Exhibit illuminates history of owner building in Canada


Until recently, very little had been written about owner building by Canadian workers in urban areas and almost nothing about government programs of aided self-help.

“Building Your Own Home: An Overlooked History of Affordable Housing,” on exhibit at the Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre from now until December 17, aims to present and extend this recent work.

Historically, the most affordable way for Canadian workers to acquire homes has been by building their own, literally with their own hands. This often happened in suburbs that lacked serives or building regulations. Land was cheap and families built in stages as their finances allowed. Governments often discouraged owner building by enforcing building regulations.

The exhibit provide examples of unassisted self-help in southern Ontario(focusing on Toronto and Hamilton between 1900 and the late 1950s), in Africville (Halifax), and in the south shore suburbs of Montreal.

It will present some early international examples of state-assisted self-help building programs, notably Stockholm's “magic house” scheme, together with the only two that have been implemented in Canada: the innovative Nova Scotia Housing Commission (1934-1973), and the Veterans Land Administration (1942-1973).

These will be illuminated with contemporary photographs, artwork, and oral testimony. The project also illustrates the way in which, with government co-operation, but at little or no cost, owner building might help address the present shortage of affordable housing.

The exhibit team of Richard Harris, professor of geography at McMaster, John van Nostrand, a prominent Toronto architect, Michael McMahon, former head and curator of the Toronto Archives, and visual artist Jim Miller are working in association with the Ontario Workers Arts and Heritage Centre on this project.

Richard Harris has written about the history of owner building and aided self-help, notably in his prize-winning book Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto's American Tragedy, 1900-1950 (John Hopkins, 1996).

John van Nostrand is a prominent Toronto architect who has helped to design owner-built housing projects within the Greater Toronto Area, and overseas.

Michael McMahon has been researching and presenting exhibits and writings on suburban development – most notably in After the Sprawl? Suburban Pasts and Futures in the Greater Toronto Area, the inaugural exhibit of the City of Toronto Archives in 1998.

Jim Miller is a labour/visual artist whose exhibit, Making Time, was presented at OWAHC in 1997.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Home Depot, McMaster University, the Hamilton Brantford Building and Construction Trades, and Architects Alliance.

Centre hours are Wednesday to Sunday 12 noon-4 p.m., and Thursday 12 noon-9 p.m.