Let's Get Small

Small is beautiful, and two young guys with a construction business based in Sooke are trying to prove it with little homes prefabricated on an assembly line.

Westco Construction is a partnership of two transplanted Calgarians — Dan Melville and Jeremy West. They’re both 28 but were barely out of their teens when they started building houses in Alberta. They met while working for the same contractor.

They moved west — Melville was born in Calgary but raised on the West Coast — and launched their construction company here in 2004. They built the Bear Mountain village centre and the Metro and Lotus condos for Bill Beadle at Goldstream Station on Goldstream Avenue. Until recently, they were doing “all multi-family projects, which has been our bread and butter for years.”

For Three Point Properties, they handled the heritage renovation of the Bossi mansion on Johnson Street near Vancouver Street, which has 16 modern condo units tucked inside and in back of the 120-year-old red brick house. The floor plan was reconfigured when the market for large and expensive condos started drying up. Three Point sold out the 16 Bossi condos, priced between $150,000 and $200,000, in two months.

West and Melville figure that especially in today’s economy there’s a market for affordable small dwellings. Really small. Like less than 500
square feet.

“Guys making $25 an hour can’t afford a mortgage on a $400,000 home,” said Melville. Building on smaller, affordable properties is the way of the future, West added.

Both were 20 when they started building conventional houses in Calgary. Today they’re constructing EcoTec homes, which is their name
for the smaller, prefabricated dwellings made at Westco’s yard in the industrial park along Otter Point Road, in Sooke.

{advertisement} They’re compact enough to be trailered to the homeowner’s property in halves, but with a shingle-and-siding exterior these craftsman-style prefab homes don’t come with the usual manufactured home look.

“We stumbled into this whole cottage thing, quite truthfully,” said West. A friend of Melville’s father got them talking to Three Point, which was planning a recreational subdivision at Port Renfrew.

It’s up on a bluff on the waterfront, virtually at the end of Highway 14, two hours from Victoria and the jumping off point for the West Coast Trail and good sport fishing.

Three Point is selling units in its Wild Coast Cottages development starting at $144,900, which includes the lot, cottage, and HST. Westco makes the cottages at the company’s Otter Point Road yard (formerly TimberWest’s huge dryland sort for logs, now an industrial park).

Forty cottages are in the first phase and 40 more are planned for the second.

West and Melville claim they can do 1,000 square feet of framing a week in prefab style at their construction yard out on Otter Point Road in Sooke.They’re snug, two-by-six construction, with plywood sheathing that’s glued and screwed, a metal roof, R-20 insulation in the walls, and R-40 in the ceiling. The smallest is 400 square feet, but they have designs by Karen Hillel of Victoria’s Hillel Architecture for up to 1,100 square feet. There’s even a stacking duplex version.

The finished homes are trucked out the long way round through Duncan and Lake Cowichan, as their trucker didn’t like the hairpin turns on the more direct route past Jordan River. “They’re going out 100 per cent complete in two halves,” said Melville. Each half is about 10,000 pounds.

While they’re supplying Three Point with its cottages, the partners are aiming for other markets as well — someone with a lot in the Gulf Islands, say, or acreage on southern Vancouver Island.

The homes are suited to “smaller affordable properties… the way of the future,” said West. See westcoconstruction.com

Life in a Cube

Another small-house builder is in Nanaimo, and James Stuart is generating lots of interest in his “cube homes.” Twelve feet wide and long and just as high, the small dwellings can be tucked into a corner of a large conventional residential lot.

Twelve Cubed Homes is building small prefab homes of just 144 square feet, although you get a “mezzanine” level where the sleeping area is reached by a short set of stairs. You can’t stand up there but it’s comfortable for sleeping, something like a camper.

A cube show home has been erected in Nanaimo to demonstrate the concept. It’s at 2103 Bowen Road near Beban Park in the Northfield neighbourhood and it’s open Tuesday through Saturday. One of the cube homes will be featured at the Canadian Home Builders’ Association home show in Victoria in February.

Stuart said interest is “high” in the compact $50,000 homes. He and his partner lived in the first one for eight months last year and Stuart maintained “they are very spacious and comfortable.”
“Cubes are microhouses that can be set up in conjunction with a primary household on an existing residential lot,” according to the website of Twelve Cubed Homes,

The 12-by-12-by-12 size of the Twelve Cubed homes is dictated by the fact that most building materials come in eight-foot lengths, such as a four-by-eight sheet of plywood.
Nanaimo allows a cube home on lots of at least 10,000 square feet, a corner lot, or one that has a laneway. Elsewhere, they’re known as carriage houses, or garden apartments. The city of Victoria is preparing new zoning for garden apartments.

In an expensive housing market, little houses might just fill a big gap.