Queenston resident Keith Gowans may just have a unique solution to Niagara’s housing crisis, and he wants as many people as possible to know about it.
The former chief operating officer at Habitat for Humanity Niagara has begun a new venture with former Habitat site coordinator Trevor Dunscombe called Aloft Housing Inc. Inside a 10,000-square-foot St. Catharines warehouse they are building tiny homes that could have a huge impact on the inventory of affordable homes in the region.
“The name was chosen to reflect two meanings,” explains Gowans. “Aloft to mean ‘above’ and of course to represent the ‘loft’ type of lifestyle.”
Just two weeks ago, Gowans and Dunscombe threw open their doors to invite officials from the Region and various municipalities to see their first finished, state-of-the-art, modern 220-square-foot tiny home.
Gowans guided Habitat for Humanity Niagara through the transformation of its St. Catharines ReStore from its Cushman Road beginnings to its current Bunting Road location. He then led the conversion of an old flooring store on Highway 20 into the Pelham ReStore, and also oversaw the construction of the Grimsby ReStore about five years ago.
His work with Habitat included building partnerships for a number of homes built by the organization across Niagara. Habitat for Humanity helps families living in high-rent or subsidized housing by selling them a Habitat-built home for no interest and no down payment. The building of the house is funded by donations, and the families’ mortgage payments are continually reinvested into building more homes. The organization is the largest builder of new homes in the world.
Gowans was dedicated to the organization’s work to break the cycle of poverty. He began to see, however, that Habitat was increasingly running into problems finding available land. As well, the cost of that land was skyrocketing.
“I was sitting on the Niagara Regional Housing and Homelessness Action committee,” says Gowans during a tour of the Aloft facility. “We all struggled with those issues as we were sitting around the table. We were all trying to figure out how we can accelerate housing. And I’ve been fascinated with these tiny houses.”
The problem, Gowans adds, is that pricey land would still be needed to create communities of tiny homes. For inspiration, he turned to Amsterdam and some other European countries as well as Asia.
Gowans and Dunscombe have developed and built a model home to showcase their idea. Called the “Versa” model, it can be installed at ground level, elevated for parking underneath and combined for multiple living.
Gowans shows an artist’s concept of a collection of five interlocked Aloft houses sitting atop a platform above a parking lot. The six posts that support the homes are giant ground screws that Gowans says are non-invasive. A heated utility chase (or channel) would run down the posts providing services (electricity and plumbing) for each of the five tiny homes. The whole setup could be in place within five to seven days.
“It might take one or two parking spots away from the existing parking lot,” Gowans explains, but in the grand scheme of things, you might have to sacrifice just a little bit to get the ends to justify the means.”
He envisions developers, in an attempt to satisfy the demands for apartment and condominium buildings, to include affordable housing components, adding tiny homes above the parking spaces they would need to include in their plans anyway.
Gowans also points to churches as a potential site for elevated Aloft housing. “They all have parking lots. Churches looking to provide shelter could install these at a much lower cost without having to acquire land.”
As impressive as the concept is, the finished tiny house that sits inside their warehouse is even more so.
Sitting on a footprint of only 300 square feet, the tiny house is bright, modern and sturdy. The exterior modern aluminum siding has an emulsified finish that looks like wood. The roof and soffits are also steel, eliminating the need for costly shingle repair every 15 to 20 years.
Gowans leads a visitor onto the front deck, made of composite material, to the German-engineered front doors.
“The windows and the doors are super-durable, with a precision fit and finish throughout,” says Gowans. “All interior and exterior materials have been chosen for their strong and durable qualities. Security, sound attenuation and quality are all big things for us. For the rental market, if you have a more durable, rigid dwelling, the less you have to maintain, lowering the cost.”
Once inside the front entrance, Gowans closes the door and all the ambient sound from the warehouse instantly ceases. The home feels air tight, almost like a safe. An air exchanger on the roof swaps stale air with fresh air every 20 minutes.
To the left of the entrance is an impressive three-piece bathroom with high quality fixtures, and walls made of unsoftened polyvinyl chloride (PVCu) that has the look and feel of high-end tiles. It’s non-absorbent, easily cleaned and nearly eliminates any chance of mold.
Across from the bathroom door sits a number of storage cabinets, including a closet for coats and boots. Farther down the short hallway, where a skylight provides natural light, sits the galley-style kitchen, with a backsplash made of the same vinyl material as in the bathroom. Under-cabinet lighting is provided, and again the fixtures are sleek and modern.
The fridge and dishwasher are clad in the same 13-ply white birch cabinetry as the kitchen storage. Across from the quartz countertop sits a combination convection oven/microwave/air-fryer. Right next to it is a combination clothes washer and dryer big enough to handle the laundry needs of two inhabitants.
The living room walls are natural baltic birch, and the bed sits in a loft above the dishwasher and cooking appliance. “Smart” lighting surrounds the bed, and there is hanging storage in the loft as well as a set of cubbies beside the bed. The steps up to the sleeping loft easily pull out and slide back in to save space.
High-tech windows eliminate the need for blinds or curtains. A simple flick of the switch allows the resident to create immediate privacy. A heat exchanger provides warmth in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, while the floor is heated throughout.
At 220 square feet (Gowans says they can go as big as 300 square feet), it is definitely a tiny home, but it isn’t much smaller than a studio or bachelor apartment.
“All these things you see here, including the furniture you see in our pictures, sells for $175,000,” Gowans says. “If you take away some of the frills, it’s not a huge difference.”
He adds that, to erect an affordable housing building millions of dollars have to be spent to acquire the land and ready it for construction.
“Instead, these can be put up over an existing parking lot without having to buy the land. And they can be removed easily in five to seven days, too.”
Gowans estimates that from start to finish the build for one of these tiny homes would take from 12 to 16 weeks. And though only the demo home has been constructed so far, he is sure their current “factory” could accommodate five or six concurrent builds.
Gowans and Dunscombe and their team (Craig Brown, former Habitat construction manager and Rick Ross, president of Switchworks Technology) have also built a 108-square-foot shed, their “Studio” series, with electrical wiring that would be ideal to use as a home office. It is built with the same attention to detail and durability as the “Versa.”
“Because of Covid, people wanted their own space to work from home,” Gowans says. “For those who want to go to work, but not commute to work, this is the happy medium.”
Last week, Gowans and Dunscombe towed the studio shed down the road for the Tiny Home Show at the Ancaster Fairgrounds. They showcased their raised housing through video and computer displays. Gowans expected representatives from as many as 33 municipalities to visit to look at the possibilities.
Aloft, of course, will not be the only player in the game.
“Competition-wise, it’s great,” Gowans says. “No one can make them fast enough for the demand that will be out there. Everyone we have shown is interested in what we’re doing. And we’re interested in solving the problem.”