Inspired by IKEA’s pre-assembled houses and the speed of Chinese construction sites, Quebec is preparing to focus on factory prefabrication on a large scale. The objective: to accelerate the pace to fill a fraction of the deficit of 860,000 housing units expected by 2030.
The Société d’habitation du Québec (SHQ) will shortly launch a call for proposals with a view to building 500 modular housing units in a factory, a new step in a shift in its approach to tackling the housing crisis.
We are not talking about single-family homes here, but buildings with 12, 24, or even 52 units. They will be designed in the form of prefabricated modules, kitchen and bathrooms included, and assembled directly on site, like large Lego blocks.
Around ten Quebec factories are already preparing for this change of direction.
This is one of the elements that Claude Foster, president and CEO of the SHQ, revealed to me during his first major interview since taking office two years ago.
“With the needs we see at the moment, with immigration, with the labor shortage, we must do differently,” Claude Foster told me. We do not have a choice. If we want to be able to get there, we have to do things with a vision that is not that of 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. »
The SHQ began to cut its teeth in modular construction in 2023 with a few pilot projects in eastern Quebec and Jamésie. Around twenty housing units have been delivered.
But it is in Jonquière, in a few months, that the real test will take place. The SHQ is finalizing a call for proposals to build a building of 52 affordable housing units, entirely prefabricated in the factory, block by block. It will replace an HLM destroyed by a fire in 2022.
“We want to see how much time we will save compared to traditional production,” Claude Foster explains to me.
By the start of summer, the SHQ will move into high gear. It will launch a call for proposals to build 500 modular housing units this time, distributed throughout the territory, in buildings of up to four floors.
Claude Foster estimates that this method will make it possible to make savings of at least 30% on the usual schedules. The dollar savings will be more significant in more remote areas, where labor is scarce and transportation of materials is more expensive.
Without commenting on the estimated cost of future housing, Claude Foster tells me that the choice of factory manufacturing, in a recent pilot project in Chapais-Chibougamau, in Jamésie, made it possible to reduce the bill by around 50%. compared to a traditional construction site.
What seems wise to me with this project is that the SHQ contacted the market from November 2022 to encourage companies to submit digital model models, with a view to preparing the ground. Manufacturers will not be caught off guard.
The SHQ wanted to “understand their issues” before opening the calls for proposals. Things were done in order, which is not always obvious in the government system.
Around ten groups have the interest – and the capacity – to launch into the construction of prefabricated multi-unit buildings, notes Claude Foster. “We are going to visit their factories, we are discussing with them everything that becomes a blocker when there is a call for proposals. »
We really worked with these people so as not to end up with zero bidders. We have no more time to waste.
Claude Foster, CEO of the SHQ
Could a single company win the bid for 500 units? Will there be consortia? “Everything is simmering right now,” the CEO told me.
The central idea is to achieve a form of standardization within the Quebec industry, which already includes several manufacturers of “manufactured” buildings, such as RCM, Laprise and Bonneville, and a wide range of subcontractors. Quebec is banking on greater automation to increase the degree of productivity of factories and reduce pressure on the workforce.
According to the SHQ plans, there could be standard models of studios, one, two or three bedroom apartments, built in the warmth of factories by workers and robots. The modules would then be arranged in a myriad of different configurations.
The objective is to create buildings adapted to neighborhoods and cities, and not all identical, in a Soviet style.
A delegation of Quebec manufacturers and officials from the SHQ went to see examples of such constructions in the last year, among others in Belgium and Scandinavia. Claude Foster also cites the example of the Swedish group IKEA, which sells “kits” of prefabricated houses and housing buildings, and he marvels at the speed of execution of Chinese projects.
But he insists that all future construction in Quebec must meet the highest standards of energy efficiency and architectural quality. “We don’t want it to be a fast food restaurant. »
This idea of standardizing housing models resembles the “catalogue” of plans that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation wants to offer1. Claude Foster assures that he does not want to “duplication” of the work done by the federal agency, but rather to work in collaboration with it. A big gamble.
These new housing units will also be financed, at least in part, thanks to an agreement on affordable housing signed last fall between Quebec and Ottawa. The federal government granted 900 million to the province, which doubled the bet for a total of 1.8 billion.
The SHQ modular project will only solve a tiny portion of the housing deficit in the province, we agree. But the plans seem well put together so far, and the potential for accelerating the projects is considerable.
A rare fragment of hope in the current housing crisis.
In six to eight months
Several Quebec manufacturers are already very active in modular construction, such as the RCM group in Saint-Benoît-Labre, in Beauce. The company manufactures hotels, residences for the elderly, schools and apartment buildings… which are mainly sold in the United States. When leaving the factory, the modules already reach a very advanced level of finish, including kitchens, bathrooms, plaster, painting, wallpaper, etc. The “blocks” are then assembled on the construction site, and all piping (plumbing, heating, electricity) is connected on site, passing through the corridors. For a building of 50 housing units for which the plans have already been drawn up, the total duration of the project is six to eight months, Cédric Bolduc-Cliche, vice-president of finance, explained to me. The standardization of plans and specifications, as opposed to different plans for each building, will be decisive if Quebec wants to save time and money, according to him.