Two Steps Home

A new initiative proposes energy-efficient, mass timber cabin communities as an interim housing measure.

A prototype Two Steps Home cabin was on display at Toronto’s Interior Design Show this winter. Photo courtesy SvN

Toronto architect John van Nostrand’s firm, SvN, has long worked with housing at all scales—from individual cottages, to highrises and masterplans. In doing this work, van Nostrand was keenly conscious of a problem exacerbated during the pandemic—a “gap in the housing continuum” between the growing population of unhoused people in shelters and encampments, and the currently available supply in affordable or supportive housing. 

The non-profit he founded to address this problem, Two Steps Home, aims to fill that gap, 50 people at a time. Its prototype cabin was unveiled at Toronto’s Interior Design Show  this winter.  It’s a mass timber, peak-roofed, tiny dwelling, sized to be moved on the back of a flatbed trailer. Developed with the support of prefab manufacturer CABN, the Two Steps Home is intended to be durable, sustainable, and—most of all—pleasant to live in.

The compact housing units are “designed to Passive House standard,” explains lead architect Aaron Budd. In contrast to many poorly constructed temporary dwellings, the units include robust thermal insulation, reduced thermal bridging, quality windows and doors, and heat recovery ventilators. Each cabin has a lockable door and a small canopy over the entrance that allows for interactions at the threshold. 

Inside, the exposed mass timber “gives a sense of warmth, a sense of home,” says Budd. At IDS, many visitors approached Budd saying, “I would love one of these in my backyard”—a positive sign, to him, that the cabins would be welcoming places, rather than second-rate shelters.

Manufacturer CABN helped further refine SvN’s design, with energy performance, durability in use and transportation, and material efficiencies in mind. Through its non-profit arm, CABN Foundation, the manufacturer was able to apply lessons from the R&D from its for-profit lines of prefab buildings. It will build the cabins for cost plus a minimal seven percent.

The efficient, affordable use of mass timber is at the heart of CABN’s work, says founder Jackson Wyatt. “These are a true home rather than a steel box—that’s something wood can bring. Because the wood walls are 4 ½” thick, there’s a sense of security you feel from that, as well as the ability to transport and repair it, that make these a healthy place to live—regardless of where you are in life.”

While the dwellings don’t have their own plumbing, SvN envisages communities of 50 cabins that would share communal kitchen and washroom facilities. The cabin communities would be located on development sites that are in limbo, near to future affordable housing. As that affordable housing was completed, residents would move from the cabins into permanent housing, and the cabins could be moved wholesale to another site—ready to house new residents taking their own first steps towards housing security.

As appeared in the April 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine