Housing Innovation: The Cost of Land Acquisition

Housing Innovation: The Cost of Land Acquisition

Our third post in a series of blog posts around our deep dive, ‘How to Build More Affordably” and the lessons we learnt. Find the first post and our overview video here.

Written by: Shafraaz Kaba, Principal, ASK For a Better World 

In our exploration of the major costs in affordable housing, the cost of land acquisition stood out as a line item to focus on. Our Innovations team considered several opportunities for reducing the monetary outlay for obtaining land including partnering with school boards, churches, and religious organizations who all may have surplus lands. Municipalities also tend to have surplus land or properties for sale. All of these organizations would likely work with a housing not-for-profit or charitable organization to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. In this short video, Anne Stevenson from Right at Home Housing Society explains a couple of opportunities she has found working with church groups:

Also, when looking for land and development opportunities, our Innovations team that was focused on Retrofits discovered that there are many factors that should be considered before land or a building is acquired. Sometimes there will be hidden pitfalls in property or a building such as hazardous materials (asbestos, lead, PCBs, hydrocarbons, etc) or even the lack of utilities, access or mobility. Land may not have fire hydrants nearby or electrical transformers or power lines that could significantly increase development costs to bring the service to the site. 

Here is a portal to obtain an excellent guide and checklist by the Rural Development Network that helps provide some way of vetting sites and buildings for expensive issues:

Here is a portal to obtain an excellent guide and checklist by the Rural Development Network that helps provide some way of vetting sites and buildings for expensive issues:


Other links and resources that reflect on land and property issues:


Hotels converting to housing in Calgary: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/affordable-housing-1.5875921




Housing Innovation: Contracting the Design and Construction Team Differently

Housing Innovation: Contracting the Design and Construction Team Differently

Our second post in a series of blog posts around our deep dive, ‘How to Build More Affordably” and the lessons we learnt. Find the first post and our overview video here.

Written by: Shafraaz Kaba, Principal, ASK For a Better World 

One of the simplest ways to reduce the cost of housing is to consider how design and construction services are contracted or procured from architects, engineers, contractors and trades. For affordable housing, there are far more values-aligned ways to hire the professionals involved in designing and constructing multi-family developments. Instead of the usual practice of first hiring the architect or builder, and then developing drawings that will be priced by trades and inevitably come in over budget, there are new contracting mechanisms that allow for the design and construction team to collaborate together to meet the desired project budget and timeline. 

These include “Progressive Design Build” and “Integrated Project Delivery.”  Both of these methods foster a high degree of collaboration and integration between all team members. Essentially when the trades work directly with the design team understand what they need to build, for how much, and by what date, the entire team works together to accomplish these goals. It takes the guesswork out of a typical tender or bid process where the trades have no interaction whatsoever with the design team.

Lean design and construction is another key aspect of reducing project costs. Unlike manufacturing, the design and construction industries have barely increased in productivity over the last hundred years. The Lean Construction Institute has identified that 70% of projects are over budget and behind schedule. Also, 30% of the materials brought to a construction site are put in the dumpster. This is an embarrassing amount of waste.  Utilizing the methods and team culture of Lean can greatly reduce this waste by smarter specification, ordering of material and on site utilization that not only save costs, but time as well. Lean culture paired with a values-based design and construct method can yield unbelievable savings.

Mike Johnson explains his experience with Lean IPD on a project in this short video:

Here are some resources on Lean Construction, Integrated Project Delivery and Progressive Design Build:

Lean Construction Blog

Integrated Project Delivery Alliance

IDP Action Guide for Leaders

Progressive Design-Build

Edmonton Lean Community of Practice

IDP White Paper: Creating a Zero Carbon Building Under Budget and Ahead of Schedule: IDP Makes it Possible

Learning from Our Deep Dive on How Can We Build More Affordably?

Learning from Our Deep Dive on How Can We Build More Affordably?

The Affordable Housing Solutions Lab culminated in the prototyping phase this Summer. It has been a flurry of activity over the winter and spring, as the Innovations teams focused on new construction and retrofit sites and workshopped almost on a weekly basis. During these sessions, the Innovation teams went down a few rabbit holes but ultimately discovered a number of processes and prototypes we’re now ready to put to the test. 

We learned from various industry experts that prefabricated, modular or panelized construction is challenging without very big investments in factories and automation. We also discovered retrofitting existing buildings may open a can of worms that, if not carefully vetted, would not yield an affordable result. Even how we look at financing and property management can yield phenomenal cost savings month over month. Through six major innovations, the Innovation teams have found not only a way to making housing cost two-thirds what it does now, but offers up new and more effective ways to realize projects through collaboration and partnerships.

Have a look at our Innovations summarized in this short 16 minute video.

Over the course of the next few months, we will provide deeper dives into each innovation and provide resources and case studies to demonstrate these amazing opportunities.  So, stay tuned to the Pivot blog for more!

Reflections on Deep Dive Workshop #3

Reflections on Deep Dive Workshop #3

Screen shot of the collaborative work of the “New Housing Team”
Screen shot of the collaborative work of the “Retrofit Team”


The Edmonton Affordable Housing Solutions Lab is nearing the completion of the prototyping phase. Two teams have been working diligently since December in creating prototype solutions with one team considering an existing building retrofit checklist and the other developing a framework for new housing. The teams have leveraged the diverse skills and experiences from their participants which included people working in the built environment as builders, contractors, architects as well as people working directly with those who need affordable housing. These two teams have undertaken deep dives that have provided insight into the systemic problems with funding formulas, land “commodification” as well as the restrictions from building codes and zoning. Issues such as accessibility and visitability, along with energy and environmental sustainability have also been discussed in detail. 

The two teams will be creating checklist tools for the project developers to utilize in how to find the right project that addresses affordability, accessibility and sustainability. The new housing team has even developed a framework for a social enterprise that can remove cost/profit centres that are a barrier to constructing affordable homes. This idea uses the model of a co-operative organization or enterprise to build modular home components to be delivered to housing cooperatives assemble/construct them. Learning opportunities and partnerships with trade schools and the manufacturing sector are an important part of making this co-operative model work.

After creating these checklists and frameworks for project developers, the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab will be looking for project developers and social housing agencies to test the ideas and provide constructive feedback for refinement and improvement. It is the hope of the participants in the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab to inspire new integrative and collaborative ways to build more homes.

Shafraaz Kaba, Workshop Facilitator

Reflections on Deep Dive Workshop #2

Reflections on Deep Dive Workshop #2

The second workshop in our deep dive created space to learn from others in innovative ways, and to break out into two teams to tackle the challenge.

We started the day off by hearing from our first guest speaker, Mark Erickson, from Studio NORTH. Mark shared the project they had developed which won the City of Edmonton’s Missing Middle Challenge a few years ago. This prompted our group to see an example of innovation in the housing space and gave us some energy for the next part of the workshop.

The rest of the morning was spent in one of two groups: Team New Build and Team Retrofit. Both these teams went into breakout rooms and spent the remainder of the morning thinking about the values they would like to focus on, the scope of their ‘prototype’ or ‘framework’, and brainstorming ideas around how they could think about new builds or retrofitting.

In the afternoon, we were lucky to hear from Lynn Hanley at Communitas about their experience in social housing and innovation in the affordable housing space. This was an opportunity for our participants to ask questions, engage deeper, and learn from someone with deep knowledge.

After this, we went back to our groups and were prompted by Lynn to think about who are we really designing for and what does our ideal design look like or include?

As we wrapped up our second workshop, one of the major themes that kept being discussed was how can one prototype or framework or idea address such a large problem? This is something we have been grappling with since we started our work in the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab. Our approach is to bring diverse thinkers together, learn from people with lived experience, and try novel ways of looking at complex problems. We think that through facilitated exercises, people can be nudged to come up with new ideas and that is what we are trying to do through this deep dive.

Our two teams are meeting weekly before our third workshop to continue to brainstorm and develop ideas for a prototype or framework. Stay tuned for updates from our next workshop and participants!

Reflections on Deep Dive Workshop #1

Reflections on Deep Dive Workshop #1

What does success look like? This was our guiding question for our first deep dive workshop with industry experts and folks from the non-profit housing sector.

Over an afternoon Shafraaz Kaba, our stellar facilitator, led our group through a series of exercises to answer the question, “what does success look like?”. There were a few themes that people identified as essential to success:

  • coming up with realistic ideas,
  • incorporating sustainability,
  • being inclusive,
  • knowing our end-user,
  • designing with innovative financial models,
  • and thinking about long-term policy implications.

We also spent time discussing what barriers we may face as we go through this journey, this included things such as:

  • zoning bylaws,
  • availability of land,
  • funding,
  • community perceptions/buy-in,
  • and an equitable approach to involving people with lived experience. 

This workshop was an opportunity for us to learn from each other and build a shared vision of the design journey. Our upcoming workshops will divide the group into two teams: a new build team and a design team. These teams will explore how we can build affordably with a focus on sustainability, inclusiveness, and community. Ultimately, the prototypes will strive to reimagine new housing that can address the needs we have heard from people with lived experience and suitable to the Edmonton context.

Stay tuned for updates from our next workshop and blog posts from our participants!

Illustrated notes taken by Rhea Kachroo, Solutions Lab Strategist.
Our rad participants!

What does it take to make a home?

What does it take to make a home?

By: Shafraaz Kaba, Principal, ASK For a Better World

Along with our facilitator, Shafraaz Kaba, we are beginning to work with industry experts and folks from the non-profit housing sector to think about housing affordability. We will document this journey here. Please see below for our first post detailing the start of this journey.

What does home mean to you? How about housing? And what is affordable housing? What is a shelter? Is homelessness and the lack of affordable housing triggered by our failure to deliver social supports to the vulnerable, those with low incomes, and hard to house? Or is it a function of failure of policy and ineffective funding models that do not deliver the type, scale and number of units required? Perhaps it is also a function of land values and gentrification. Speculation and the never-ending need to develop neighbourhoods for profit push out folks who cannot afford the inflation of rents. In our polarized, partisan world, are we losing the idea of creating community? Affordable housing has been a subject that has been the study of countless architectural theses, and even the focus of many architectural and builder practices. Through the Affordable Housing Solutions Lab, we will collaborate to test prototypes for Edmonton.

The Affordable Housing Solutions Lab is a partnership between MacEwan University, the University of Alberta, the Edmonton Community Development Company, and the City of Edmonton. The vision of this lab is to ensure all citizens in Edmonton have access to safe, adequate and supportive housing. It hopes to empower Edmontonians to innovate, co-create and develop effective, local housing solutions that promote social inclusion and fulfill the right to housing.

Housing. Home. Shelter. We will begin to document our prototypes through this blog. Over the course of an Edmonton winter, watch our progress and hear from the various participants on our prototyping teams. Perhaps our ideas can inspire the people working in the local housing industry, and create new models for equity and humanity.

To provoke some ideas, here is a short, 28 minute documentary on “What it takes to make a home.”