Friday, October 17, 2014

Opinion: Housing, density and activist architects: Vancouver Courier October 15, 2014

                                                                     4 level stacked townhouses like this Vancouver development often have a higher density than some highrises. 
Last week the Architectural Institute of British Columbia held its annual conference. The theme was Shifting Perspectives but you did not have to be an architect to be interested in many of the sessions being offered.

One addressed post-disaster building safety evaluations. While we may not like to think about an earthquake hitting our city, seismologists believe it is not a question of if, but when. Many Vancouver buildings will be affected, including older rental apartments, few of which are being upgraded since landlords are reluctant to evict tenants.
Another session explored building design and energy performance. It is a pity some COPE and Green Party politicians who have been telling voters that highrises are the least energy efficient building form had not been in attendance. They would have learned that new highrises are more energy efficient than most single-family dwellings. That is because apartment suites only have one or two surfaces exposed to the outside, whereas a single family dwelling has six.

Another session examined the future of market and non-market housing on city-owned land along the south shore of False Creek. Developed in the 1970s, these projects have less than 25 years remaining on their land leases. As a result, it is difficult for condominium owners to sell and non-profits to operate. The situation is becoming critical for those non-profits who have been providing housing for both low and moderate income households at rates significantly below market, since they have not put money away for repairs.

One of the panelists, the principal of a major Vancouver architectural firm, has been living in his subsidized cooperative for more than 30 years. His current monthly payment is about half of what the market rent would be.  In addition, three and four bedroom family homes in his development are occupied by one or two person senior households who refuse to move out.

Many in the audience were struck by the sense of entitlement expressed by the panelists. Given the urgent need for three and four bedroom family units, it would seem appropriate for singles and couples to relocate to smaller homes, or possibly share homes.

Given the need to fund repairs, higher income residents should be making larger monthly payments.
As for the future, there is an opportunity to significantly increase density through infill housing and redevelopment. This was the topic of another popular conference session.

Mixed use developments like this Kitsilano project have a floor space ratio of between 2.5 and 3.0 which is comparable to highrise projects found around Metro Vancouver
Titled “DenCity,” it explored different perspectives on density as viewed through the eyes of urban planners, developers, community activists, architects and ordinary citizens. The objective was to offer a better understanding of how density is defined and how it influences and shapes urban environments.

As one of the panelists, I noted that in some jurisdictions, density is measured in terms of people per acre. In others, the measure is housing units per acre. In Vancouver, we tend to measure density in terms of Floor Space Index (FSR) or Floor Area Index (FAR) which is the ratio of building area to land area. However, these measures can be misleading since it is often not clear whether the FSR is calculated over the entire land area including roads and parks (gross density) or just on the development site area (net density).
The session revealed that the public often confuses density and building height. In fact, it is possible to achieve much higher densities in four storey buildings than in the 12 storey buildings found in Kerrisdale.

A fellow panelist, Green Party city council candidate Pete Fry, spoke eloquently about how citizens are often given little opportunity to provide their input into community plans, both in terms of density and height. He urged the architects in the room to join the citizen activists as architect activists, and help communities to understand density and how best to plan their neighbourhoods.

I agree.

Architects and planners need to become more actively involved in neighbourhood planning, even if it means having to criticize the city administration. While this could affect their ability to obtain approvals for future projects, their contribution could be invaluable.

© Vancouver Courier
The density of street oriented townhouses such as these Toronto units can be surprisingly high, while providing a much desired form of housing


Jon Petrie said...

Note the "most" in Geller's assertion: >> new highrises are more energy efficient than most single-family dwellings. <<

Also note: >> it is possible to achieve much higher densities in four storey buildings than in the 12 storey buildings ...<<

Presumably life cycle energy costs are lower for a unit in an average wood framed four storey buildings than for a similar sized unit in a concrete high rise (12 plus storey). So shouldn't "Eco density" favor circa four storey wood buildings over high rises ?

Lewis N. Villegas said...

I've received an email from a participant denouncing the claims made here... and I must say, I have to agree.

You know this as well as I, Michael, towers are without peer in just one area, and one area alone: profits for the developer. Everywhere else they are under-performers—socially, environmentally, and economically (in life-cycle maintenance and unintended costs to the community).

The problem with the performance of towers is that they are typically designed to look the same on all sides. Of course, each side faces a different situation, thus it is common to have one side of a tower calling for heat while the other is calling for cooling (those sealed windows are a problem, so is the inability to hang an awning in front of a window—never mind step on a ladder to clean it on the outside).

It is not possible to mix the air from one side with the air from the other to achieve a balancing effect due to fire codes. LEED platinum, etc., is turning out to be a real con. These things are massively expensive to build and they don't use renewable materials. The structures themselves are expensive to maintain, convert, rehabilitate.

Human-scale construction fares much better in the use of renewable materials, passive solar design, and the use of the human body to lift groceries and people to their suites. The mechanical systems—whether at the scale of the municipality or inside the single building—are also simpler, less expensive, and less costly to maintain over decades and centuries. Ground oriented housing is self-parking while towers are demanding ever more underground parking storage.

There is the issue of the tower putting its smallest side to the sky and in contact with the earth.

You're thinking as a developer, not an architect, and much less as an urbanist when you recommend the darling of the retiring baby boomers as the 'paradigm' for good neighbourhoods.