From McGill to Mexico:
Grow Home heads south

SYLVAIN COMEAU | The McGill School of Architecture's Grow Home may soon become a major Quebec export. The School's Affordable Homes Program, along with private and public sector allies, unveiled the newest version of the Grow Home at a press conference last Thursday. Dubbed "La Casa a la Carta," this latest incarnation has been designed to make major inroads into the huge and growing Mexican housing sector.

The project will be kicked off at the ConstruExpo, a home show in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November where a model of La Casa a la Carta will be exhibited. Twenty-three Quebec companies are providing the components of the house, which will be shipped to Mexico to be constructed there.

A group called Promexpo International promotes Quebec know-how at commercial fairs and is responsible for the exhibit which will feature the model home. In his remarks last week, Promexpo head Pierre Parent said the partnering of McGill research and design expertise with local suppliers is ideal.

"This is a proactive and original way of exporting Quebec products and technology. This concept means that a group of businesses' products will be reunited in one exported product."

Rémy Trudel, Minister of Municipal Affairs Responsible for Housing, pointed out the sales potential in Mexico.

"In the Mexican housing market, there is a need for an additional 630,000 homes every year compared to 30,000-35,000 in Quebec. That's why we must focus the bulk of our efforts on the foreign market."

And Micheline Fortin of the Ministère de l'Industrie, du Commerce, de la Science et de la Technologie added that her office hopes the project will open other doors internationally.

"This is a winning formula for success, not just in Mexico, but throughout Latin America. From there, we could penetrate the housing market in Eastern Europe and Asia. I hope that La Casa a la Carta can be presented in every language of the world."

The last word at the press conference went to Affordable Homes program director Avi Friedman, who designed La Casa a la Carta with students in the program, assisted by Mexican architect Guadalupe Dipp Reyes.

Friedman explained how his team tailored the design to suit local requirements."Most of the need in Mexico is for low cost housing. New housing developments in Mexico inspired our design. They are usually made of concrete, and are composed of units ranging from 40-60 square metres.

"Building in stages is another Mexican tradition," says Friedman. "People start small and slowly expand the building to the back and top of the house. We therefore developed a house that can evolve or be expanded; a second floor, or rooms in the back, can be added according to need and financial ability."

That fits the original concept of the Grow Home, conceived in Friedman's master's thesis and first built as a model on the McGill campus in 1990. Since then, 5,000 units of the Grow Home, at a cost of approximately $36,000 each, have been built in North America. The more modest Casa a la Carta is priced at $15,000 U.S.

In an interview following the press conference, Friedman said that one goal is to get Quebec loan institutions involved, to address another Mexican fact of life.

"The lower middle class in Mexico cannot dream of buying a home because no one will lend them money; the country doesn't have the loan mechanisms we enjoy here. Even developers have trouble borrowing, unless they agree to pay very high interest rates, and then they can borrow only 25 per cent of the cost.

"We would like lending institutions in Quebec to finance Mexican builders to develop housing projects. They would come with us to Mexico and meet prospective builders, to get guarantees and to make sure that they meet their lending criteria."

While nothing has been finalized, there are "ongoing discussions" with the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec and the Fonds de solidarité des travailleurs du Québec.

Friedman says he also hopes to ensure that his students will have jobs when they graduate.

"I am in an applied research field, and I will be delighted if my research creates jobs. Students are graduating into an economy with unemployment stabilized at nine or ten per cent. The solution, often, is to look at the huge potential beyond Canadian borders. Ideas are not developed by conservatism, and staying put does not help anyone."