The Solution to Expensive Housing May Sit in Plans from 1947 Competition

How much house do you really need? These tiny designs might be more than enough.

1947 Competition cover.


Housing prices have gone through the roof in the past year and it's not just speculation: there have also been dramatic increases in the cost of residential construction. According to Bloomberg, "from lumber to paint to concrete, the cost of almost every single item that goes into building a house in the U.S. is soaring. In some cases, the price increases have topped 100% since the pandemic began."

Bloomberg House

Screen Capture/Bloomberg

Bloomberg does an interesting series of isometrics of phases in building a "typical" house, a single floor, 3,100-square-foot Baybrook model from Tradewinds Contracting in Boise, Idaho. Everything has increased in cost, from lumber (+262%), trusses, (+146%) or as shown here, plumbing, HVAC, and electrical (+49%)

But what I really couldn't get over was the house itself, with a 2.5 car garage, bumps and jogs everywhere, rooms upon rooms upon rooms. Over the years, houses got bigger and bigger because all of the materials were relatively cheap, and North Americans suffered from this disease I have called "squarefootitis"—being obsessed with the price per square foot. This drops as the number of square feet increases, so it's one reason that houses got bigger.

This discussion got me thinking about how house plans used to be so much smaller and more efficient, and how our "needs" have changed so much. One of our most popular posts was "There's Lots to Learn From These Small House Plans From the '60s," which reproduced plans from Canada's Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC, sort of like the U.S.' Fannie Mae) where I scanned every page. A clever reader then uploaded all the CMHC plan books to Internet Archive, and I have been going through them all.

I loved these houses, they were so simple and so much smaller, but even they were more than many people need. If you look at the family-sized condos in cities like Vancouver where nobody can afford houses, they are about 1,300 square feet.

the competition problem
The problem.


1n 1947, CMHC published a book of plans with the results of a competition to design a house for Mr. Canada and his wife and two children. He has limited funds and "knows of the shortage of materials and high construction costs but in view of his plight (overcrowded rental accommodations), he must build immediately." The competition divided the countries into zones since there are different climate and cultural conditions, but the judges noted that these were not actually reflected in the entries, that most houses could go anywhere.

"They have no preference concerning style but dislike the freakish or the bizarre or picturesque. They are very interested in contemporary ideas of utility and livability and would like "built-in furniture" but do not want "gadgets." They want a well-lighted and healthful interior and are interested in the trend to larger glass areas. Since their budget is carefully planned, heating and maintenance costs should be at a minimum. They have no objection to departures from traditional materials provided their architect can assure them that the new ones he suggests will give just as good service."

The house is to fit on a 40-foot wide internal flat lot and the architect has a budget of $6,000, which in the rough cost per square foot at the time, yielded about 1,200 square feet. So what could people get in a house then?

First Prize J. Storey
Maritime Region/ Click image to enlarge.

J. Storey

Starting in the East, the First prize for the Maritimes, is this 908-square-foot house with three small bedrooms, a galley kitchen, and a single bathroom. One of the winners was named J. Storey, and I wondered if this was Joe Storey, who went on to become a prominent modernist architect in Chatham, Ontario, and whose daughter, Kim Storey, is an architect and a good friend.

She tells Treehugger: "Yes, he was just out of school, won $500 and moved back to Chatham and set up his practice with the winnings!" (Wikipedia says he won $750.) When Kim Storey was born, the local newspaper covered the event saying "Local architect adds another Storey to his house" because that how you spell the story of a building in Canada.

Ottawa architect Toon Dressen notes priorities were different then, with this winning entry focusing on the design of the fireplace, which is actually quite lovely. I wondered why a young architect from Southwestern Ontario would enter in the Maritimes category and suspected that the odds of winning were better.

I asked Kim Storey, and she told Treehugger: "I don’t know—but I remember in the CMHC competition we entered in 1979, many architects cleverly entered the maritime and the prairies for that reason. Better prize money too! (We didn’t figure that out and got a ‘Mention’ in Ontario.) So my father may have been thinking along those lines."

Parkin Second Prize
Second Prize Ontario Region.

John C. Parkin

This was probably a smart move, given that second prize went to a very young John C. Parkin, whose entry has dad coming home by helicopter. It has a tight, efficient plan, the kids' bedroom that opens up with a folding wall, and a guest bed built-in beside the fireplace. Parkin went on to become one of Canada's most prominent and successful architects.

Henry Fliess
Third Prize Ontario/ Click on image to enlarge.

Henry Fliess

The third prize went to Henry Fliess, who designed a compact 1.040-square-foot two-story house. All of these homes had separate kitchens, most in a traditional U-shape and only a few with an eat-in area. None had a second bathroom that would be expected as standard today, even in an apartment.

Fliess went on to become one of Canada's most prominent residential architects, famous for the Don Mills subdivision in Toronto. Historian Robert Moffat describes the lifestyle in a Henry Fliess designed home:

"Interior planning emphasized the primacy of family life, with the open-plan living/dining area and kitchen as the communal nucleus of the home. There were no private ensuite bathrooms, even in the top-of-the-line Executive, although Dad was given a den to escape to with his fly-fishing gear and Canadian Club. Attached carports or garages were a prominent feature of all models, a place to display the bejeweled tailfins of the latest Buick Roadmaster or Monarch Turnpike Cruiser."
Quebec Plan
Quebec First Prize.

Roland Dumais

I had trouble figuring out Roland Dumais' winning Quebec plan until I looked at the site plan and realized that the parking is in the rear from a lane, so there is an entry into the kitchen on one side and into the hall on the other side. Another incredibly tight and efficient plan at 1,040 square feet.

Chomik House
First Prize Prairie Region.

Andrew Chomik

I was not surprised to see that Andrew Chomick of Winnipeg won in the Prairie region, he was prominent and had a few houses in the earlier post on house designs from the '60s. His son has published a book of his plans. Chomick's plan is a backsplit: a very popular idea in the '50s and '60s because the basement was raised half out of the ground for much of the house, turning it into a pleasant and well-lit recreation space, a true bonus room.

West coast house

RAD Berwick

This west coast honorable mention has a dramatic exterior and is another backsplit, creating that bonus room that no doubt got used a lot when the whole house is 932 square feet.

This is just a small sample of the many houses shown in the CMHC guides, all of which demonstrate the point: you don't need 3,000 square feet to raise a family. If the current American obsession with detached suburban houses is going to continue, perhaps builders should offer these smaller, simpler, boxier designs that are easier and cheaper to build, and will be obviously cheaper to heat and cool. Many of them seem like apartment designs, although almost all of them have closed kitchens. One could pump the floor area by 10% and add a second bathroom or a little more closet space in the bedrooms, but they are all eminently liveable.

In the Passive House world, we talk about Bronwyn Barry's term, #BBB or Boxy But Beautiful. We also go on about sufficiency, the question of what is enough? How much do you need? In the Peak Everything World, we talk about using less of all these expensive materials.

Of course, our usual position is that multifamily housing is the most efficient, but the North American market is obsessed. So why not build houses that are smaller and cheaper and closer together on smaller lots?