Land Values: Can Intelligent City’s use of robotics knock down Vancouver’s housing crisis?

The housing crisis won’t be fixed overnight, but the brains behind Intelligent City think they can make a dent

Oliver Lang and partner Cindy Wilson had successful careers with their architecture firm designing thoughtful, creative buildings. Their condo projects on Vancouver’s west side, in particular, have been praised for their livability, with their interior courtyards, flexible spaces and natural-light-filled rooms. Their firm, LWPAC, has won many awards over its storied history.

But Lang could see he wasn’t going to change anything about Vancouver’s (or Canada’s) increasingly dire housing universe with one cool project here and another one there. The practice of producing one custom building at a time, in fact, started to seem like a weird anachronism from the pre-industrial era. In the modern world, even the most expensive cars or shoes or glasses are not custom produced, with a different design and individual set of builders for each one.

So now he and Wilson and his architectural team of almost 50 people work at a giant former shipyard in the wilds of industrial Delta. That airplane-hangar-sized building is dominated by two massive robotic machines that can be programmed to construct various types of standardized floor and wall panels. The panels, fabricated out of mass timber and with wiring, insulation and windows built in, will be clipped together like giant Lego pieces to form the shells of basic housing units that can range from a fourplex to an 18-storey apartment tower and everything in between.

“Now you can change the paradigm at scale,” says Lang as he talks with evangelical passion about all the benefits that this kind of mass production—“productization” as he repeatedly calls it—can bring on multiple fronts. “We can move away from building one layer at a time. It allows us to create systems that you can’t make by hand.”

It means new housing developments could be built approximately 38- to 58-percent faster, according to Lang. That’s not only due to automation. Builders can be working at two sites simultaneously with a single project: the actual place where the housing is going to sit, where they’ll pour the foundation and prep the land; and then the Intelligent City factory, where the walls and floors are assembled, later to be popped into place on the prepared land.

Because everything has to be figured out to the centimetre in advance, there can’t be any change orders during construction—a practice that routinely happens on custom sites, adding anywhere from hundreds to millions in extra costs. “It’s plug and play on site,” Lang explains.

Benefit Number 2: Eventually, those components will be pre-approved so that cities don’t have to send out their electrical or building inspectors to check things routinely, as happens with custom-built homes.

Benefit Number 3: It’s a more environmentally friendly kind of building because the company is working with mass timber, which in B.C. is currently allowed for structures up to 12 storeys, with promises that it will be up to 18 soon. (Lang is hoping for 25 at some point, as is allowed elsewhere in the world.)

“The most sophisticated carbon sequestration on the planet is trees,” says Lang in one of his typical big-big-picture perspectives. “We have enough managed forest on the planet so that we can meet all the housing needs for four billion people for the next 30 years.”

The buildings will use only 15 percent of the energy of a normal custom house and won’t have the typical service or maintenance costs, he says. “And there’s no reason to ever demolish them. If you can keep the wood dry in a consistent environment, it will last forever.”

They can even be disassembled and reassembled in a different configuration on that same site—or elsewhere, if needed.

Benefit Number 4: This kind of approach improves overall productivity—something that Canada has been sluggish at in recent decades.

It’s taken a long time for Lang and Wilson to make their idea a reality. They founded Intelligent City in 2008 and had to spend a long time figuring out a new kind of modular housing approach, something quite different from the conventional work-camp trailer style that most people think of as modular housing—a form that Lang still saw as restrictive because it results in fixed-size boxes that aren’t particularly flexible.

The company finally got a big injection of capital in recent years, announcing in July 2022 that it had raised $30 million through a combination of private investors and federal incentive programs. (Modular housing is getting more and more interesting to all government departments that are trying to solve Canada’s housing problems. And other supporters are weighing in. Canada’s CSA Group, which specializes in product certification, recently issued a news release urging governments to get more on board with supporting modular housing. Vice-president Sunil Johal had a long list of reasons to back it: factory building isn’t just more efficient, safer and more sustainable, it could also help solve the labour shortage by attracting people who haven’t been keen on working on somewhat hazardous and rough-and-tumble construction sites.)

Rendering of an Intelligent City development in Langley

Intelligent City’s staff also had to spend years figuring out how to produce designs that would be adaptable to many cities, many different kinds of sites and many configurations.“We’ve had a lot of failure in order to not fail onsite,” says Lang.

The company is only now working on the components for two Vancouver projects—an apartment building on Granville Street downtown and a Vancouver Native Housing building in East Vancouver, notable for an exterior design that looks like basket weaving on a giant scale.

As well, the company now has commissions in Ontario and is looking for warehouse space there.

Lang’s approach seems to offer a pathway out of what has become an often polarized debate over how to fix Canadian housing.

As people across Canada try to come up with solutions to what feels like a housing market with the unaffordability gas pedal stuck at full throttle while we’re barrelling toward a concrete wall, there are generally two answers proposed.

Those in one part of the left-progressive world will say the only way to do it is for governments to provide billions of dollars in cash or land or both to create permanent protected stocks of subsidized housing. Then everyone working in the country’s many regular, non-hedge-fund jobs can rent apartments for $800 a month again, like in the ’90s. Yay.

Those in the “free markets solve all problems” world will say private developers can create housing for most people on the income ladder, if development can be unleashed. And then you can get the $800-a-month (or, more realistically, $2,000-a-month) places by giving those builders permission to go taller and bigger than the cap that a given city has set on a given site. New, free space will pay for everything. Yay.

Both of these approaches have their drawbacks, as even the most math- or logic-challenged person can guess. The cost of providing subsidized housing for the approximately 4.4 million Canadians who are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing has never been calculated by even the most dedicated proponent—a quick guess: a quintizillion.

As for the free-market solution, well, the 60-storey towers with some modest number of “below market” apartments in them don’t seem to be making much of a dent.

There’s a group in between those two, though, who say that the path forward is to reduce the dollar cost of housing altogether. That means more homes per billion dollars spent for subsidized housing. And it means making it possible for private builders to be able to limbo themselves lower down the affordability ladder.

That’s what Lang and Wilson hope. It’s a big dream. At the moment, modular housing, which is mostly the more conventional work-camp, trailer-park kind, accounts for only 6 percent of all housing in the U.S. (Canadian stats are not available.)

And that’s nowhere near enough to make a dent in the problem. It has to become a movement.