Professor Avi Friedman, director of McGill's affordable homes program

Avi Friedman's revolution

SYLVAIN COMEAU | The School of Architecture's affordable homes program will soon be leaving its mark all along Jean Paul Vincent Blvd. in Longueuil. Some 130 homes will be built using the program's blueprints for inexpensive, comfortable housing. Eighty Grow Homes -- the brainchild of architecture professor Avi Friedman and his former McGill colleague Witold Rybczynski -- will be constructed along with 50 Next Homes.

The Next Home, also designed by Friedman, is a more adaptable, reworked version of the Grow Home.

The $10-million housing development, called Le Faubourg du Cerf, was officially announced earlier this month at a press conference in Longueuil. The 50 Next Homes that will be constructed for the project will be the first ones available in Quebec. Construction was slated to begin last week and the first homes to be built will be ready by July.

Friedman, the director of McGill's affordable homes program, reiterated his belief that these types of houses meet the needs of many contemporary home-buyers.

"Economic changes mean that job security is a scarce commodity; as a result, many people find it difficult to get a bank loan. That's why we must help lower housing costs. Therefore, we have designed a home with a base price of $60,000, everything included. This is the least expensive home on the market."

The Next Home's design also takes into account changing demographics and the breakdown of the traditional family.

"There is no such thing as the traditional family today; niche markets are springing up. There are a growing number of single- parent households, people living alone, young couples, and elderly people buying homes. The flexibility and transformability of this concept is perfect to adapt to their changing needs."

The Next Home's flexibility is a structural design provision.

"Older homes are built with a load-bearing wall, which is a wall in the middle holding up the ceiling," says David Krawitz, a research associate with the affordable homes program. "The Next Home is built so that the whole width of the house is not dependent on a load-bearing wall.

"So you can change rooms around at will; you can take down a wall without worrying that the ceiling will fall down. Any wall can be moved without harming the building's structure."

The housing development also comes complete with a number of high-profile partners already on board, including construction company Habitation St-Laurent, the National Bank and Hydro-Québec. Hydro-Québec is integrating its new, energy-efficient Nouveau Confort Program, launched last spring, into the homes.

"Because of today's environmental concerns, we have formed an extraordinary marriage between (our design) and Nouveau Confort," Friedman said. Nouveau Confort is a system which sets high standards for insulation, air-tightness, fenestration and ventilation.

"We are proud to be associated with such a unique project," said Nouveau Confort project coordinator Guy Veillette. "We hope that this will become a long-term association if the success of this project attracts other construction companies. That's the way things work: the first ones to do something take a risk, and others follow when they see the outcome."

The benefits of owning a house with a Nouveau Confort system will be easy to calculate, said Veillette. "You're talking about energy savings in the form of lower heating bills, at around 20 per cent less."

The National Bank has been recruited as the mortgage lender and financial agent for the project. In a remarkable bit of cooperation between the partners, the bank has already agreed to offer borrowers a one per cent discount on their loan for a three-year term, in the form of a reduction on their electricity bill.

"By becoming the financial agent for a project that is functional, ecological and economical, the bank is showing that it has adopted a whole new way of thinking about housing," said National Bank vice-president for the Montreal South-Shore region Renaud Nadeau.

Since their 1990 launch, more than 6,000 Grow Homes have been sold and Friedman expects similar success for the Next Home.

"The Grow Home has been said to revolutionize the housing market in Quebec," Friedman declared at the press conference.

"Today, we are starting a new revolution."

In an interview with the Reporter, Friedman stated that McGill hasn't received enough credit for introducing the Grow Home. "It's become almost a generic term, like duplex or triplex. We helped narrow the housing gap in Quebec and made homes more affordable," says Friedman, adding that McGill's role is often underplayed.

"With the Next Home, we've been more careful, we've tried to exercise more control. We trademark the terms we use now and the builders who want to use our designs can only use them under certain conditions -- giving McGill proper credit is one of the conditions we insist on."

On April 30, Friedman will receive the J. Armand Bombardier Award for Technological Innovation from ACFAS (Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement de la science) at the organization's Science Gala. He also recently received the ACSA (Association of Colleges and Schools of Architecture) Collaborative Practice Award, which honours academic programs which work with their local community.

"If it wasn't for the help of the people at the affordable homes program, I wouldn't receive such honours," Friedman says of the awards and accolades the program has received. "This is a tribute not so much to me as to the whole team."