Small House Plans from 1947 Can Be Updated for Modern Living

Architect Andy Thomson is working from the same playbook.

Angled front rendering

Andy Thomson

With materials costing so much money these days, smaller, more efficient houses are looking a lot more attractive. We recently showed plans from a 1947 design competition run by Canada's Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and most were so logically laid out, without any wasted space, squeezing so much into about a thousand square feet. The imaginary clients had "no preference concerning style but dislike the freakish or the bizarre or picturesque."

Honorable Mention
Fifth Honorable Mention.

Charles R. Worsley

That's probably why Charles R. Worsley's design only received fifth honorable mention: It pops out of the book as something completely different, so modern and very much like the Eichler houses in California that came a decade later. Many of the architects in the competition went on to illustrious careers, but Worsley seems to have disappeared, with a few records from his school days in the University of Toronto archives. This is a shame; he had real talent.

Plan of house
1947 Worsley Plan.

Charles R. Worsley

It is such an interesting plan, with a huge closet and utility room at the entry, a terrace that adds light and view to the kitchen.

Thomson Version
Thomson Version.

Andy Thomson/ Charles Worsley

Architect Andy Thomson liked this house too. He has always been good with small spaces and is known to Treehugger for his Sustain Minihome. He was working in an office in Pembroke, Ontario, and found a yellowing copy of the plan book in the basement.

Front rendering

Andy Thomson

He tells Treehugger most of these plans are small enough they can be used as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) behind or beside existing houses. "They are such solid designs, a great place to start with clients," he says, noting that starting with an existing plan can save thousands of dollars in schematic design fees. He also notes on his site that design was different when architects were drawing by hand:

"The compactness of the hand-drawn sets are often works of art that consider nothing extraneous but everything that is essential to the project. Drawing by hand demanded an efficiency of linework and notes, and carefully parsing a design into its relevant sections and elevations, critical details and plans meant organizing information on to the least number of pages possible. The result is a density of information and economy of space that is generations removed from endless PDF scrolls of less meaningful BIM data."
Side view with courtyard

Andy Thomson

He has taken Worsley's design and updated it for the 21st century. CMHC said they are public and meant to be used–with lots of insulation, triple-glazed windows, and modern equipment.

It's not Passive House. Thomson considers the process too expensive, but it can be what he calls net-zero, saying "the only way to tell how well a house is built is by looking at the electric meter after a year."

House exterior

Andy Thomson

Thomson can supply full architectural drawings for any of the homes, and can probably even be convinced to design an ensuite bathroom, although he claims "we all grew up with just one bathroom, it is ridiculous now that in new houses, every bedroom has an ensuite!" He also complains, as I have, that "giant kitchen islands are consuming the house."

He writes on his website:

"We are aiming to execute a handful of these designs to commemorate the 75-year anniversary of the first Pattern Book launch in 1947. We aim to demonstrate that an affordable, comfortable and well-appointed home can be designed well under 1,000sf – which also results in optimal construction economy, thermal efficiency, and a reduced environmental and carbon footprint." 
Dining room

Andy Thomson

There is much that has changed in 75 years—we now have heat pumps, induction ranges, solar panels. We have a much better understanding of how a house works to keep its occupants comfortable and healthy. But fundamentally, programmatically, these house designs that CMHC released between 1947 and the '70s deliver everything that people need, and these mid-century designs are timeless.

Kitchen rendering

Andy Thomson

Houses got big because the materials used in lightweight wood-framed houses were cheap, and because pumping up the volume of a home delivered a big return to the builder as those additional cubic feet cost almost nothing to build. The expensive stuff, like kitchens and bathrooms, land and lot levies are pretty much the same whatever the house size is, so there was no incentive to build smaller. Gas and electricity were cheap and nobody thought much about climate change, so there was no incentive to build more efficiently.

This has all changed, with the carbon crisis, the increase in the costs of materials, and the affordability crisis facing young people. Perhaps, as Thomson tells Treehugger, "The pendulum is swinging back to where houses are not investment vehicles, but a return to the sense of a house as something to use."

1947 plan in perspective

Andy Thomson

Order yours from Andy Thomson Architect and collect all the CMHC plan books on the Internet Archive.