For the competition, students had to design a small structure that could serve as a building block of a larger dwelling. (Photo courtesy of winners Shengnan Gao, Nicole Burdynewicz, Elizabeth Young, Alvin Huang and Justin Arbesman)

A group of Ryerson architecture students won an interuniversity competition to design a customizable, factory-made affordable housing unit.

Second- and third-year students Shengnan Gao, Nicole Burdynewicz, Elizabeth Young, Alvin Huang and Justin Arbesman were announced as the winners of the 2018 Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Interuniversity Charrette at the Université du Québec à Montréal on Nov. 16. The group won a one-year membership to the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), as well as books from the CCA bookstore.

This year’s competition was called Housing One by One. Students had to design a structure, no bigger than one square metre, that could serve as the basic building block of a dwelling.

The group proposed hexagonal modules, one metre wide, that could be added together to form a honeycomb-like residence. These residences could be set up above ground between two buildings by attaching each end of the residence to the walls of the neighbouring buildings. Residents would access the dwellings using the fire stairs of one of the buildings.

The cheapest residence would consist of five hexagonal modules, and would include a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom. It would come with plumbing and electrical systems that would run through the floor and ceiling plates of the hexagons.

More expensive models would contain more modules. The hexagonal shape allows the modules to be stacked diagonally into whatever configurations the resident desires.

“It would be a compact living style,” Gao said. “But now this kind of housing has become more and more trendy, so it would be popular for young people.”

The trend of designing tiny but affordable dwellings has spread across the world, as cities have become more populated. Burdynewicz said that a source of inspiration for the group was a plan developed by a New York firm to create hexagonal sleeping pods that could be arranged in vertical rows beside buildings to provide sleeping spaces for homeless people. “The world’s narrowest house,” a triangular, multi-storey dwelling in Warsaw that is 1.2 metres at its widest, also inspired the students.

“We were really inspired by the Japanese housing style,” Gao added. “They always have a compact living style.

“With young people trying to save money on housing and actually get out of their parents’ home, I think it’s a good idea for them.”

Although the group’s design is based on ideas from around the world, the issues of unaffordable housing and rapid densification hit close to home. The Greater Toronto Area grows by about 100,000 people per year, according to a report by an architecture firm working on converting laneway garages into small houses.

The same report indicates that housing prices have likewise increased. In 2017, average home prices rose by 22 per cent from 2016, which were already 17 per cent higher than they were in 2015.

Torontonians who turn to renting because homeownership is too expensive face challenges of their own. A report by Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario indicates that in Toronto in 2017, only 1.1 per cent of lodgings were vacant, meaning that prospective renters had few choices. The lack of options makes it easier for landlords to increase rent.

According to the report,  one-bedroom apartments that were available averaged about $1,200 in rent per month, making them too expensive for many low-income Torontonians. Close to 50 per cent of tenant households in Toronto spent more than 30 per cent of their income on housing costs in 2017.

When the architecture students were creating their design, they were “looking at unused spaces inside Toronto,” Burdynewicz said. “There are a bunch of laneways downtown that this could be applied to.”

Even areas around Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre and Kerr Hall could be sites for the honeycomb-style residence, Gao said.

As cities like Toronto continue to grow, small, cheap lodging like the honeycomb homes will likely become more common, Burdynewicz said. Living in the comparatively large dwellings that many of us are used to will be less and less possible with increasing densification, she said.

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