and operating costs, since heat loss was limited to two exposed walls (front and rear) and a small roof area. A servicing cost of $400 per linear foot comes to $20,000 for a typical 50-foot lot. This cost is lowered to $5,600 for a 14-foot townhouse. One might claim that this is like comparing apples with oranges. Not at all. We introduced a smaller design of the same quality to a market that lacked it.

The majority of units were sold in the suburbs, not a common site for townhouses. In the last half-century, zoning bylaws across North America have clearly favoured the large detached house. It was therefore a challenge to introduce a different model. The common bypass strategy around the required minimum width of 18 feet for freehold units was to build them in groups of three, four or six and sell them under a co-op or condominium arrangement. Most builders felt that their sales would have been better had they been permitted to sell the homes under freehold ownership. Selling the units as condominiums, however, actually reduced construction costs by doing away with some of the building and code requirements. Under freehold ownership, for instance, some municipalities require that the units be separated by a four-hour rated masonry firewall. For condominiums, on the other hand, a continuous two-hour rated fire separation of wood frame and drywall is sufficient. The result: savings of about $3,000 per unit. Municipalities also require separate water cuts when units are placed on separate lots. Approximately $3,000 per unit was saved when builders were allowed to make a single cut for a group of four to eight units.

On the buyers’ front, the Grow Home drew to the market a population that would otherwise have remained tenants. The vast majority of the buyers (86.6%) were in fact renters, and 80.6% lived in apartments. First-time buyers made up 89.4% of all purchasers. By adding a maximum of $200 to their monthly rental payments, they were able to make the leap to home ownership. Examination of the household types that were attracted to the Grow Home revealed another interesting fact. Single-person households accounted for 16.5% of all buyers, and single-parent families another 9.8%. Buying patterns clearly demonstrated that these populations–traditionally part of the rental market–switched to ownership when the right product came along.

The majority of buyers (59.9%) were not actively looking for a house at the time of purchase. They learned about the projects from advertisements in newspapers. Almost one third visited only one project and 61.3% visited no other project after seeing the one in which they bought a unit. Furthermore, 39.3% of buyers decided to purchase the unit immediately and another 44.9% made their decisions within two weeks. The vast majority of respondents bought the house without even seeing a model unit.

The breakdown of buyers’ income provided another surprising aspect. Whereas the selling price provided an opportunity to purchase with an annual income as low as $23,400, 25.1% had an income between $30,000 and $35,000 and 67.8% of all buyers earned more than $35,000. The explanation for this lies in the manner in which the homes were marketed. Nowhere in the advertising were there terms such as “affordable,” “bargain,” or “low cost.” The projects were instead presented as “pre
stige townhouses” with an “innovative layout.” Model units reflected the same marketing strategy. They were supplied with above-average finishes and included Italian tiles or oak kitchens–finishes that in most cases were offered as options. Show models eliminated all doubts, feelings of being short-changed, and questions like “what’s the catch?” Buyers recognized that they were purchasing a product of at least equal quality to the mainstream market, only smaller.

The campus demonstration house featured a finished but unpartitioned second floor. In the market adaptation, this idea was translated to the basement. It became a welcome marketing feature, and 95% of the buyers opted for it. The space remained unfinished at first, due mainly to a lack of need and an interest in saving an additional $6,000. This space did, however, become a true growth area. A survey of 140 units in the Montreal area three years after occupancy revealed that 93.6% of the residents worked to some degree on the space. Most constructed family rooms, bedrooms, and spaces for storage and laundry. Even more intriguing was that 65% of residents undertook work that was fairly complex. Drywall, tiling, electrical and plumbing top the list. It seems that, once again, the industry missed out on something. Perhaps the effect of mega-renovation stores on average-cost housing and the potential of offering unfinished space have an appeal to a wider segment of clients.

The Grow Home is an exception in an industry that pushes the notion that “bigger is better.” More than just a design, the Grow Home is a mind-set, one that recognizes that there are people who would rather drive a Honda Civic or an Accord even if they can afford a BMW. Draconian zoning bylaws, conservatism, ignorance, or the simple inability to innovate prevent the industry from providing a broader base of product to potential homeowners. The Grow Home’s success should make the industry give this strategy a second look–sooner rather than later.

Avi Friedman is an Associate Professor of Architecture at McGill University and Director of its Affordable Homes Program. He co-designed the Grow Home, which was recognized with the 1998 United Nations World Habitat Award, with Witold Rybczynski. He is the author of the book The Grow Home published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The author thanks Vince Camallerri and David Krawitz for their assistance in obtaining the data used in this article.