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Going modular to help the homeless

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Inside a former sawmill building in the village of Cumberland, workers are piecing together components of a new two-storey modular building for homeless Port Alberni citizens.

Nearby, another building has more workers, who are starting to create floors for a three-storey modular facility for homeless people in Parksville.

Port Alberni’s housing will be in place in mid-December, with Parksville’s finished in the new year, said Tania Formosa, daughter of Joe and Diane Formosa, founders of the Muchalat group of companies.

The Comox Valley company is among eight firms, and the only one based on Vancouver Island, contracted so far by the province to supply modular housing under its rapid response to homelessness program. B.C. has set aside $291 million to build more than 2,000 units.

Each furnished unit has between 300 and 450 square feet of floor space. Each has a three-piece bathroom, bed, desk, and kitchenette. Buildings have a common lounge and commercial kitchen.

They are to be staffed around the clock with services that include meals, helping residents with education and job searches, and assistance for mental health and addiction issues. Culturally specific programs will be available.

Staff will also help residents connect with assistance and benefit programs. Residents can learn how to maintain a home and access to laundry equipment will be free.

To date, 421 units in eight modular supportive housing projects in or near Vancouver are finished and occupied, a B.C. Housing official said. Another 1,640 units of modular supportive housing are being planned or under construction.

These include four on Vancouver Island: a 21-unit building in Victoria, a 55-unit building in Parksville, another with 46 units in Courtenay, and a 35-unit project in Port Alberni.

Modular housing built through the rapid response program “offers a fast and effective response to the growing issue of homelessness in communities throughout the province,” B.C. Housing said in a statement.

B.C.’s manufactured housing sector is flourishing. The value of manufactured building production in Canada topped $1.6 billion in 2015, said a 2016 report from the Canadian Manufactured Housing Institute.

In B.C., it accounted for 2,792 jobs and $614 million in economic activity, the report said.

“Since the recession, we’ve seen close to about a 24 per cent increase in shipments every year,” said Gord Rattray, institute executive director. “We are doing very well.”

The popularity of modular homes has seen some developers ordering them for their housing projects, he said. Young families and retirees are among those fuelling the demand. Laneway housing provides additional homes in developed areas, and more multi-family projects are in the works.

New factories and new companies are setting up in B.C. to respond to demand, Rattray said.

Modular construction has little waste, so it is seen as environmentally friendly, and offers a fixed price and delivery time.

Muchalat Projects has close to 70 employees concentrating on modular construction and putting in foundations, Tania Formosa said.

Its B.C. contracts have them creating complete housing units with drywall, flooring, cabinets, plumbing fixtures, and closets.

Muchalat is able to produce units up to 64 feet long and 14.5 feet wide, which fit on a road for shipping, Formosa said. The Port Alberni units are a few feet shorter. The Port Alberni building will take a total of eight months from start to finish and is scheduled for completion in December.

Because modular construction takes place indoors, “your construction is never stopped by weather,” Formosa said.

Rod Graham, president and chief executive officer at Horizon North in Calgary, said his company used to manufacture workforce accommodation at its Kamloops factory. That ended in 2015 and instead of closing the facility, it now turns out modular housing.

He saw an “opportunity to build a completely different product.” Horizon North also bought an Aldergrove company and has expanded its workforce by 200.

Horizon North’s contracts with the province include an earlier contract to build 600 affordable-housing units in downtown Vancouver. That project is more than halfway complete, Graham said, and additional affordable housing is underway.

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