Where the bungalows roam

“A house is a machine for living in,” Le Corbusier once famously wrote, but it is also a significant cog in the machine of our nation’s economy. Housing is big business, and as we all know, business is very good right now. Well, at least in Canada. So far, we have escaped the mortgage default problems that are causing major financial problems in the United States and that have escalated to cause problems in money markets around the globe.

Thankfully, the fundamentals of Canada’s housing market are solid, with little evidence of overbuilding or speculative buying, and a low volume of subprime mortgage lending to risky borrowers.

A look at the numbers supports this. The seasonally adjusted annual rate of housing starts was 278,200 units in September — a 29-year high — up 19.6 per cent from 232,700 units in August (which itself was up from 215,600 units in July), according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). “The rise in September housing starts reflects a strong multiple starts segment,” notes Bob Dugan, Chief Economist at CMHC’s Market Analysis Centre. “In particular, the robust results can be mostly attributed to increased condominium starts, which reflect strong condo sales over the past 12 to 24 months. However he cautions that “despite this sizeable growth, we continue to expect that housing starts will decrease gradually between now and the end of 2008.”

While everyone is predicting a cooling of the market in the months to come, including high-profile reports from the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Royal Bank released in mid-September, what can’t be argued is that Canada’s home-ownership rate is at its highest level on record, a fact backed by the latest national census data. Figures from the 2006 census, released September 12 by Statistics Canada, show that more than two-thirds — 68.4 per cent — of all Canadian households owned the place they lived in, the highest since this information was first collected in 1961.

As useful as these metrics are in mapping the landscape, we must remember that housing has always been saturated with meaning and value beyond just its simple utilitarian purpose of protecting us from the elements. Whether we see it or not, homes are expressions of fashion, taste, class, and other elusive variables that have an impact on the physical characteristics of the structure but rarely last as long as the structure itself.

Even so, until the past few decades, transitions in the style of homes and types of households were slow and gradual. But in today’s world of instant communication, the way we observe ourselves, other people, and even entire cultures has altered — and been altered by — the homes we live in.

Homes cannot be separated from the activities that occur within, nor from the activities going on around them. Technology, socio-demographics, governmental policy all affect how and where we live, which is why in this issue we look at housing from several perspectives: the ideals of New Urbanism, such as intensification, infill and place-making, are percolating deep into the consciousness of many builders, and reports from Victoria, B.C., Pickering, Ont., and rural Pennsylvania trace the efforts of developers to create communities that are models of this movement; Kelly Rude gauges the importance of good design in the condo market, with an eye to who is putting up some of the most interesting product across the country; and radical technological innovations are the focus of new housing initiatives as part of the CMHC’s EQuilibrium housing competition.

Although the home is not a product of pure design, as Le Corbusier would have wanted it, but a response to factors and forces beyond the control of designers, builders and users, they nevertheless are shaped, and in turn, they shape us, in a never-ending cycle.

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