Saturday, June 4, 2011

How the car changed the suburban house

A few years ago, while completing my Master’s Degree, I wrote a paper on how the car changed the suburban house. I subsequently turned it into a lecture taught to Urban Planning students, and have now adapted that same research piece for this blog.

Living in the suburbs and owning a car have gone hand in hand ever since the advent of the automobile suburb. The two coexisted comfortably, until a turning point when the shelter for the car (the garage) became so important, that it negatively impacted the design of the shelter for people (the house).
To show this change, I will start with housing built early in the mid-century.

During WWII, and for a while afterward, “Victory Houses” were built for returning veterans as a means of affordable yet comfortable housing. These straightforward houses were usually 1 1/2 stories and had an almost square footprint. In Ottawa, the area south of Carling Avenue, between Fisher and Merivale is an excellent example of such housing. To cut costs the houses were built without garages. Subsequently, detached garages have been built behind many houses.
Wartime Housing Limited design, c. 1940s

In the 1950s, many of the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation’s (CMHC) stock designs, published in regular volumes, did not have an attached garage. If a garage was desired by the owner, it would have been built as a detached structure near the back of the house.
CMHC Design 604, c. 1957

During the 1950s, the only tract houses built by Campeau that offered a garage as standard were split-level models. In this case, the garage is tucked under the bedroom level.
Campeau split-level plans, c. 1956

Tract builders in the 1960s started to offer carports as standard with their homes. In some cases the carport could be upgraded to a garage, while with more expensive houses garages were often standard. Attached 2 car garages were only reserved for luxurious houses.

Campeau Carillon plan, c.1960s. With this particular design the attached garage was standard.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s and into the 1970s, when families started to own more than one car. At the time, attached 2 car garages were found on houses where the lot widths were wide, and usually located at the side of the house.
Campeau Playfair plan, c.1970s

The 1980s can be seen as a turning point. Lot sizes started to become narrower, while having a 2 car garage became commonplace. As a result, the garage had to be located at the front of the house. During this period the garage was often just appended to the front of the house and not really an integral part of the overall design.
Footprint of one of the houses I lived in when I was younger, 1987. The garage is just like an appendage to the front of the house.
Sandbury Homes, Shakespeare plan, Fallingbrook (Orleans), 1988. While the house is fairly wide, the 2 car garage is prominent.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a new type of house began to be built: the “snout house”. These houses are characterized by a protruding ‘snout’ garage. Many were built en-masse in Toronto area, but are also found in Ottawa (some are still built today). This type of plan usually has few (if any) windows overlooking the street and could cause security and safety concerns.
Snout houses in Brampton, ON

Snout house footprint from Brampton, ON, 1993
Coscan Windermere plan, Kanata/Orleans, c. late 1980s. Notice that the exterior renderings are angled and do not show the protruding garage from the front. The plan below shows the 'snout' garage.

With some snout house designs, the back of the garage and part of the front room are angled to make way for the front door. The resultant design makes that side of the garage too shallow for a second car, and creates an awkwardly shaped front room. For the first time in history, the shelter for cars impacted the design of our own living space.
Coscan Montclair plan, Kanata/Orleans, c.late 1980s. The garage and the Living room have been angled to accommodate the front door.

Macdonald Homes Pontiac plan, Heritage Park (Barrhaven), 1987. With this plan, the Breakfast nook is angled, creating an awkwardly shaped room.

Sandbury VP404 plan, Fallingbrook (Orleans), 1991. Another plan with an angled garage and front room.

Although more common starting in the 1980s, during the mid-century, narrow lots did exist, but if there was an attached garage, it was almost always a 1 car garage, and not as overwhelming as the 2 car garage on a snout house.
Minto, Cherbourg plan, Barrhaven Common, c.1970s. While the house is fairly narrow, there is only a 1 car garage.

By the end of the 1990s, there was a backlash against snout houses (particularly in the Toronto area). So, designers pulled the garage in to the massing of the house, allowing for more front-facing windows. They also reverted to building houses with a 1 car garage, as that is all that could be possible with narrow lot widths, although wider lots allowed for a 2 car garage.

 Mattamy Homes Kingston plan, Brampton, 1999. Mattamy also builds similar plans in Ottawa.

 Mattamy Homes Kingston plan, Brampton, 1999. A wider version with a 2 car garage.

Where the recessed garage design becomes problematic is when the house is very narrow. In these designs, the rooms beside the garage must do double duty as passages to the rest of the house. Furniture placement thus becomes a challenge.
Townwood Homes Sandpiper plan, Brampton, 2001. The room beside the garage is narrow, and also serves as the passage to the rest of the house.

In more recent years, recessed two-car garages have become more common even on narrow houses. While the garage is no longer a protruding snout, it still takes up the entire main floor façade, save for the front door.  
Lakeview Homes Cardinal II plan, Brampton,2001. Notice the back of the garage is angled making it impossible to park 2 full-size cars. This type of plan is starting to become common in Ottawa.

Ottawa has yet to see the extremely narrow houses built in the Toronto area with recessed garages. But are they on the horizon?
 Touchstone Homes, Espada Plan, Vaughan, ON, 2005.

During the mid-century, the design of the places we live was of utmost importance. In more recent years the importance of the design of garages to shelter cars has ultimately had a negative impact on how houses are designed.

Below is a visual summary of how the design of houses and garages has changed since the 1940s. Of interest is the fact that the footprint of the Victory Houses is only slightly larger than a two-car garage.



  1. Hey I'm currently writing a paper about the home design in the 1950s Canadian Suburbs and am wondering if your paper was ever published or if you have any source recommendations?

    1. Hi!

      My Master's thesis is available at the University of Ottawa Library. It is titled:

      "Creeping diversity" : housing design in Bramalea, Canada's first suburban satellite city