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Thursday, August 18, 2022
Arch-i-text: Rise of developers

Prior to 1945, there were no “residential housing developers” as we know them today.

Certainly there had been successful builders who would purchase a piece of land, divide it into lots, sell a lot and then contract with the buyer to build a house.

It wasn’t uncommon that a quality builder might strongly recommend an architectural firm that they knew and trusted. And, occasionally, one of these builders might build a house “on spec” to model their craft and style.

The neighbourhoods that resulted from this approach, built over time, generally had a sense of continuity in style and form while maintaining the distinct nature of each house. Old Glen Ridge in St. Catharines is an excellent example of these pre-Second World War practices.

The demobilization of slightly more than one million Canadian service personnel after 1945 resulted in significant issues around employment and housing. To answer the housing issue, enterprising builders lifted a page from the government’s war-time Victory House program (and designs): construct modest houses with pre-fabricated components and specialized crews on an assembly line model.

With the co-operation of the government, large tracts of land were expeditiously subdivided and developed. By 1950, one developer in a single tract was finishing 30 houses per day! These were the houses that made home ownership for those of average income attainable and altered societal expectations thereto.

With the successful model in place and the buying public wanting more, the stage was set for the growth of the juggernaut referred to as the “housing industry.” 

Construction companies across North America embarked on the development of large tracts of land, building homes for families busy birthing the baby boom generation. The successful companies followed the Victory House formula: build easily constructed houses of similar size and limited variations with task-specialized teams on lots that maximized the saleable units per acre. It's a formula that is largely followed to this day.

The problem with this formula is that it irrevocably alters the architectural and cultural landscape. When hundreds of vanilla cookie-cutter houses are built, the original unique identity of a village or town is lost in a sea of suburban mundania.

Do I blame developers for this? Heavens no. As a business, they have a primary responsibility to generate profit for their shareholders and support their stakeholders. It is not the role of a corporation to safeguard a town’s heritage, identity nor control the way in which it grows.

That responsibility rests with the town’s citizens, their elected officials and municipal administration.

Based on the evidence, this is a fact most towns have failed to understand.