7 Research Findings

This research project set out to:

  1. Highlight the scope of the Affordable Housing initiatives that Indwell and Invizij Architects have built in Hamilton, Woodstock and Simcoe
  2. Determine the purposes and intent behind the partnership between Indwell and Invizij Architects
  3. Look at the role that design plays in creating community space both inside and outside the restored properties, thinking about the needs of residents who struggle with addictions, mental health or other poverty-related issues.
  4. Examine the synergies created between socially responsible design and environmentally-committed building science.


Over the course of our interviews, we learned about the structure of Indwell, including their financial structure, and some of the choices that informed their particular focus and niche in the affordable, supportive housing market. These were important foundational pieces, and we wanted to share them up front rather than integrating them into the thematic data.

We learned from the interviews that Indwell considers themselves to be a private organization, but with full public transparency as a registered charity. Jeff Neven, the Executive Director shared:

We are a private organization meaning we’re a non-government(al) organization. This means we have some different tools available than if we were fully public. But as a registered charity, all of our actions are for public benefit and with full transparency. You can access our audited financial statements. So that is very different from the private sector.

Jeff also felt that Indwell distinguish themselves from other developers because “… we offer greater depth of affordability and length of affordability than the private sector can compete with.” Much of this had to do with the approach to environmental sustainability that will be discussed later in the Research Findings under the Purposeful Design section.

Indwell decided a number of years ago that they would seek to become developers of their own projects, which would afford them more autonomy and control in these processes. They work with an architecture firm, contractors, and engineers/surveyors (we interviewed the architect and contractor as part of this research study) who are essential partners in the process. Graham explained the process:

We are a charity that develops affordable housing with supports. We’re a little unusual in the sense that we do our own development in-house. Not that we do our own architecture, or our own mechanical engineering or planning or surveying. We hire technical consultants for all of those activities. But we project manage the developments in-house from the ideation stage through to completion.

We were interested in building the capacity to be developers of our own housing because then we could be very responsive to the needs and opportunities we saw. We have a highly vested interest in our organization’s success, on behalf of our tenants. Pushing a project through all the barriers is half the battle sometimes. Not that you can’t get that determination when hiring a consultant, but there’s a different kind of vested interest in a project succeeding when we are doing it ourselves.

Their approach is one that Jeff feels speaks for itself, because of the impact that it has had over the past decade. Although they receive some government grants to do their work, they are dependent on private donations and funding to sustain their core develop work. Jeff shared:

We have thousands of people who want to make our country, or province, or cities better, and want to do it for the sake of loving their neighbors.  I think that’s a more sustaining proposition than an investor who is just looking to make as much cash as quickly as they can get it.  I think we have some advantage actually, for instance a majority of our financing comes from individuals – about one hundred and eighty people have lent us 26 million dollars, unsecured, and they trust us with that.

It is also important to note that while Indwell has chosen to focus their housing developments on a particular segment of the people who could benefit from affordable housing: people living with disabilities including mental health and addiction issues, they acknowledge that there are many other populations that need and would benefit from affordable housing. This was part of Indwell’s history, as Graham Cubitt shared:

That was Indwell’s founding; people had nowhere to go but the street when they were discharged from mental health facilities. There were no supportive housing options, and homelessness started. We wondered how we could actually create a context where people could live well?

They began to provide supportive, affordable housing to individuals who were homeless, living in shelters, had been institutionalized, on the street, and at high risk for chronic homelessness. Steven Rolfe, Indwell’s Director of Mental Health Services shared:

The Housing First programs that operate in our city have done a remarkable job, they have placed something like 600 people into housing in the last two and a half years but it’s mostly market housing and they don’t have the funding to provide long term services or supports. We’re always going to feel the pressure to continue to provide service to those tenants. When we look at specific people or demographics overall, the overwhelming need is for housing single-person households. That’s why a good chunk of our focus goes toward building studio and one-bedroom apartments.

In terms of their housing projects, these projects are often what is termed as ‘adaptive reuse’. This is process that adapts buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features. An adaptive reuse model can prolong a building’s life by retaining some or all of the building’s systems, including the structure, shell, or even the interior materials (Joachim, 2002). Graham explains the rationale behind this approach in Indwell’s projects:

We probably have a preference towards rehabilitating from the narrative perspective of redemption, that something terrible can be made new without destroying it. We like this because it parallels our lives. From the pragmatic side, these are often more complicated sites so they have less value in the market and they are more affordable. Our experience has been that it is cheaper to retrofit or rehabilitate a building than to build new. Sometimes it is just expediency; it has the footprint that it has, or the zoning that it has because it’s there, and it would be harder to get that particular zoning if we started over [with a new property].

Beyond these framing pieces lies the story of Indwell, as told through the data. What is it about the ways that the Indwell communities are built, how do the intentional design of services and of spaces contribute to increased mental health and wellness? What is the value of using environmental sustainability like Passive Housing when building affordable housing? We invite you to learn the answers to these questions through our data analysis.

As we analyzed the data, we recognized that themes that defined the Indwell model/approach fell under two thematic areas: Cultivating Community and Relationships and Purposeful Design.


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