By Susanna McLeod
Special to Ontario Construction News
Soldiers marched from across Ontario and Canada into military training centres and then sailed to the war theatres of WW2. Women and men at home also marched, right into new sprawling factories to produce war supplies, munitions, aircraft, and ships. Even before the war, the country faced a severe housing shortage and as workers rushed into cities to fill jobs, especially in eastern Ontario, there was nowhere to call home.
Addressing the dilemma, Wartime Housing Limited (WHL) was established by the federal government at the end of February 1941. Led by construction magnate Joseph Pigott. WHL administrators hastily organized a program to build temporary communities and housing for the thousands of patriotic workers. The homes were scheduled for dismantling at war’s end.
Architects drew up plans for small houses, some with four rooms, others with six. Ranging from 600 to 1,200 sq. ft., the single-level and one-and-a half-storey homes were quick to build and cost-efficient. Named Victory Houses, they were also dubbed Strawberry Box homes due to the boxy, fruit container shape.
Copies of the blueprints were sent to contractors across the country. The massive project meant WHL used bulk buying to save money, presenting difficulties for other firms trying to run construction businesses. Prefabrication further saved time and labour costs.
“The most popular model, with steep roof, shallow eaves, small sash windows and clapboard exterior finish is stylistically reminiscent of a simplified Cape Cod Colonial,” said John Blumenson in Ontario Architect: A Guide to Styles and Building Terms 1784 to the Present (Fitzhenry & Whiteside 1990). Options included a three-section picture window, centre hall or side hall plans, “and, while clapboards were the favoured exterior finish, composite shingles, stucco, or brick veneer were also used.” An open porch was added to some homes, with a narrow trellis on each side supporting a small roof.
Local advisory committees were recruited “to advise on potential or proposed sites, to help in negotiations for property acquisition and in the call for tenders,” said Jill Wade in “Wartime Housing Limited, 1941-1947: Canadian Housing Policy at the Crossroads,” Urban History Review, 1986. Rent collection, maintenance, and other property functions were WHL’s responsibility.
Surveyors laid out streets and community sites, often near the plants for easy access to work. The rapid construction started with post-hole augers to dig holes for cedar post placement or cement post (where wetter conditions prevailed) on which floor beams rested. Covered with rockwool and tar paper for insulation, the beams were the foundation for prefabricated wall sections.
At each jobsite, a temporary workshop was assembled with saws, planers, and essential construction tools. According to Graham McInnes of the National Film Board (NFB) in the 1943 short, “Wartime Housing,” labourers constructed interchangeable wall and roof sections which were 10 feet high by 4 feet wide. Windows and doors were produced onsite for immediate installation.
Resembling a smooth-operating assembly line, a parade of crews constructed the homes around the clock. Each smaller team performed one job only, then moved on to the next home, described McInnes. With on-the-spot prefabrication, each home took only about 36 hours to raise. The wiring, plumbing, and interior finishing were completed, including more rockwool insulation. A fuel box for heating stoves was attached to the house exterior, to hold perhaps wood or coal.
The cozy, compact homes were rented at $22 to $30 per month, affordable for workers and war-weary veterans. “Between 1941 and late 1946, (WHL) completed 25,771 units,” Wade stated. As well, wartime blueprints were altered to build homes following standard construction procedures.
“By 1944, WHL houses displayed a more permanent character, being built of frame construction and resting upon a foundation running around the periphery of the entire structure rather than upon posts or blocks,” wrote Wade.
Housing remained in low supply after the war, so government rethought its strategy; the Victory homes would no longer be dismantled. Instead, WHL and its myriad properties were absorbed into the newly-formed CMHC (Canada Mortgaging and Housing Corporation). Some 30,000 Victory homes were sold “to their tenants and returning veterans,” said Elie Bourget in A Small-er House Design Scheme (Thesis, University of Waterloo 2017). The proud new home owners improved their properties, adding basements, dormers, and other comforts.
Single war industry workers required housing, as well. WHL contractors constructed large bunkhouses for the men, with dormitories for 400 to 600 workers to live in relative comfort. Women’s dorms were cozier, with two girls to a room. In off-hours, workers could dine, spend time in a lounge, go bowling, and more.
Establishing family neighbourhoods, the agency developed schools and playgrounds, clubs such as Scouts, and built community centres where all could meet and create memories.
Many older neighbourhoods across Canada still feature the distinctive homes. The Victory house remains an enduring and thriving example of wartime construction ingenuity.
© 2020 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based writer specializing in Canadian history. Her childhood neighbourhood was filled with wartime Victory homes.