Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 14

The B.C. Mills Prefabricated System: The Emergence of Ready-made Buildings in Western Canada

by G. E. Mills and D. W. Holdsworth


Prefabrication played a significant, albeit subtle, role in the unfolding of Canadian architectural history, just as it did during phases of American and British colonial expansion.1 It made its first appearance with Frobisher on Baffin Island in 1578 and has reappeared intermittently ever since. Halifax's first church, St. Paul's, a pre-cut structure transported from Boston in 1750, and St. John's Anglican Church in Victoria, a corrugated iron specimen bequeathed by a benevolent English bishop in 1860 are notable examples from the country's colonial period.2 It was with the opening up of the Canadian West, however, that prefabricated structures became an important domestically based industry, just as they had during the major thrust of frontier expansion several decades earlier in the western United States.3

In frontier environments, prefabrication offered a distinct advantage. It met an urgent need for instant housing in labour- and timber-scarce areas — packages quickly shipped along transportation routes from centres with established industrial, labour and raw-material bases. The advantage to settlers was obvious: quickly erectable structures freed them to concentrate on their primary goals of establishing livelihoods in their new environment.

The impetus for the manufacture of ready-made buildings in western Canada was the commencement of the celebrated "Great Boom" of immigration, railroad expansion and land settlement which had begun by 1897. Manitoba the North-West Territories (after 1905, Saskatchewan and Alberta) and British Columbia all experienced unprecedented population increases between 1900 and 1910. The demands for accommodation quickly exceeded existing lumber and labour supplies, particularly on the prairies: consequently, the procurement of adequate shelter became a difficult and time-consuming problem for many new homesteaders. The memoirs of such pioneers are rife with descriptions of 40- and 50-mile treks to purchase substandard materials, and weeks of arduous labour spent erecting a primitive shanty while the pressing problems of farming were delayed.4 Out of this critical housing shortage emerged a vast new market for the lumber products of the established milling industries of Ontario the American Midwest and British Columbia. For those settlers affluent enough to afford them, a variety of ready-made building systems appeared. Perhaps the most extreme example was the series of colonies of "ready-made farms" featuring prebuilt houses and barns offered to carefully selected candidates in Saskatchewan and southern Alberta by the Canadian Pacific Railway's Department of Natural Resources. Purchasers had only to move in, sit back on their ready-made verandahs and watch their pre-planted first crops grow.5 Another example of note was the standardized and pre-cut churches and manses ("Canterbury Cathedrals" and "Lambeth Palaces") designed by the Anglican Diocese in Saskatchewan to meet the spiritual needs of the rapidly increasing number of settlers.6

The most fascinating attempts devised to tap this market were the sectional or "knock-down" building systems manufactured and shipped out by trainloads in packages, the sections ready to be bolted together Such systems were not new. They too had been extensively employed during British and American expansion periods. But under the more rigorous climatic conditions of western Canada, panelled systems borrowed from previous designs marketed south of the border met with little success. Their numerous seams showed a marked tendency to ventilate the structures faster than their inhabitants could heat them.

There was one notable exception, a sectional "ready-made" system which was outstanding for its success in meeting the need for instant accommodation and for its ability to withstand the Canadian climatic extremes to which preceding prefabs had been vulnerable. This was the panelled system marketed by the British Columbia Mills, Timber and Trading Company of Vancouver between 1904 and 1910. The system offered new settlers a "thoroughly weather-proof, convenient, inexpensive, handsome and permanent dwelling."7 These "B.C. Mills prefabs" have previously been noted in reviews of Canadian architectural evolution which focused largely on essential characteristics of the houses as described in surviving catalogues.8 This paper offers the first detailed account of the origin, variety and distribution of the B.C. Mills prefab system, which represents a distinctive contribution to the evolution of the western Canadian architectural landscape.

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-10-24 To the top
To the top