Friday, February 3, 2017

Opinion: Are the City of Vancouver’s character home initiatives at odds? Vancouver Courier February 2, 2017

After writing the column set out below, about100 architects, designers, planners and builders attended a City of Vancouver planning department workshop. Following staff presentations on the carrots and sticks being proposed to encourage conservation of character homes, most of the audience was united in the opinion that the city's approach was wrong-headed, especially the proposal to downzone many single family neighbourhoods from approximately 0.7 FSR to 0.5 FSR, (and even less on larger lots).

The city's justification was a report by Coriolis Consulting advising that simply offering carrots to encourage character home conservation (eg: some extra density; opportunity to create separate strata lot) was not enough. There had to be a greater incentive, hence the city proposal to reduce allowable density. Staff added that this was also intended to ensure new houses were more in scale with the character houses.

I was subsequently contacted by some builders and architects who were very concerned since they had been advised the city is not proposing to reduce the density just on lots with character houses. It is proposing a blanket downzoning of many single family neighbourhoods! 

This seems very wrong at a time when the city should instead be rezoning single family neighbourhoods to encourage greater densities, and more duplex homes, row houses, basement suites in duplexes and rowhouses, smaller homes for sale, etc. 
Based on what we all heard, it is time for all Vancouver residents to pay attention to the Character Home Zoning Review. If the zoning changes being proposed are approved, the maximum above grade home on a 33' lot will be 1400 sq.ft.

The following is this week's Courier column:

     The City of Vancouver is currently undertaking what might seem to many observers as two contradictory programs. One is the Character Home Zoning Review; the other is the Thermal Imaging Program
     The purpose of the Character Home Zoning Review is to look at options to encourage retention of heritage and character homes in single-family (RS) zoning districts. It was initiated in response to community concerns about the many demolitions of high-quality older homes, mostly built before 1940, and the size and scale of the new homes being built in established single family neighbourhoods.
     The Thermal Imaging Pilot Program was launched in January to help homeowners identify energy loss in single-family homes and to share information on energy saving incentives that are available.
In Vancouver, 55 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from buildings, and detached homes account for 31 per cent of these emissions.
     The city has identified five neighbourhoods to participate in the pilot, including Dunbar-Southlands, Riley Park, Strathcona, Victoria-Fraserview and Hastings-Sunrise. Thermal images of the fronts of houses in these neighbourhoods will be taken using a special camera mounted on a car driving along the streets.
     A thermal image is a picture of the heat that comes off an object. When something is hot, the image is bright yellow; if cold, it shows up as dark blue, with varying degrees of colour in between.
The images will be taken throughout the month of January and staff will follow-up with homeowners later this spring.
     It should be noted that these pictures only show the fronts of houses. To get a more detailed assessment, it will be necessary to hire a private contractor who will often pressurize a house to see where leaks occur. I am told the cost for this starts at about $600, but it can be well worth the money.
     So why will many think these programs are contradictory?
     Anyone who has lived in a pre-1940 character home can tell you. As a rule, the walls have little or no insulation and they leak air like a sieve. Even when renovated, it is often difficult to make older homes as energy efficient as new homes, without a loss of exterior or interior character.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that both programs are promoting Heritage Energy Retrofit Grants, being offered by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation in partnership with the City of Vancouver.
     The Heritage Energy Retrofit Grant program covers heating, fuel-switching, insulation and air sealing, and has recently been expanded to include wood storm windows and water conservation measures.
     Grants are available for owners of homes built before 1940, as well as homes listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register.
     However, they are not likely to cover all the cost of renovations. A maximum of $3,000 is available per home towards qualifying retrofits; or a maximum of $6,000 per home if fuel is switching from gas (or oil) to an electric air source heat pump, including other retrofits.
     The Home Energy Retrofit Grant program is open from September 2016 to Aug. 31, 2018 or until all grant funds are allocated — whichever occurs sooner. Applicants are encouraged to apply early and hire an Energy Advisor to conduct a pre-retrofit evaluation.
     In addition to this program, Fortis and B.C. Hydro are also offering grants to offset energy retrofits costs. They apply to both new and older buildings.
     A detailed schedule can be found online. Grants can be used to offset the costs of insulating attics, which often offers the greatest payback, and improving wall insulation, heating systems, hot water, windows and ventilation.
     As I wrote in an earlier column, I am very much in favour of trying to preserve Vancouver’s character homes. However, my initial review of the Character Home Zoning Review caused concerns.
     The city had not determined many important program details, and while offering some carrots, it was also wielding a big stick by reducing the permitted size of any new houses replacing pre-1940s homes.
     I will soon be meeting with the city to discuss how it might make this program more equitable and effective. But in the meanwhile, if you have an older home that you want to conserve, apply for some of the grants before all the money is gone.
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