Foster Farm


Objective: Identify and address central issues concerning the low-income, under-served neighborhood of Queensway Terrace in Ottawa, Ontario

Response: Foster Farm is a demonstration of how design can not only provide affordable shelter for those in need, but use it as a catalyst that helps communities access the most fundamental of needs.  In order  to be truly effective, this proposal addresses a variety of socioeconomic issues using a holistic approach at all scales of the built environment.

The vast array of social, physical and economic issues that plague communities in need across the country can essentially be attributed to a lack of access.  While basic shelter may be provided, access to a variety of fundamental needs often remains very poor.  These needs are things such as medical care, community-building establishments, economic opportunity and recreational spaces. This can be summarized as a lack of access to health and wealth.  The spirit of Foster Farm addresses this umbrella issue with strategic agricultural interventions that both facilitate healthier lifestyles and create dramatic financial benefits.  It does this by re-imagining the current model for affordable housing as something of immense social and economic opportunity rather than a cultural burden that society must bear.

Canadian cities have a variety of methods for providing housing for those in need.  All systems, however, are essentially their own version of the same economic and political structure.  The government, through either direct or indirect (non-profit organizations) funding, subsidizes the cost of housing through tax credits, vouchers, etc.  Foster Farm introduces the private sector as the main player, while keeping the government and non-profit organizations involved in distribution, NOT production or maintenance.  Our city’s primary social housing provider is Ottawa Community Housing.  The city is the sole shareholder and they house over 30 000 people.  OCH has an annual budget of $142 million and own and operate over $2 billion of assets city-wide!  By introducing this to the market, not only is this huge amount of wealth passed on to the market, but the three main issues that plague OCH are directly addressed.

67% of Ottawa homes are owned, while the rental vacancy rate is a mere 1.6%. This demanding rental market is further complicated by an $1100/month average price tag—the second highest in the country. To be considered financially ‘at risk’, a household must spend over 30% of their income on housing; this means that in order to ‘comfortably’ rent in Ottawa, one must earn approximately $44,000/year. Ottawa’s average income, however, is $32,000/year—this is quite high by Canadian standards but it is still much lower than the required income for market renting. With ownership being so encouraged in North America, this also creates an incredibly steep financial slope for renters to climb if they ever wish to own. Foster Farm brings ownership into the discussion of affordable housing and relieves the government by implementing heavy involvement from the private sector. This not only allows access to the variety of construction and development benefits, but strives to close the socioeconomic gap between those who own and those who rent. It makes ownership a real possibility for the lowest quintile, allowing them to gain a wealth-producing asset and a home they can call their own. Foster Farm is not a social engineering experiment; it is a response to a flawed system— it attempts to lessen the schism between the middle class and marginalized demographics, and transforms affordable housing from a social expense to a social investment.

In 2009, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation introduced a variety of incentives for first time home buyers.  Among them are a $5000 tax credit for those who wish to purchase their first home as well as a mortgage insurance that allows for a down-payment of as little as 5%, with interest rates similar to that of a 20% down payment.  If one were to use that $5000 tax credit as a 5% down-payment, this would potentially give them a $95,000 mortgage and a monthly payment of $536.  This requires a yearly income of $21,000 — half of that which is required to rent at market rates!  Now, the question is, how does one buy land, provide infrastructure, construct a house and turn a profit with $100 000?

The 100K House implements a number of key strategies that drastically reduce the cost of construction and the property while still leaving room for an 8% profit.

Reduction of parcel size: By compressing the property lines to the perimeter of the house, the typical land parcel size is reduced by 1/10th.  This means moving the private outdoor space that is typically a yard to both the rooftop and to shared public land.  We must remember that in today’s market, the land is what both costs and appreciates and by reducing the size by such a large amount, the overall cost is dramatically lowered.  Furthermore, as a by-product of small-lot development, density is inevitably achieved.

Share Walls:  Party walls need to be common — they split the cost of one wall between units.  If these units are then collected into small communities, the building of 18 or 24 units is more similar to the building of 1 large building.  A single building envelope (this most expensive above-ground part of a house) is now shared.  The result is essentially one small façade hung between two masonry party walls.

The ‘half built’ Home: The 100K house is what one would call a ‘bare bones’ product.  The point is to provide the very basic of amenities and allow the buyer to enter the ownership market for the lowest possible cost (expanding the potential demographic).  The 100K house as built with the absolute bare essentials of ‘the home’, lowering construction cost but also creating a canvas on which the residents can gradually personalize over time as they gain the capital.  This is a critical aspect of the idea, for the monotony that typically plagues affordable housing is remedied over time by the transformation of the houses into personalized, individual homes. Since the two masonry party walls take care of all structural needs, the customization possibilities are virtually endless. This gives way to a diverse urban fabric that reflects the individual character of each household.

Completed: April 2013

Course: Undergraduate Studio VII at Carleton University School of Architecture and Urbanism

Critic: Dr. Shelagh McCartney