Friday, April 27, 2012

In Amsterdam you check your own luggage at the airport!

Reflections on the Netherlands Mediatour 2012

It is now almost one week since I returned from my tour of the Netherlands organized by the Dutch government. Joining me on this tour were four international journalists: Dr. Amr Abdel Kawi, the publisher of Magaz Magazine in Cairo; Carolina Vasquez Araya of Prensa Libre in Guatemala; Helena Guera, an independent film maker from Sao Paolo (whose parents were both architects) and Maanasi Hattangadi, of the magazine Indian Architect & Builder in Mumbai.  Also with us were Johannes Vervloed, Consul General in Vancouver and Desiree Tans of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation in the Hague.

While I attempted to capture some of the week's activities with my daily blog postings, it was difficult to capture the essense of the tour, and the people who I met around the country. As I reflect on the week, there is no doubt that the Dutch people are a very special people with a particular spirit, unlike any other nationality.

While many speak English with an English accent, they are definitely not the English...much less conservative! And while Dutch may sound a bit like German to some ears, (and many of the women are quite tall) they are definitely not the Germans...much more fun loving.  (Although many Germans do come to the Netherlands to get their drugs!)

There is a special bond between the Dutch and the Canadians, in large part due to the final events of World War II. But there are also other similarities...we both live beside much more powerful neighbours, and I would like to think we both have a high level of decency.

There are however, many differences. While most of us think of the Netherlands in terms of the old buildings and floating barges lining the canals of Amsterdam, the new financial district of the city is quite outstanding. The Dutch architecture that I saw around the country demonstrates a much greater interest in design than what one finds across Canada. If anything, it is reminiscent of some Scandinavian design...clean and modern. Even the industrial buildings that one passes along the highway demonstrate attention to detail.

The cultural scene is much edgier, as exemplified by some of the posters I saw along the streets.

As noted in some of the blogs, many of the new housing developments are much more adventurous.  I was particularly interested in the floating home communities, the willingness to let people do their own thing at Almere, and some fantastic new buildings such as Villa Flora, the headquarters at La Floriade, the major flower show that is held somewhere in the country every ten years.

This building is considered one of the most sustainable in the is like a greenhouse that generates its own energy designed by Kristinsson, one of the country's many talented architectural and engineering firms specializing in 'sustainability' projects.

Sadly, time did not permit a tour of the show that covers many hectares, but it is on over the summer, and if I can, I plan to go back. Based on what I saw, it is fantastic.
 One of the purposes of the trip was to meet with a group of academics, professionals, and business people interested in establishing a sustainability and innovation network between Canada and the Netherlands.  I think this is going to happen, since we both have much to teach each other. In many respects, the Netherlands is ahead of us, with its longstanding tradition of doing more with less, proliferation of bicycles and wonderful trams and trains..  They even have a wonderful system that allows you to check your own bags at the airport (see next posting.) On the other hand, the Dutch admire many things in Vancouver, from the redevelopment of Granville Island, to our EcoDensity initiative.

Over the coming months, I hope to continue writing about many of the things I saw around the country.  I also hope that I can help foster some new relationships between Dutch companies that want to do business in Canada, and vise versa.  There is much in common between our countries, but there are enough differences to allow some very creative partnerships.  If you haven't been to the Netherlands before, or haven't been for some time, go on-line and book a direct flight on KLM.  In 9 hours you can begin a most remarkable adventure...and a week is sufficient time to get a real feel for the country.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In Vancouver: The affordability/amenity balance

This morning I participated in a workshop organized by the Downtown Vancouver Association to discuss housing affordability and amenity in the downtown. In advance of the session Jeff Lee called me to find out what I might be saying. I told him.

He then contacted Andrea Reimer who was also on the panel and she shared her views. This has led to extensive conversations on Twitter and Frances Bula's blog with many people disagreeing with my assertion that Community Amenity Contributions paid to the city are passed on to consumers. (I might add that I have not yet heard one developer who disagrees with this claim.)

Nonetheless, I felt compelled to share some further thought on Frances Bula's blog, and for the few people who are interested in this topic, and don't read Frances' Blog, here is what I wrote:

The concerns I have with CAContributions that are calculated based on estimated ‘ land lift’ at the end of the rezoning process are as follows:

While one would like to think that the amount of the CAC would be factored into the amount paid for land, the amount of the contribution is generally not known when one buys a piece of property. And as one well known appraiser said to me …Michael, as long as you have the right appraiser on board, you should be ahead of the game.

I don’t like a system where the amount of the contribution can be tied to which appraiser is on board, or how effective a negotiator you are.

If anyone wants to suggest the amount of the CAC that is ultimately paid is not a matter of having the right appraiser, or your negotiation skills, you are either naive, or deluding yourself.

Michael Flannigan advised me that the CAC/DCC’s received by the City from rezonings have been working out to about $40 a foot buildable. That is not an insignificant amount. As Jeff Lee noted in his story, the city has generated a lot of money from these payments.

(As an aside, why hasn’t this money been spent on additional childcare facilities…they are really needed…almost everywhere except in the downtown where the city has negotiated quite a few childcare facilities as part of the CACs. But that’s another story.)

I am not suggesting that the CAC’s are the main reason for the high price of housing in Vancouver, but I stand by my contention that the payments to the city do generally get passed on to buyers…they are not all absorbed in a reduced land payment. If you don’t believe me, you are either naive or deluding yourself.

There are other problems with the current system. Firstly, it inadvertently encourages a municipality to improperly zone land, so that a developer will come forward and play “Let’s make a deal”. Some developers like to play this game…and play it very well…but most don’t want to take a chance and therefore go to Burnaby or Coquitlam or Richmond where they think they have a better chance of winning. If you don’t believe this, you are either naive or deluding yourself.

Another problem with this approach, and this should be of concern to neighbourhood groups, is that there is an incentive for a municipal government to rezone land to higher and higher densities, just to get the additional amenities, or the money. Increasingly, the city of Vancouver is asking for the cash. I know that Brent and others will tell you that this would never happen, but if you believe that, you are either naive or deluding yourself.

So to summarize, as a number of people mentioned at this morning’s DVA discussion, the city has become somewhat addicted to the CAC payments that arise from rezonings.

What I told Jeff Lee is that there is a need to balance the affordability/amenity equation. I believe the best way to do this is to increase the supply of suitably zoned land, and establish predetermined CACs/DCCs. Don’t force developers to go through a rezoning during which time the amenity contributions are negotiated.

Also at this morning’s discussion, one prominent member of the Mayor’s Task Force told me the City does what it does because it would need a charter amendment to establish across the board CAC’s/DCC’s. If that’s the case, then seek the amendment.

The city should also look to other ways of financing growth and amenities. There are many lessons to be learned from the past. Yes, these will spread the cost across a larger population, and over a longer time period, but it may be worth it.

Finally, a more certain process will increase the number of developers coming forward to build in the city. Now, this may not be so good for those developers who are doing so very well under the current system, or the real estate and development consultants who guide projects through the system…(remember, I used to be one of them!) But ultimately it will create more certainty, that will lead to more competition.

If you don’t believe me, just go over to the UDI office and have a quiet chat with some of the people who work there. They’ll tell you how they often hear from developers who tell them they work outside of Vancouver, rather than in the City, because the Vancouver City process is too uncertain.

More certainty will lead to more supply and more competition…and this, combined with some of the recommendations set out in my Roundtable report to the Mayor’s Task Force could well lead to more affordable prices in the city.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A new approach to garbage collection

When I spoke at Globe 08, I was approached by a dignified Swedish gentleman who wanted to show me some pictures!

He represented a Swedish company that was installing pneumatic garbage collection systems in cities around the world. He had recently sold them to Spanish and Italian cities for application in their historic city areas, and was seeking opportunities in Vancouver and across Canada. I don't know if he sold any here, but a similar system was installed at EXPO 2010 in Shanghai.

I must confess that although I was very impressed with the product, I thought it was probably much too sophisticated for us, and not necessary since most of our streets are wide enough to accommodated garbage trucks. Also, we have unions to deal with.

However, when I visited Spain the past two summers I discovered that there is another European garbage collection system that does seem to make sense for locations like Metro Vancouver and other higher density locations. It is not a pneumatic system. Rather, it comprises above ground garbage containers connected to very large underground containers. This avoids the sight of overflowing municipal garbage cans and the need for daily garbage collection in urban areas. It also counters the need for ugly dumpsters that we find along many back lanes in Vancouver.

Travelling around the Netherlands I saw these garbage systems everywhere. I wanted to learn more about them and subsequently met Ivo Koning, the export manager for Royal Dutch Bammens, a company that manufactures and installs these systems around Europe. He told me his company is now interested in identifying opportunities in Vancouver and provided me with some information.

It seems that the collection of garbage in North America is essentially the same as 60 years ago. You put your garbage in a bag or bin and place it on the curb side every day or week or so. But bag or bin, plastic or steel, the system is pretty much the same and so are the issues that come with it: smell, hygiene, litter around the site, accessibility for humans and animals alike and collection companies that come for half-empty bins which is quite inefficient when you think about it.

His company has introduced an alternative way of deposit and collection of solid waste: The Underground Waste Container. It seems to make good sense. You store your solid waste in the best place possible: where you cannot see it and where you cannot smell it: Underground.
Since developing the system in 1995, his company has successfully installed 35,000 units throughout Europe.

Ivo told me that during a recent trip to Vancouver and other Canadian cities there was significant enthusiasm for this solution. Therefore, the company is looking to do at least two pilot projects, one in the Vancouver region and one in the Toronto region.

While I need to learn much more about the implications of introducing such a system to established or new neighbourhoods, the following is additional information on how the system works. and here Anyone interested in partnering with Royal Dutch Bammens should write to Ivo Koning at Tell him I sent you!

More information can also be obtained locally from the Netherlands Consul in Vancouver. A good contact is
Maarten-den Ouden,

This system seems to make so much sense to me. I'd love to hear from someone who can either collaborate this, or let me know why it will not work in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada!

Floating Amsterdam

The canals of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities are often lined with floating buildings. They are used for industrial purposes, offices, housing and agricultural purposes. (Yes, there are floating grow-ops!)While many look like they are on their last legs, or should I say floats, others are brand new and designed to very high standards. They are generally hooked up to municipal services and therefore non-poluting in a country that is very environmentally aware. While no one knows exactly how many floating buildings there are, we were often told that there were 2500 floating structures in Amsterdam.

While I was fascinated by the large floating barges which line the canals, I was particularly intrigued by two new developments at Ijburg's Waterbuurt, just outside of the city centre on Lake Ijburg. One is essentially a floating multi-family development; the other comprises individually designed homes attached to government developmed floats, where the owners had more design freedom....and it shows! That being said, the standard of design is very high.Over time it is expected that additional new projects will be developed around the city, especially since a manufacturing capability has been developed, and the challenges of the local fire codes have been satisfactorily addressed.

The following are some illustrations of the two projects using a combination of my photos and those provided to me by the City of Amsterdam and found in a publication that bears the same name as this blog posting: Floating Amsterdam.More details on the planning approvals and design parameters for Amsterdam's floating communities will soon be covered in a story on Amsterdam's floating houses that I'm preparing for the Vancouver Sun. Who knows, while we have floating home communities around Metro, including those at Granville Island and Canoe Pass Village in Ladner, maybe I can inspire more floating communities in our region. We have the water....and the space!

Container Buildings and MVRVD

I have been fascinated with buildings constructed from factory produced modules for forty years. I was therefore very much looking forward to seeing some of the Netherland's well known 'container buildings'. Unfortunately, I missed one student housing development since it was too far away. However, I did come upon by chance the Cancer Institute Amsterdam, a temporary building constructed from containers and designed by the very highly regarded Dutch Firm MVRDV.

When you travel around the Netherlands, and especially Rotterdam, and see tens of thousands of containers stacked up along the docks and highways, it is not difficult to understand why architects and others are trying to come up with new uses for them.The Cancer Institute is a temporary building that demonstrates that container buildings need not be ugly or substandard and can be quickly assembled. This one took significantly less time to construct than a permanent building, and will be disassembled and relocated when the permanent building is completed.

(This is the concept I was proposing to the City of Vancouver and BC Housing as a cost effective and timely way to accommodate the homeless and those seeking affordable rental housing. While the structures may not be significantly less expensive on a square foot basis than permanent buildings, by applying reduced size standards, and setting them up on temporary free sites, and relocating the modules when required, the overall costs could be significantly less than building permanent homes.)

MVRDV is one of the Netherland's best known firms. They are part of what is being called the "Super Dutch" generation enjoying international acclaim for their groundbreaking and oftentimes sensational designs. They are the firm responsible for the large waterfront housing that I previously illustrated, and which would appear to be the inspiration for a large proposed new building in the 900 Block of East Hastings.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Windmills of the Netherlands

When asked what they think of when they think of the Netherlands, I suspect most people would say tulips and windmills. While most people would identify windmills, I suspect they don't know why they were so common, and necessary.

The Dutch built windmills since without them much of the land drainage could not have occured. The windmills were used to drain the water from low lying lands. Windmills were also constructed for corn milling, saw milling, and a variety of other purposes. Compared to other countries, many of the Dutch windmills are quite primitive with canvas sails, and turned to wind by hand rather than by the automated mechanisms found in English windmills and those of other countries.

I read that there are about 1150 windmills around the Netherlands. There were 19 in a small area where we visited the media launch of the EcoLodge. Today the function of the windmill has been replaced by giant corkscrews, like the one shown here.

There are also a lot of modern wind turbines around the country. However, I was told that despite the country's historic association with windmills, the installation of turbines has almost stopped since they are not economically viable. But that's another story.

Freefloating or Floating EcoLodge or Floating Suite

As some of my readers know, I did my architectural thesis on factory produced relocatable modular housing and forty years later I'm still trying to get it built.

I mention this since Thursday afternoon I travelled across the Netherlands to attend the official media launch of a project that was another student's graduation thesis. However, he didn't need to wait forty plus years to make it happen. He got his thesis built by the age of 27!

The project is a floating cabin or lodge or still does not yet have a name, and it is the brainchild of a Dutch designer named Marijn Beije. What is quite remarkable is that Marijn had not seen the project in the flesh until Thursday's launch since he is now based in Shanghai as the Creative Director for Danish designer Jacob Jensen (who is most famous for his work for Bang & Olufsen.)The concept is quite intriguing...a very small, compact floating cabin that can be set up in a variety of settings, such as a nature reserve. There is no has to be towed to its berth, but it is quite nicely appointed. The model we saw is still a prototype and I think it needs a few more features...such as a shower, and more built-in storage spaces. But hey, the guy is only 27!Rather than tell you much more about the project, you can read about it in the designer's own words, as set out in a recent article in Green Life, India's First Mainstream Green Lifestyle Magazine. (Yes, the world is truly flat!) or here

The project has been described in a number of other international magazines (including one in Hebrew) which is odd since the launch I attended was the first official media event. However, as Marijn pointed out to me, if you look carefully, you'll note that the structure in magazine photos looks a bit different than in the photos I took. That is because all the illustrations in various magazines are simply photos of a small mock-up model!

Not only does this guy have some great design sense, he has a lot of chutzpah too. Indeed, he's known as 'the rooster', no doubt for his quiet but cocky gait and demeanor. He's a very charming guy and I suspect he has a great future ahead of him.Following the launch we all headed over to a delightful historic restaurant/bar for champagne reception, attended by the media, and Marijn's business partners, friends and family. It was all very nicely done.I could not help but admire Marijn's watch. Of course it was a Jensen design and he no doubt played a part in its design!By the way, the suggested price for the lodge is 38,000 euros. Perhaps some Canadian manufacturer would like to partner with him and manufacture it here. I'd like to buy one and berth it across the street. Having seen it, I am sure others would like to buy one too.

If anyone would like to explore a partnership arrangement on this, or any other Dutch designer or product manufacturer, just contact Johannes Vervloed, the Dutch Consul General in Vancouver. He can be reached at