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Elgin Street development will boast unconventional, modular approach

Posted on Monday August 26, 2019
Elgin St. Rendering
This is an artist's rendering of the new modular apartment buildings being constructed by Northern Shield Development Corporation, which will have 27 affordable housing units, planned for Elgin Street.

A plan to raze five old houses and construct two new apartment buildings that will be home to 27 affordable housing units on Elgin Street is about much more than bricks and mortar. 

In fact, there will be no bricks and mortar.

The two, three-storey buildings will be constructed using modules, allowing the project to take shape much quicker and cost less than conventional construction.

The only thing conventional about the buildings will be the concrete foundations and basements.

Once those are complete, the 12’ by 40’ steel-frame modules will be trucked to the site and placed on the foundation.

“So, within the span of a week, we will go from a foundation to a three-storey building,” explained Kelly Shelswell, vice president of projects and operations for Northern Shield Development Corporation (NSDC).

And that’s the magic of the method, said NSDC owner Steve Marshall. He and his company are trying to change the mindset in Ontario about construction.

“The message we want to send is there are alternative methods of how you can build stuff,” Marshall said. “The cost of conventional construction has surpassed people’s ability to pay for it … that’s a fact. People can’t afford conventional construction.”

He conceded there are “a zillion terms” surrounding ‘affordability’, but “the reality is affordable is what people can actually afford to pay to rent or buy” in a community.

“Our belief is modular is the way forward for construction in the future,” said Marshall. “It’s a way that we’re going to be able to make things even close to the realm of affordable, regardless of the definition of affordability.”

Chris Small knows first-hand about the “desperate” need for affordable housing in the city. For the past nine years, he and his wife have owned and operated the Village Inn - a former motel on Colborne Street that is now home to people who rent by the week or month.

“We have a waiting list from four to six people at all times,” Small explained.

He said the 32 rooms at the Village Inn, which fetch $800 a month all-inclusive, are always full; some tenants have lived there for more than a year and one has lived there for almost a decade.

When renters at the Village Inn do find their financial footing, there isn’t anywhere they can afford to go, Small said.

He added people currently living in basement apartments, who may be able to afford a little better space, can’t find anything. That’s because builders, for years, have been focusing on constructing condos and townhomes - far out of the reach for a large segment of the population.

So, when the five old homes Small owns (and formerly rented out) on Elgin Street “reached the end of their useful life,” he began exploring alternatives. He soon realized conventional construction was not the way to go.

When he learned about NSDC, he quickly bought into the concept and partnered with the company to develop a plan for the property.

That plan includes two buildings that will house 21, 480-square-foot one-bedroom units, five 640-square-foot one-bedroom units and one 800-square-foot two-bedroom unit.

Previously, the five houses on the same site boasted 11 units in total.

It’s estimated rent for a 480-square-foot apartment in the new building will be about $1,050.

The proposal ended up in the lap of city council earlier this month over parking.

The proponents had petitioned the Committee of Adjustment (COA) to allow them to reduce the number of parking spots from the mandated 21 to 17. To consider that, the COA had to get permission from city council to hear the matter.

Council provided that permission. Since then, the COA has agreed to allow the reduced number of spots.

Provided no appeals are received to the committee’s decision within the 20-day appeal period as set out in the Planning Act, the committee’s decision is final, subject to the applicant complying with the conditions.

Small said he doesn’t share concerns about the number of spots.

Of the 32 people who live at the Village Inn, only a handful have cars. He said many people who live in affordable housing don’t own cars, but rely on transit and bikes; the new development will include racks for up to 30 bikes.

“There were only two parking spots for the five houses on Elgin Street. Four of the houses didn’t even have driveways,” said Small. “So, we’re going from two spots to 17 and there’s also lots of overflow parking available at the Village Inn.”

Shelswell added they hired CC Tatham to conduct a parking and traffic study that addressed such concerns. That study, she said, confirmed the number of spots “would be adequate for such a development in the downtown.”

Once city council rules on the COA decision, Shelswell said the company will begin working with the city on a site-plan agreement, seek demolition permits to demolish the five homes and start to work.

“We would love to be done by Christmas, but Feb. 1 is probably the target date for getting tenants in the building,” said Small.

For Marshall, this project is a big deal.

“There’s more to this Elgin Street development than just putting up an apartment,” he said, noting it’s taken “years of work” to get here.

He said many people have “apprehensions” about modular construction. 

“Without seeing what’s possible, they picture rusty old shipping containers stacked in place .. The container is just another way to attain a skeleton or frame of the building.”

He said this approach has been used in Europe for more than two decades and notes his company has been using the method in remote and northern applications for years.

Last summer, NSDC completed a 16-unit townhome develoment in North Bay using their modular approach. Marshall said it would be nearly impossible to discern the development was constructed from modules.

However, the approach has not been attempted in Ontario in a “typical, walk-up, multi-storey apartment building.”

He believes once this development is finished and is successful, it will spawn many others.

“We’re optimistic that by getting this one built, it could trigger between 200-300 units,” said Marshall. 

And that’s great news for those seeking affordable housing, he said, noting the development targets the “working poor.” 

He is hopeful they can work with regional and municipal governments to “come alongside and provide an alternative to help fast-track affordable housing.”

He said there is a “massive appetite” for this type of development. “But people want to see it work, so this is extremely important.”

For more information or to get your name on a waiting list for a unit in the new buildings, email ElginStrentals@gmail.com.

For more information about NSDC, visit their website.

 

Orillia Matters, Dave Dawson

© City of Orillia, 50 Andrew Street South, Suite 300, Orillia, Ontario, L3V 7T5, Tel: (705) 325-1311, Fax: (705) 325-5178, Email: info@orillia.ca

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