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Jul. 7, 2020 | Tuesday
Editorials and Opinions
ArchiText: The wartime-era Victory House
The Victory House was popularized during the Second World War. (Brian Marshall/Special)

Upon entering the Second World War in late 1939, Canada faced a housing crisis. A number of factors generated by the Great Depression had created a housing shortfall estimated at 232,000 units.

Slums and homelessness were rampant in industrial centres. Consider the 1941 statistics reported for the city of Hamilton where 12.4 per cent of dwellings were occupied by two or more families, 10.7 per cent of all housing was defined as “overcrowded”, 28 per cent of the houses were identified as “substandard” (lacking plumbing or in desperate need of repair) and 56 per cent of all homes were rented (often to multiple lodgers).

So where could they house the labour force required by the industrial war effort? The country needed a solution.

C.D. Howe, Mackenzie King’s “Minister of Everything,” responded by creating Wartime Housing Limited. This crown corporation, led by construction magnate Joseph Pigott with directors drawn from every part of the building industry (including unions), was charged with immediately addressing the issue.

They did so with startling efficiency and innovation. By the end of the war the company had completed multiple residential blocks for single workers, 25,771 single-family detached houses and all the associated infrastructure. How did they do it? Part of the answer lies in the creation of a new architectural style which has since been  called Minimal Traditional, but at the time was simply called the Victory House.

Architects developed several completely standardized house plans between 600 and 1,200 square feet, which were designed to be built on blocks or piers (no basement) using prefabricated panel-style construction. This building method allowed for an assembly line-like process wherein specialized teams were assigned to individual parts of the build. It worked so well that one of these single-storey or 1.5-storey houses could be completed in 36 hours.

While the government’s original plan was to tear down these rental houses after the war, they were so popular that many were purchased and had basements put under them. Indeed, that popularity (and the simplicity of the build) spurred many private developers to build the slightly upscale versions of the Victory House still seen across the country today.