Mid-Century Matters

From the postwar enthusiasm of 1947 to the prospect of a new century in the 1970’s, CMHC’s Pattern Books read like an Architectural Epic, and we’re about to honour them with a reboot.

Mid-Century Modern design has always appealed to me. The low pitch butterfly roofs, big beams that shoot through floor-to-ceiling glass, consistent ceiling to soffit transitions, natural materials, quirky cantilevers, open concept Kitchen-Living-Dining areas, what’s not to love? For houses that were designed in this style from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s, the ‘Atomic Ranch’ aesthetic has proven itself to be timeless because it’s good. The spaces connect indoors with the outdoors, where some of the best West Coast modern homes and Palm Springs MCM villas feature as much landscaped outdoor living areas and courtyards as indoor spaces.

Eventually, after many months of searching for a home in Barrie, Ontario – we discovered a pocket of MCM homes in an older neighbourhood and jumped on one (closely resembling CMHC Design #701). The 1954 construction was solid and remained dry-as-a-bone. With big Douglas Fir beams and some remaining original details like the feature wall, skylights and floating brick chimney, the simple, shoebox design with a low-slung roof extending into a carport presented a compact volume that could easily be renovated into a Passive House someday. When it comes time to replace the roofing, windows, deck and other aspects that have weathered beyond the structural core of the house, it will be a simple job.

Simple volumes mean an optimal area to volume ratio – where exterior surfaces are minimized and therefore so are areas of heat loss. Large overhangs are also part of the MCM vibe, which means water and weather are held well away from walls and foundations, preserving finishes as well as providing shade in Summer months which limits heat gains and therefore cooling loads and electricity bills. All in all, MCM homes got many of the principles of ecological design right, even in 1947.

That’s why, when one of my architectural colleagues gifted me a pattern book from CMHC dated 1950, I was initially switched on to the idea that there might be more to learn about MCM design in Canada. Well it turns out CMHC ran an entire program of competitions and calls for designs that went out to Canadian Architects, from 1947 to the 1970’s, that resulted in ‘Pattern Books’ with hundreds of floor plans and sketch renderings, all numbered by year and model, with each listed and numbered design complemented by complete sets of construction documents that were available to purchase from CMHC for around $10 for a set. The advice in the introductory paragraphs included such pearls of wisdom as, “how to plan for the complete budget, including landscaping and service costs”, as well as how to “not be taken for a ride by a contractor” – as relevant today as it was in the 1950’s.

On review of the complete archive of Pattern Books and Construction Plans, we got to thinking… When we bring on a new client, often we spend several weeks reviewing their program. What if we had a way to fast track that process? What if we had a way to bring our clients an accelerated overview of residential architectural layouts so they might consider novel ways to consolidate circulation and reduce square footage?

In early Schematic Design we review and order lists of rooms and spaces and explore material qualities while developing an overall look and feel as well as timeline, budget and build quality. This process of generating floor plan options for an owner to choose from takes time and money (our professional fees) to do it right. At the same time we are attempting to fit all of these elements on to the building site, incorporating views and considering environmental aspects such as orientation to the Sun, prevailing winds, etc. But in almost every case we iterate multiple versions of the floorplans, sometimes dozens of times until the layout clicks with the client and they are ready for us to move into the next phase, from Schematic Design to Design Development.

In other instances owners come to us with floor plan sketches they themselves have drawn up, or other times they will arrive at our office with plans they have pulled from the internet. In most cases these serve just fine as a starting place, but seldom are these pre-baked plans aligned 100% with all of the other competing goals or program elements that an owner may have. In other cases the plans may be ill-suited to achieving performance goals or budgets. Ultimately, however a project is initiated, once we arrive at a general layout that works, we all too often require to trim a considerable amount of ‘fat’ from floor plans that tends to accumulate during the development of the plans (aka. scope creep), in order to reconcile aspirational design elements with what are often fixed construction budgets. In other words, we need to be constrain the plans to fit the budget, a process we describe here in depth. Having an owner review a comprehensive set of well-thought-out plans in advance, and then select one that is close to meeting their needs, could save thousands of dollars of our fee, and accelerate the process, aligning goals with plans, sites and budgets all at once.

History expressed in Floor Plans and Styles

Like a pendulum reflecting the zeitgeist, the CMHC Pattern Books express a range of aesthetic moods and sensibilities in residential Architecture, swinging from a kind of explosive and euphoric post-war enthusiasm in the first issue in 1947, to a more sombre, restrained neo-traditionalist look in the mid-1950’s, and then a full swing of the pendulum back to a kind of manic Utopia of the West Coast Modern book from prepared by Zoltan Kiss and Fred Lassere of UBC’s School of Architecture (my Alma Mater) published from 1950 through 1959. The series gradually migrates to a number of groovy bilingual MCM books and plans with the same graphic design, look and feel of the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. We can also see a time when domestic chores were starkly gendered, with laundry tubs in the kitchen – no machines, where the ‘lady of the house’ would scrub and wring the laundry while a roast baked, and a rear kitchen door to the yard (presumably to hang clothes in pre-dryer days) and stairs to the basement also from within the kitchen to stoke coal fired heating equipment – all circulation designed to facilitate myriad chores central to this station. Eventually rooms for machines that served these purposes changed the layouts, and kitchens became elevated to a kind of social hub, complete with bars and islands for entertaining and conversing with house guests. It seems exceptionally odd now for anonymized plans to have bedrooms labelled, ‘Boy’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Parents’. Flipping through the Pattern Books is like a kind of time-travel, and one can see conventions overturned through innovations in successive turns of the pages. Ideas more relevant to our own time are met with “aha!” – and “that makes total sense, now I see see why we don’t do that anymore!” For example, few architects today design cold rooms beneath entry niches (maybe we should?), or carefully placed linen closets, or basement workshops, but from today’s pages, clearly not every bedroom needs a bathroom, surely young kids could share bedrooms (I did!) and the ubiquitous ‘foyer’ of the 1980’s is thankfully, nowhere to be seen.

We have often wondered out loud where we could find such a collection of well considered, compact and completely executed designs to present to our clients that would fit their budgets and programs without investing in a substantial schematic design exploration. The CMHC collection satisfies exactly this requirement since there are hundreds (over 1,000 by my count) of royalty-free floor plans an owner can flip through and select a plan that has been taken all the way through to structural design, including thermal details (however dated), and even built-in furniture and millwork.

The compactness of the hand drawn sets are often works of art that consider nothing extraneous but everything that is essential to the project. Drawing by hand demanded an efficiency of linework and notes, and carefully parsing a design into its relevant sections and elevations, critical details and plans meant organizing information on to the least number of pages possible. The result is a density of information and economy of space that is generations removed from endless PDF scrolls of less meaningful BIM data. While our firm operates at the bleeding edge of BIM, we are far from architectural traditionalists, yet there is something to be learned from a study of these plans by clients and architects alike.

The CMHC designs range from bungalows to 1.5 and 2-storey projects and in the 1970’s several duplex models are featured. Plans often feature up to 3 bedrooms and spacious common areas, usually optimized to be less than 1,000sf above grade, with smartly consolidated circulation areas, all professionally designed by licensed architects. Such a resource can save our prospective clients a considerable amount of our fees and their own time, but it also gives us the opportunity to focus on modifying an already good design for a unique site, current building code requirements, zoning by-laws and other wishlist items while at the same time honouring a tradition of design excellence that is uniquely Canadian.

Small House Designs, 1957, By our beloved Central (now Canada) Homes and Mortgage Corporation

We have obtained licensing from CMHC that will allow us to modify (to bring up to current codes and beyond) and professionally seal these drawings for use by owners and contractors, provided we attribute CMHC and also credit the original architects. We estimate that starting with one of these CMHC plans could save owners anywhere from $5k to $20k in Schematic Design fees that we can simply bypass by having started with a well-considered MCM plan from the day a project starts in our office!

It should be noted that in some cases these designs and plans are older than 70 years, and so structural and thermal aspects of the designs require licensed professionals to be bring them up to current standards, but they are a great starting place for anyone interested in MCM design for a range of Canadian climates that is aiming to build the best possible design for the smartest possible budget!

For the full archive of Pattern Books, CMHC has requested that we provide this link:

CMHC Pattern Books

And for the construction plans, please use the link to the archive of construction documents:

CMHC Plans

We are grateful to CMHC for the support they have given us in providing these resources to our firm and the public, but we should mention that any work we do with these files is not a CMHC sponsored project. For more information on CMHC please visit their website by clicking on the logo below.

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  1. Firm Calls for Architects to Update Retro Plans for Tiny Homes left a comment on May 14, 2021 at 6:00 pm

    […] Fred Lassere of UBC’s School of Architecture published from 1950 through 1959,” according to Andy Ro at Thompson […]

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