Thinking outside the real estate box

Green players are turning out sleek, contemporary designs and changing perceptions of modular homes.




You could be forgiven for asking the obvious: "What the heck is a house doing in the parking lot at Scotiabank Place?"

The contemporary construction of exposed wooden beams and glass looks lonely, sitting in the spring sun under the giant posters of Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and crew that hang over the front doors of the team's official home.

The players are long gone for summer, but for four months of the season, thousands of fans walked past the home, glancing in the windows.

"It's all about marketing and raising the profile of a new, very green and decidedly modern player in the world of prefab homes," says a slightly wistful Dany Bonneville, co-president of Bonneville Homes, a Quebec-based firm that has built more than 35,000 homes since 1977.

As the savvy marketing whiz for his family-owned company, Bonneville was hoping the Sens would go further in the Stanley Cup playoffs, bringing crowds — and potential buyers — past the two-bedroom NaturA model in parking lot 6.

The house arrived late last year on a series of flatbed trucks from the company's factory in Beloeil, just outside Montreal. Within days, crews had ripped off the heavy plastic that protected the modules for the road trip and then cranes moved the pieces into place. The crews "buttoned" up — or attached — the modules, which were already wired, plumbed and had cabinets hanging on the kitchen walls and hardwood on the floor. Furniture arrived the next day.

Instant house.

In this particular case, it's a house with a contemporary pedigree and energy smarts that drop heating and cooling costs. The house easily exceeds Ontario's tough new building code for energy consumption, thanks to precise construction in a factory setting.

Yet there is still the challenge to change the perception of modular homes.

Gone are the days of cheap, boring designs. Today, companies are using smart factory-built technologies to speed up the construction process, while hiring leading architects to deliver open, multi-use spaces devoid of clutter that create a strong connection to the outdoors thanks to big windows and sliding glass doors.

Bonneville is a leading member of this ultrachic modular club, a membership that includes an innovative developer who is days away from selling a $1.6-million modern home on the side of a ravine in the heart of Toronto and two Calgary brothers who recently won national honours for a modest green cabin that's big on design and small on price, starting at $154,000.

Best of all, the Toronto developer, Gary Lands, who owns Nexterra Green Homes, and the Calgary brothers, Kurt and Kris Goodjohn, owners of Karoleena Homes, are developing distribution systems to ship their modular homes across Canada, including to Ottawa.

And there are other familiar names in the modular business, including Ottawa's Guildcrest Homes and Sea Hawk Homes.


Building modular homes is not new. Sears Roebuck shipped components for more than 100,000 homes across the United States between 1908 and 1940.

Bonneville is Eastern Canada's biggest modular builder, celebrating 50 years of building mobiles in one form or another. In 1977, Paul Emile Bonneville bought the Beloeil factory and started building affordable, modular homes in a controlled setting where the weather was not a factor. It's a dynasty that has spanned three generations and a huge portfolio of home styles.

PAGEBREAKIt's newest series, the Natur, has provided star performers for half a dozen years at home shows in Ontario and Quebec, plus in a certain parking lot at Scotiabank Place.

Besides trekking to home shows, Dany Bonneville runs nine traditional model sites in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, including a courtyard of permanent homes outside Arnprior and Chelsea and a joint project with race car driver and former Montreal Canadiens star Patrice Brisebois that opened Easter weekend at Mont-Tremblant.

Called Domaine Mont Bellevue, crews were finishing off a swanky $500,000 Natur model at the Mont-Tremblant site on Good Friday when Kash Pashootan walked through the doors and was smitten.

Pashootan visited the Beloeil factory and signed a deal for the partially finished home on Easter Sunday.

"It caught us off guard because we were going to use the house as a model for six months," says Bonneville, who is now busy designing another model home for Domaine Mont Bellevue, which — when finished — will have 140 super-green modular homes on 1.5-acre lots.

"It was everything I wanted," says the high-flying financial adviser at the Ottawa offices of Raymond James and regular financial adviser on television and in newspapers. The confirmed modernist has already designed and built a contemporary stone-and-glass home close to the Ottawa River in Gatineau.

He had been searching for a modern, environmentally friendly recreational property at Tremblant, but couldn't find anything. He was thinking of buying land and building, but then happened upon Domaine Mont Bellevue.

"I am a big fan of Dwell magazine and modern publications. This was a really good option. It is modern, green and already built, yet you still have the ability to use your creativity with the finishes."

The main level of his two-bedroom Tremblant house will feature about 1,500 square feet of glass, exposed wooden beams on 10-foot ceilings, concrete floors and built-in furniture.

He plans to create a rooftop garden and is now finishing the lower, walkout level with large glass walls, more bedrooms and a strong connection to nature.

"It will be all wood, stone and glass. It will be woodsy and natural. And it will be ready by June 1, just in time for summer," says Pashootan.


The Bonneville homes are perfect for buyers driven by immediate gratification and builders who plan on construction timetables of three months and not the 12 to 18 months it takes to build a conventional home on a site.

And they're just one of a group of inspired factory-built homes popping up on ravine lots in downtown Toronto, urban streets in Calgary and providing shelter on Alberta farms.

PAGEBREAKThese new prefab designs are sleek, ultra-green performers, a Canadian take on contemporary, factory-built homes popularized by American architect Ray Kappe, who established the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC) in 1972, mentoring generations of contemporary architects to design multi-levelled homes that reach out through glass walls to touch the landscape.

It was California developer Steve Glen who hired Kappe to design a line of sophisticated, green contemporary homes for his modular company, Living Homes. Toronto developer Gary Lands noticed the media buzz, met up with Glen and Kappe five years ago and invested in the company. He wanted to bring the California designs to Canada.

Lands set up Nexterra Green Homes, bought four lots on a Toronto ravine and started the complex negotiations to get city approval for the country's first modular home built to the tough standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification.

There is a geo-thermal heating system, ultrasmart wiring behind the walls, a sizzling European kitchen by Scavolini and modern furniture. The house opened to rave reviews in late April and Lands is now days away from selling. A similar home in California would cost about $4 million, he says.

The cost of buying a modular home is similar to a stick or site-built home, but the advantage comes down to quality control (because it's built in a factory) and in the speed of construction, says Lands, who is looking for other sites to build more modular homes.

"It is a disciplined way of building because the price is locked in near the start," says Lands. "This is a new concept and it makes so much sense for an urban site that is 25 or 30 feet across. You get a crane and set it down."

He adds that "the time has come for modular housing," saying factory-built homes can sidestep the nagging issue of fewer trades and an aging workforce in the housing industry. "There is no reason more homes cannot be built in a factory setting. It makes sense."

Calgary's Kris and Kurt Goodjohn are creating their own green, contemporary buzz, winning the Best Innovation award in April from the Canadian Home Builders' Association for their Karoleena Cabin. The 700-square-foot, glass-and-wood cabin was a hit at home shows in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver and is now on a permanent foundation on a ranch near Invermere, B.C.

"The rancher flew to the Edmonton show to see the cabin and bought it for $225,000," says Jamie Reeney, sales and marketing manager for Karoleena Homes.

The Goodjohn brothers are young, emerging stars in the Calgary housing marketing, opening a 30,000-square-foot factory four years ago and building the Gracie, a contemporary four-plex apartment on a tight lot in an inner neighbourhood, in 2009.

There have been more inner-city homes and a range of recreational cabins. There are housing projects in northern Alberta, an appearance on Dragon's Den and requests from across the country, including Sudbury and Ottawa, to ship their modern homes east. There is now a network of dealers for most of Canada, including Ontario, says Reeney.

PAGEBREAKThe Goodjohns were inspired by the modular advantage after watching European countries and Japan adopt the building concept.

Western Canada has embraced the contemporary designs, but Ontario is a bit slower, says Reeney, adding that the factory and Karoleena's 24 employees are working flat out to keep up with demand. It takes five weeks to manufacture a home in the factory.

"It makes so much sense because you build quickly and you don't have to worry about weather," says Laura Felstiner, a marketing adviser who is raising awareness of the Karoleena brand in Ontario and overseeing local projects.

Kash Pashootan is well aware of the modular advantage, planting a garden and planning summer gatherings on the deck of his Tremblant getaway, with not a bit of drywall dust in sight.





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