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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

The Demise of the System

Despite the widespread enthusiasm of firms, institutions and individuals for the B.C. Mills ready-made system, its period of production was short-lived. By 1911 the panels were no longer listed among the firm's line of products. Coincidentally, the last of the prefab banks, erected in Ladysmith, Vancouver Island on 21 June 1911, marked the end of the Bank of Commerce's major phase of western branch expansion.

Previous prefabricated building industries had been dependent on fragile and transitory economic conditions. The B. C. Mills system was no exception, it blossomed during a period of rampant population growth which locally based lumber and building industries were not yet geared to meet. By 1908, however, shifts were beginning to occur which were reflected in the records of the firm. Although 1904 to 1907 were boom years for the British Columbia lumber industry, a recession in profits began to set in by 1908 due to increased competition and a corresponding decline in retail prices. This competition included a number of sectional building systems which were marketed by Vancouver firms after 1905 none, however, seriously challenged the B. C. Mills line in design or volume of production.1 In his report for 1908, general manager John Hendry of B. C. Mills declared that although the volume of business had continued to rise, prices had dropped markedly over the previous year, particularly in the domestic trade. The company's policy in the face of this less favourable climate was "a curtailment of operations and expenses, as far as possible, and refraint from pushing trade that could only be done at a loss."2 But whereas the prices of standard lumber products were forced down by market competition, the cost of prefabricated buildings crept steadily higher from the initial 1904 prices, thus eroding their competitive edge over locally built housing. Nevertheless, in 1908 the firm deemed it appropriate to spend several thousand dollars on an exhibit at the Calgary Exhibition, indicating that prefabs were not yet considered among the firm's liabilities.3

Perhaps a more direct reason for the eventual dropping of the prefabs in 1910 lay in Hendry's personal financial commitments. After 1907 he had become increasingly involved in railroad and land speculation. Possession of the Vancouver, Westminster and Yukon Railroad franchise, which offered the only feasible route into Vancouver apart from the Canadian Pacific, made him the recipient of a succession of overtures and offers from railroad companies. Consequently after 1908, Hendry regarded his milling interests increasingly in terms of their real estate value as strategic waterfront properties rather than as an expanding industry. In correspondence with his secretary, William McNeil, he expressed a recurring desire to liquidate his mill assets and remove himself entirely from the lumber industry.4 Although the firm did not pass out of his hands until 1913, general policy during the last years of Hendry's management appears to have reflected his declining enthusiasm for the lumbering aspect of his holdings. Increasing competition and declining prices undoubtedly encouraged his outlook.

It is not surprising therefore that when approached in 1910 by a newly formed firm, the Prudential Builders Limited, Hendry agreed to turn over the rights to the prefab system on a royalty basis. Edwin Mahony left the B.C. Mills Timber and Trading Company to assume the post of general manager of Prudential Builders. Evidently the board of directors of this company considered the market for prefabricated housing to be far from closed. In a prospectus to shareholders they confidently announced

The Company has acquired the rights to manufacture on a royalty basis, the most improved and modern sectional buildings ever invented. We have in operation one of the finest wood-working factories in the Dominion for the manufacture of these sectional buildings, and our special equipment enables us to secure a large share of this very profitable business. . . . These buildings will be shipped throughout the Western Provinces and sold to incoming settlers on easy terms.5

Prudential Builders was in fact representative of a new phenomenon occurring in western Canada. Like the older B. C. Mills, Timber and Trading Company, the firm owned its own timber rights and saw-mill, in addition to a large house-building factory located at the corner of Manitoba and Dufferin streets on the south side of Vancouver's False Creek. But unlike B. C. Mills, this firm was specifically geared to the mass production of popularly priced housing rather than components and lumber products. Its lineage lay not in the old-style saw-mills of the lower mainland, but in the Prudential Investment Company, one of the numerous investment and loan companies emerging in the highly speculative building climate of Vancouver. Marketing of the firm's houses was conducted through a subsidiary, the National Finance Company.6

22 Prudential Builders, inheritors of the prefabricated system in 1910, attempted to adapt it to larger California-style bungalows. Note this advertisement's concern with stressing the maturity and reliability of the sectional system ("in use for 7 years"). Many styles were advertised, but this design, "Vancouver", typified the predominant two-storey house built in large areas of Vancouver during this period. (Province [Vancouver].)

Although Prudential Builders initially intended to continue tapping the rural frontier market for prefabricated housing, the newly settled rural regions, they soon altered their plans. They attempted instead to apply the sectional system to the continually growing urban market in the form of subdivision housing. At this point a conflict arose between Mahony, the system's inventor, and the executives of the firm over the type and location of such developments. Mahony maintained that his system would be best applied initially to small homes on the outskirts of Vancouver which would be inexpensive and readily marketable to working-class buyers.7 The firm instead elected to apply the system to the construction of larger California-bungalow style homes on a tract of land adjacent to Shaughnessy Heights, the most fashionable residential section of the city. Inspired by a development in Los Angeles, the project was named Talton Place after the firm's president, Thomas Talton Langlois. It is believed to have been the first attempt at mass-produced subdivision housing in the city.8 The first houses were prefabricated at the firm's plant at False Creek, then reassembled on site. Mahony's fears were soon borne out, however, it was found that the use of the panels inflated the cost of the houses beyond those of other firms. Prudential Builders decided to abandon use of the system and built the remainder of their houses in the orthodox baloon-frame manner, with the intention of marketing them in both Vancouver and western Canada.

This proved increasingly difficult to do, as the industrial bases in large prairie centres such as Calgary and Winnipeg were now capable of supporting similar firms geared to mass-produced house manufacturing.9 Although this terminated the demand for ready-made structures, Vancouver's role as a major lumber supplier for the prairies continued, as did its influence on prairie building designs.10 Edwin Mahony left Prudential Builders within a year of their abandonment of his sectional building system,11 and an interesting phase in western Canada's architectural development came to an end.

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