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Canadian Small House Competition, 1946: the first CMHC postwar initiative

by Marie-Saskia Monsaingeon, published 2015-12-03
Held in 1946 by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the Canadian Small House Competition urged architects across the country to design innovative and affordable single-family houses. The idea competition received a massive response of three hundred and thirty-one design submissions. Albeit, as pointed out by the jury, the elite of the architectural profession failed to show up, thirty-seven designs were recognized across the five regions. This first CMHC competition takes us back to its aspiration to address Canada's housing needs post-World War II.

Countless Canadian families were looking to settle into affordable and well-designed single-family houses following the end of the Second World War. In response to the housing demands the competition focused its intentions on the design of convenient, healthful and innovative plan arrangements in line with a family of four's needs, new building techniques and a budget of approximately 6 000, 1946 Canadian dollars (77 000, 2015 Canadian dollars).

Hence, in a time of material shortage, architects were faced with the challenge of designing well-planned domestic spaces at minimum cost. They were to follow guidelines such as interior space was to be bright, furniture was to be built-in, rooms to be large and arranged so that it would be possible to watch children all the while doing housework. Lots that were considered were flat and up to 40 feet wide and the jury's report points out that "a fundamental issue of consideration was [...] land coverage, since the bungalow type occupies a large proportion of the lot while a two storey house economizes on roof and lot areas".

This initiative, approved by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, was launched right when the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (now Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) was created in 1946. The CMHC was established to carry out the National Housing Act adopted two years earlier in 1944. It meant to act as an intermediary between landlords and architects.

First, second and third prizes as well as honorable mentions were awarded in each of the five sub-competitions (the Maritimes region, the Quebec region, the Ontario region, the Prairie region and the West Coast region). Regrettably, out of the three hundred and thirty-one design submissions, the CCC was only able to gather material for these thirty-seven designs. The jury, which included Humphrey Carver and Ernest Cormier, agreed that the outcome represented an "exhaustive study of different ways of putting together the elements of the small house plan" and thus it was very evident that the plan arrangements presented to them was the fruit of rigorous efforts but they "doubted whether there had emerged any great distinction between the regions in the form of plan." The jurors added that a design submitted in any region may very well be "suitable" in another.

The Maritimes region did, however, seem to stand out from the other regions. It was awarded only two honorable mentions (whereas the four other regions were awarded five) yet, its first prize, awarded to G. Burniston & J. Storey, was considered by the jury "to be amongst the best submitted". It offered large openings oriented south, allowing for maximum light into the living-dining area. Additionally, both of Michael G. Dixon's designs presented to the Maritimes region and the Quebec sub-competition caught the jury's eye. His playroom design that could be turned into a bedroom over time, as well as the achievement of accommodating not two but four bedrooms, were very well regarded by the jury.

Noteworthy submissions in the Prairie region suggested the idea of either adding a dining area to the kitchen or a vast living-dining-kitchen area. Whereas David J. Moir's Quebec sub-competition proposal was a genuine clin d'oeil to traditional Quebec domestic architecture, throughout the West Coast region plan submissions were thought to be very similar. However, one was considered the most contentious of all submissions: E. A. Mulford's design, although well regarded for its unique features, failed to provide an affordable solution, key element of the design brief. Harry Leblond, on the other hand, put forward a low-priced West Coast type bungalow.

Finally, the jury regretted that no new building techniques emerged from the competition. Besides, despite the jurors feeling disappointed by the limited attendance of experienced firms that "had been unable to contribute on account of the pressure of present business" they applauded the effort put forward by participants and claimed that "the first three choices in each Region would well provide the Canadian public with some novel and interesting designs for future house construction".

The jury's comments, both laudatory and bitter, suggested an outline strategy that would lead to the investigation of new lieux d'habitation. Surely, this competition launched a series of research studies of new model homes that remained at the core of the CMHC's mandate. A year later the CMHC published 67 Homes for Canadians, a collection of the valuable thirty-seven designs from the Canadian Small House competition along with thirty additional compositions, in order to provide attractive, affordable designs and helpful information to the house-builder.


For a broader historical understanding of how the Canadian Small House competition fits within the history of the CMHC you may refer to the History of CMHC section of their website.

67 homes for Canadians
ftp://ftp.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/chic-ccdh/HousePlans/CA1%20MH%2047S37_w.pdf

History of CMHC
https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/corp/about/hi/index.cfm
IMPORTANT NOTICE : Unless otherwise indicated, photographs of buildings and projects are from professional or institutional archives. All reproduction is prohibited unless authorized by the architects, designers, office managers, consortiums or archives centers concerned. The researchers of the Research Chair on Competitions and Contemporary Practices in Architecture are not held responsible for any omissions or inaccuracies, but appreciate all comments and pertinent information that will permit necessary modifications during future updates.
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