Project Spotlight: King William Modular Affordable Housing for CityHousing Hamilton


The King William Modular Passive House. Image Credit: Montgomery Sisam Architects

Project Spotlight: King William Modular Affordable Housing for CityHousing Hamilton

‘Timeless’ project takes aim at delivering stigma-free homes, quickly


Enda McDonagh is a Principal at the Toronto-based Montgomery Sisam. Originally from Ireland, Enda came to Montgomery Sisam twelve years ago with an impressive pedigree of work overseas. He has since helped guide a number of award-winning projects in mental health, formative education, higher education and transitional housing. He is committed in his practice to deliver architecture that performs at the highest standards – functionally, technically, and environmentally. Enda is currently managing Phase 2 of the City of Toronto’s pioneering modular supportive housing projects and is a key facilitator in blending high quality design and advanced building science with the latest construction techniques to create more resilient, responsive homes for vulnerable Ontarians. Enda is a certified Passive House Consultant.

Catch Enda McDonaugh and Daniel Ling speak on “Designing a Sustainable Future for Affordable Housing,” at the Passive House Canada Conference. Monday, May 8, 1:30-2:30 pm EST.

For an early look at Enda McDonaugh’s King William modular affordable housing project for CityHousing, sign up for the Hamilton Passive House Tour when you purchase your Passive House Canada Conference in-person ticket.

Already have your in-person conference ticket?  Purchase the tour separately at this link.

Can you tell me a little bit about the King William modular housing project?

Since the pandemic, a lot of municipalities have become acutely aware of the housing crisis, homelessness issues, and the affordability of housing generally. They’ve been looking for solutions for delivering housing rapidly. Modular is a perfect way to respond to that. It’s not necessarily the cheapest way to deliver housing, but it is quick and a lot of what’s perceived to be an additional cost for the modular process is saved through reducing the amount of time on site and through the quality and durability of the end product, because it’s constructed in a controlled environment.

The site itself was an empty lot at 253 King William Street. The idea was to develop as many studio units as we could fit onto that site and deliver them as rapidly as possible [for CityHousing Hamilton]. The building will have three floors in total, with twenty-four studio suites. The second and third floor each have 10 suites. The ground floor has four. The remainder of the ground floor consists of a community room, laundry, waste room, and a meeting room/administrative office. The building will have an offset or asymmetrical pitched roof that optimizes the angle for photovoltaics to offset some of the power demand within.

We partnered with a modular builder, NRB Modular Solutions, to deliver the project. Each suite is 320 square foot. Each has a full kitchen, a three-piece washroom, and an open space for a combined living, dining and bedroom space that forms the studio/bachelor suite. There are also barrier-free suites. They all get constructed within the [NRB] Modular factory.


This is our ninth modular building since the start of the pandemic.


Where is the project at now, in terms of completion?

At the site, the foundation is almost complete. Services are actively being installed. At the same time, at the factory, they’re actively constructing the third-floor modules. Some of the modules are at the earliest phases where they’re just framing, while others are at the latter phases, where they’re going to move into the insulation and cladding.

All modules should be able to craned in place on site in about five days, maybe even less. That’s happening two to three weeks from now. The cladding is going to be installed on site. After the modules get dropped, there may be a period of two to three more months before it’s complete, probably early July.

Credit: Montgomery Sisam Architects


How much longer would this project take had it been built on site?

Looking at the scale of this, you would be talking probably around 14 months, maybe 12 with some really, really tight scheduling of work. But the reality of this is it’s taken about seven months from the first sod turned on site to when we’re going to be handing it over.

Can you walk me through the design concept?

The intent was for this to fall into the social and affordable housing category. We really wanted to remove what’s often a stigma attached to supportive housing by generating something that was a high-quality design, but also timeless.

The design is not jumping out against the streetscape and surrounding context, it’s intended to sit quietly within the community, but also deliver on that quality of design that generates a home for the occupants.

Part of that is accomplished by the glazed entry, with Douglas Fir cladding – a natural wood cladding with a sight line through to the garden at the rear, to have a really inviting entry. The garden at the rear is lush but planted with drought-resistant and native plants.

That inviting entry was the first part of creating a home-like space for the residents. The materials that we chose for the suites and for the public areas also support that, in that they strike a balance between the needs that CityHousing Hamilton had for durability with a quality of design and aesthetic that supports a home-like quality.

Credit: Montgomery Sisam Architects


You mentioned that Passive House has really taken a foothold in Ireland. Have you seen a shift here in Canada?

In my view, to date, BC has been leading the way in terms of sustainability and uptake on initiatives like Passive House in Canada, and I think that’s a climactic thing. In a climate like Vancouver and southern BC, which is somewhat similar to Ireland (where I originate), the obvious choice is Passive House. You can get away with almost no heating or cooling in Ireland if you adapt those principles. The heating and cooling seasons in Vancouver are a little more intense than Ireland, but not much, so it’s an easy adaption point.

With the climate in Ontario, you get more extremes. On the extreme end, you’re talking about 40, 50, 60-degree Celsius shifts between winter and summer. In places like Ottawa, the extremes are nearly 80 degrees, from the minus 40 low to a plus 40 high. I think Passive House was slower to adopt because of that. I think Canada, as a whole, had been wanting and assessing different options, from the CAGBC Zero Energy and more recently Zero Carbon, to Passive House to many others.

And Passive House just started to click with people – for many reasons. One of those is, in my view, the first and primary goal wasn’t necessarily sustainability. It was delivering high-quality buildings that provide an end product that is durable and requires less maintenance and has less on-going costs. This, by extension, ends up being very sustainable. Clients started to see that – in particular, some of the university and institutional clients that we deal with, who have ongoing maintenance concerns. They started to think, ‘Hey, we can start to be at the forefront of this in Ontario and Central Canada.’ That’s when Passive House really started to gain a proper foothold locally.

[Montgomery Sisam] didn’t change our construction detailing in switching to a Passive House approach. We were already drawing what I felt were technically strong construction details. Passive House just gave us an extra push, and an extra ability to enforce the quality, both internally and with our contractors and trades.

Where is the NRB Modular Solutions factory located?

The NRB factory is located in Cambridge. It’s really close, like an hour away. That short distance was a really important consideration when we were trying to size the modules for this project. Transportation is a major factor when you consider modular, because there are variables to consider such as transportation permits, the width and height of the modules, overhead cables on the street, etc.

Did you find that you had to bring a local team up to speed on how modular works, or was that fairly built into the process?

It’s built into the process. In part it’s up to us, through both the design process and for NRB through the fabrication process, to be able to explain the nuances of it to a client who’s considering modular.

This is our ninth modular building since the start of the pandemic. Internally, we have a strong team that is familiar with this particular project type. We have consultants that are very familiar with it, and equally then NRB have the ability to reach out to trades and contractors that are very familiar with it.

Where we’re talking about modular as a delivery method, you can really see there’s no limitations to it.


Where we’re talking about modular as a delivery method, you can really see there’s no limitations to it. Any road closure permits for craning or transportation restrictions don’t impact the end product in terms of design. You can evaluate how best to work within the restrictions that exist. You size your modules accordingly, or break them down accordingly, so that the design, ultimately, is not constrained.

To optimize costs and shorten the delivery and crane timeline, the modules that we’re using for this project are 65 feet long and 13 feet wide. That’s comprised of, typically, two suites and a corridor. When you stack those side by side, you end up with a corridor, a spine that runs through the center of the building that allows you to access each of the suites. But the reality is, if there were certain parameters that we had to work within, we could, for example, break that into individual suites or a suite and a corridor.

On another project, where there was a pitched roof, we split it up even further. The pitched roof was a module in itself, and below that we had two separate modules making up rooms within the building. The two of them came together like Lego blocks, and we put the roof on top.


The nine modular buildings Montgomery Sisam has done since the pandemic says it all, doesn’t it, about the rising popularity of modular Passive House for MURBS?

It does – and where Passive House and modular seamlessly tie in is that everything’s constructed in a really controlled environment. For example, we have been using various different construction methods on all of the projects, whether they’re steel modular or wood modular, or whether the client is chasing the Green Standards or Passive House or even just a significant improvement on the Ontario building code. We’ve had a certain set of details that we apply to our projects that we think deliver high quality, and then we follow that through with our site reviews. For the Passive House process, we put together a bunch of details that weren’t dramatically different from how we had detailed all the other projects.


The same details that we had been applying to all the projects to date, and we then applied to the Passive House – they passed the air tightness test the very first time.


But: one of the requirements is air tightness testing, and it’s a cloud that hangs over you throughout the project. So, we did some interim testing on the window install at the factory. Normally you’d go through a bunch of reviews, and you’d maybe fail the first one, then you’d do some extra steps to get through the second test and so on.

But the same details that we had been applying to all the projects to date, we then applied to the Passive House – they passed the air tightness test the very first time.

That’s the control that the factory environment has. People are working in a comfortable temperature. They’re not subject to rain coming in sideways on a bad day when they’re trying to stick the membranes on and fit this heavy window in. You’re also working at ground level, you’re not up on a ladder or up on a scaffold at three stories. As a result, the construction quality is always better in modular. That’s one way Passive House and modular really work well together, because Passive House requires that level of quality naturally, and modular is naturally able to deliver it.

What is your favourite element of this project?

First and foremost, I’m an architectural technician. I love detailing our buildings. I love getting into the weeds on problems. Anytime there’s a challenge, whether it’s a Passive House or any other of our projects, I love the details.

But on this particular project, I also love the design itself. It delivers housing to people who most need it and yet takes away the institutional feel and hands over a design that is housing for those who most need it, one that looks and feels like and becomes a home. That’s what’s coming through in this design. And I think it’ll show in two years, five years, ten years from now, when this project just quietly goes about its day on this site. It’s not ostentatious, it’s just a high-quality timeless design.


Project Team: 

Client: CityHousing Hamilton

Architecture/Passive House: Montgomery Sisam

Contractor: NRB Modular Building

Passive House: Peel Passive House