Innovative housing and strategic partnerships: Lessons in pre-development

February 14, 2023
Renderings of the Central Urban Metis Federation Inc. Community Homes — a rapid housing project in Saskatoon.

The housing sector in Canada is currently facing a significant supply gap, estimated at 3.5 million housing units, according to the CMHC. Tackling a project of this magnitude is done one housing development project at a time, and it starts within the communities who need housing most.

This is why Big Block has strategically partnered with community-minded organizations like Central Urban Metis Federation Inc. (CUMFI) and Silver Sage Housing Corporation to deliver housing under CMHC’s Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) in Saskatchewan’s largest cities. It’s important to leverage the right strategic partnerships to spread the economic benefit of housing development projects, and leadership is key when it comes to projects of this size and speed. Leaders must guide the project in terms of the initial concept and internal resources, and provide ongoing guidance and decision making to the project team.

That leadership comes from both within the community, as well as through the organizations enlisted to help see the development through to completion, and the success of a project depends on having a shared vision that is strong and clear.

The right partnerships are essential to a successful project. Pictured at the Home Fire sod turning in Regina, left to right:  MLA Regina Coronation Park Mark Docherty, president and CEO of Silver Sage Housing Corporation Natoshia Bastien, Big Block CEO Alex Miller, and Regina Mayor Sandra Masters.

Planning ahead with pre-development

It’s exciting to see a building rise up from the ground and tenants move in, but a successful project begins with good planning in the pre-development stage. At this stage, project teams are securing land and funding, and developing preliminary design concepts.

When it comes to successful delivery, true partnerships are essential. The traditional method is fragmented, with partners selected sequentially, often based on lowest-bidder criteria. Integrated project delivery, on the other hand, is based on true partnerships; team members are selected based on trusted relationships, dependability, and a holistic assessment of qualifications.

Adopting an integrated approach is essential to meaningfully engage the community hand-in-hand with stakeholders in order to create the best project outcomes, as well as leverage innovation and technology. This integrated method is an unconventional approach to building development, and something you will only see with innovative organizations like Big Block Construction.

Getting futuristic with modular

Modular construction is an advanced building tool that is currently underutilized in the housing industry, but it is becoming increasingly popular when it comes to multi-unit residential buildings for the numerous benefits it brings. Modular buildings are built to the same standards as any other building in Canada, and because the modules need to be built to withstand transportation, they are often even more sturdy.

This technology has particular benefits for community-minded organizations tackling a large project. Construction can be completed faster because work can be done simultaneously off-site and on-site — the building progresses both in the factory and in the field at the same time, instead of sequentially as with a traditional project.

From the outside, you can’t tell that a building is built from modules. Pictured: The Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge.

Because the project is completed quicker, there is also far less disruption to the neighbourhood with less traffic going in and out of the site day after day as the project progresses. Instead, a large portion of the most disruptive work is done over only a few days, as the modules are trucked onto site and fit together by crane.

Big Block’s factory partner on recent projects for CUMFI and Silver Sage Housing Corporation is Grandeur Housing out of Winkler, Man. Grandeur’s Project Sales Manager Curt Penner says one of the things that excites him the most about factory construction is the level of quality control it affords.

“Quality control is like having the inspector visit your site every few hours,” he said. “The products coming out are inspected following our standard operating procedures that are to code and are a high level of certification. … We can see the project from all sides as it gets constructed. There’s no weather impacting that build.”

Curt says other benefits include being able to predict and maintain a schedule for construction, and the expertise of the factory crew with specialized skills like applying vapour seals and installing insulation.

Integrated design process

Integrated design is key to a successful modular build, Curt says.

“We always tell our clients and future potential clients we need all the information at once before we start anything,” he said. “That’s hard for people to grasp.”

Their pre-construction process is broken up into five steps: engagement process, project design and feasibility stage, project refinement, final approvals and reviews, and finally, the contract phase.

“Everybody is at the table, not just our client, but we’ve got consultants, architects, engineers — right down to the installers, the people who are going to be on site putting things together like plumbers and electricians.”

Grandeur Housing Project Sales Manager Curt Penner.

This level of pre-development helps keep costs stable and allows the project to progress at top speed once it gets going.

Curt says this is particularly useful for special interest groups who are providing housing for people in need because planning ahead forces them to have a very clear picture of how the housing will be used and run.

“What components are they incorporating; who’s going to be using these facilities?” Curt asks. “Sometimes we’re asking questions they haven’t yet asked themselves but are important to the planning of the building.”

As builders, we have many tools at our disposal, yet time and time again, we come back to modular as the preferred method.

One of the first modules is craned at the Central Urban Metis Federation Inc. Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge in 2021.

Overcoming challenges

Taking on a project of this magnitude can be challenging, but there are ways to overcome them with confidence. Community-minded organizations will find success if they look to other groups and organizations who have the expertise to support them in adopting integrated processes from the pre-development stage, and evaluating the opportunity to expedite their project with modular technology.

Now is the time to take strategic action and build an adequate housing supply that is affordable, accessible, and appropriate. It’s time to share knowledge, resources, and workload strategically and sustainably. It’s time to create and leverage the right strategic partnerships. It’s time to design for successful delivery through true partnerships.

There is no time to dream our way out of the housing crisis. When it comes to taking housing developments from dream to reality, it takes strategic partnerships, integrated action, and a touch of innovation.

Watch our short film on the future of affordable housing on the prairies:

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While Big Block is busy building like Bigfoot...
(Read also: blurry in photographs and causing double-takes when our beast of burden, the crane, makes a flash appearance in the outside world.)

. . . you can scout for more evidence of our expertise in community-minded housing development through our archive of multi-family and mixed-use residential construction projects.