Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mark the Date: November 14

On Saturday November 14, from 8:30 until 12:30,
I have always liked to celebrate anniversaries, even unhappy events like the receivership of my former employer. Saturday November 14 will be another year since the last election. While it too was a somewhat unhappy day, I thought it should be commemorated.

I am therefore pleased to promote an event that has been organized with my friends Gordon Price and Bob Ransford. Three panels of Vancouver thought leaders will review and discuss the highlights of the past year on the Vancouver Municipal Scene. The event will take place at the SFU Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Presenters will include Gordon Price, Bob Ransford, ThinkCity's James Fletcher, Peter Ladner, and John Tylee of the Vancouver Economic Development Commission. We will review achievements in housing, planning and development, as well as the city's proposed Green Capital initiative and budgetary issues. The morning will wrap up with commentary from some of the city's most thoughtful, and yes sometimes outspoken pundits including Frances Bula, Monte Paulson, and Jonathan Ross of

Coffee and Muffins at 8. More details to follow. I hope you will join us.

ps. And thanks James Basnett for creating the event poster. You're a very talented guy. And quick too!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Size matters: apartments getting bigger, houses getting smaller

Michael Geller, Special to The Vancouver Sun

Published: Saturday, October 24, 2009

Recently, I overheard a prominent Vancouver art dealer questioning the wisdom of Vancouver city council's decision to allow condominium buyers to rent out a portion of their apartments.

"How can anyone live in such a small space?" he wanted to know.

As an early proponent of the suite-within-a-suite concept, I was eager to respond.

While few of us would want to live in such a small suite forever, most of us have happily lived in very small spaces at some stage of our lives, when those were all we could afford.

Ironically, one of the benefits of allowing apartment buyers to rent out a small portion of their suites is that this might encourage the construction of larger apartments.

Let me explain.

Today, most new apartments have two bedrooms or less. Suites with three or more bedrooms are rare, since most developers worry that they will not be affordable by younger buyers, who make up a significant segment of the market.

However, just as many first-time buyers can afford to purchase a single-family home by renting out the basement, the suite-within-a-suite concept allows someone to purchase a larger apartment by renting out a portion of it.

Think of it as a mortgage helper in the sky. Over time, as the household grows or financial circumstances improve, the suite can be incorporated into the rest of the apartment.

While this idea will appeal to some, it will not be for everyone.

However, as apartment living becomes more acceptable for both "move-up" and "move-down" buyers, I hope we will see more three- and four-bedroom apartments being built close to shopping, transit and daycare. They will accommodate families with young children or households with an aging parent, a caregiver, or older children away at college. And just because these apartments have additional bedrooms does not mean they need to be overly large.

After all, many of the post-war three-bedroom bungalows built across Canada measured little more than 800 square feet. They still had room for a kitchen with an eating area, a combined living/dining room, and three-piece bathroom.

Compare that with today's "starter home." It is expected to have a double-volume entry, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a family room off the kitchen, and a two-car garage.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the average size of a Canadian house in 1945 was just over 800 square feet; in 1975, it was 1,075 square feet; and by 2000 it was 2,266 square feet. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States more than doubled from the 1950s to 2,330 square feet in 2004, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970.

During the same period, the average household size decreased.

However, the trend appears to be changing.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size of a new house dropped to 2,114 square feet in the fourth quarter of 2008, down more than 100 square feet from the first quarter of the year.

Perhaps in reaction to the "McMansions" that have been built across North America, there has also been a growing interest in very small houses. This has led to the "Tiny House Movement", which promotes smaller, detached single-family homes that can range anywhere between 65 square feet (yes, 65 square feet) and 750 square feet.

People are joining this movement for many reasons, but the most popular are environmental concerns, financial situations and a desire to simplify one's life. Devotees can join The Tiny House Village Network and read the Tiny House Newsletter.

This past summer, I went on a pilgrimage to Langley, Wash., on Whidbey Island, where local architect Ross Chapin has designed and built some wonderful tiny houses.

The Third Street Cottages project was the first to be built under this innovative code. The project is comprised of eight detached homes on four lots; they are approximately 650 square feet, with lofts up to 200 square feet, and are situated around a shared garden with a commons building and tool shed.

Parking is provided in garages and surface spaces separated from the housing.

The houses are one-storey, and although they are similar to one another, each is unique. Nine-foot ceilings, large windows and skylights add to the sense of space.

There is a surprising amount of storage, with walk-in closets, built-in shelves and an attic. Large porches, built-in eating alcoves and small nooks further enhance the livability and design interest.

As I look around our region, I cannot help but think that many people would like to buy smaller detached cottage-style houses such as these, especially if they were developed close to their existing neighbourhoods.

To make this happen, we will need to change our attitudes and zoning bylaws. We will also have to be prepared to share our living spaces and bathrooms, too, just like we did when we were growing up.

- - -

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, developer and Simon Fraser University adjunct professor. E-mail:

Traffic Roundabouts: What are you supposed to do?

I am writing this post for my wife, who is heading off to England later today. I mention this since I first experienced traffic roundabouts in UK and became a fan of them. When we started the planning of UniverCity I proposed a roundabout at the entry to the community and other than a few minor mishaps, it has functioned well.

However, having just avoided a small collision at a new roundabout on Blenheim Street, I agree with my wife that the new roundabouts at many smaller Vancouver intersections, such as those on Vancouver's Westside are accidents waiting to happen because many drivers don't really know what to do!

In most roundabouts throughout the world, those in the roundabout have the way. However, in smaller roundabouts, it is often not clear whether someone is in the roundabout. Having watched traffic trying to navigate these intersections, it seems that many people assume that the right thing to do is to give way to those on the right. But is this what you are supposed to do?

I think the new landscaped roundabouts look terrific. However, I would love to know from ICBC and the Vancouver police whether there has been an increase in accidents since these small roundabouts have been created. And please let us know what a driver is supposed to do!

Friday, October 23, 2009

A tribute to Jack Poole

I was very sorry to wake up early this morning only to learn about the passing of Jack Poole. I first met Jack in 1981 when he headed up Daon, and I worked for Narod. Although we were never really friends, I always had a great admiration and respect for him and his accomplishments. Jack made things happen....the Daon Building, VLC Properties, Concert Properties and ultimately the Olympics in Vancouver. He was a mentor to a lot of people who went on to do very well in life. My thoughts are with his family and very close friends, especially Dave Podmore who worked so closely with him over many years. Thanks Jack.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is bicycle theft a deterrent to city cycling?

Recently, Translink invited NY Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn to Vancouver to talk about making the city more bicycle friendly. While I had to miss her talk, I understand from Frances Bula's story in the Globe and Mail that she indicated that one of the main reasons people do not want to ride their bikes is their concern about leaving their bikes on the street during the day.

I would like to echo her comments about the need for greater security for bikes. From my discussions with many cyclists and bike shop owners, and my own experience as a ‘new’ cyclist, I am convinced that far too many people are deterred from cycling because they fear their bikes will be stolen. And with good reason. Far too many bikes are stolen. Even bikes like my 70's Raleigh Tourist (see above).

The solutions? Bike cages are one idea that might work, especially located near transit stations (SkyTrain, etc.) with video monitoring. No doubt many of you have other ideas.

If your bike is stolen, how many of you have thought to have someone etch your drivers’ license number onto your bike? This apparently is one idea to help get stolen bikes back to their proper owner. Not as good, but better than nothing is to go home tonight and make a note of the serial number on your bike. It’s there somewhere on the frame.

I’m not sure if there is a central registry in the city. But if not, perhaps the Vancouver police can set one up. And if there is one, perhaps they can publicize it.

My daughter tells me the story of her friend who works as a DJ at the Astoria and had her bike stolen. So while doing one of her shows she asks around…who’s the asshole who stole my lovely black and pink such and such a bike? After buying a few drinks, she had it back.

Apparently ‘everyone’ in the DTES knows who steals a lot of the bikes in the city. The locals just pay to buy them back. I don’t think this is acceptable. In this case, it’s not just the theft of a possession; bike thefts are potentially undoing all the good of improved bike lanes, greenways, etc.

I hope city staff and the police can come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the significant number of bike thefts. I’m convinced this could have a very positive impact on the number of cyclists in the city.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday November 14, That was the year that was!

As someone who has always celebrated birthdays and anniversaries (even the anniversary of my former employer's receivership), I thought it was appropriate that we somehow mark the One Year Anniversary of the last Vancouver municipal election with an event.

I therefore put together with Gordon Price and Bob Ransford a draft program for a community forum which was sent out to a number of potential participants. The list included Mike Howell, who writes the 12th and Cambie column in the Courier, and who wrote the following piece. I should note that this was printed before many potential speakers had been confirmed, and a number of the people who were 'expected' will not be able to paticipate.

Election reflection
As the first year anniversary of last year's civic vote approaches, a failed NPA candidate is organizing an event to look back at the election and talk about what has happened at city hall since then.

Michael Geller, who finished 1,525 votes out of a council seat, and NPA cohorts Gordon Price and Bob Ransford will host "That was the year that was: A look back at the year in Vancouver municipal politics and a look forward."

The Nov. 14 event is planned for the Wosk Centre for Dialogue (expected to be confirmed Wednesday) and will comprise three sessions.

Architect Gregory Henriquez, Kera McArthur of ThinkCity, Bernie Magnum of the Board of Trade and Joel Solomon, Mayor Gregor Robertson's financial backer and economic adviser, are expected to be among the panelists.

Topics include development, housing, transportation, the Burrard Bridge bike trial and the economy. Journalists are also expected to share their views in a media panel session.

"While some of the participants have past ties to the NPA, it is proposed that this not be a highly charged event," says the email dispatch from Geller. "Rather, the intention is to take a look at what has been happening and engage in substantive discussions on key issues to hopefully identify strategies and actions for the coming year."

The Program

I am pleased to advise that this event is now confirmed for the SFU Wosk Centre for Dialogue on Saturday November 14, from 8:30 to 12:30 . (Coffee and muffins from 8:00 am) Admission is on a first come, first served basis.

While speakers are still being finalized, the program will include opening comments by moderator Bob Ransford, a well respected communications consultant and regular contributor to the Vancouver Sun Westcoast Homes section.

The first panel will include a presentation by Gordon Price and myself, followed by a panel discussion on achievements in the areas of planning and development including housing the homeless, STIR rental housing, laneway housing, and other Council decisions over the past year.

A second panel will look at the fiscal considerations at City Hall, including the budget, and the recently announced Green Capital initiative, which as an aside, I personally support. Panelists will include representatives of ThinkCity which has been regularly polling Vancouver residents on their position and priorities on municipal funding; the Board of Trade; the Vancouver Economic Development Commission and the Green Capital initiative.

The final panel will let us hear from some of the city's key media personalities who have been following City Hall. The moderator will be Frances Bula, for many the undisputed dean of municipal affairs reporting in Vancouver. Other panelists will include Monte Paulson of The Tyee, Alex Tsakumis of 24 Hours, Mike Klassen or Daniel Fontaine from and one other yet to be confirmed media personality.

While more details will be forthcoming, I do hope that many people who follow the Vancouver municipal scene will mark their calendars and plan to attend, regardless of who they voted for on November 15, 2008!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Laguna Beach approves temporary modular homeless shelter on parking lot

I just came across this story from the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. I find it interesting that many of the issues related to the homeless in Vancouver are being discussed in California...who's responsible and costs, although I would note that their proposed costs are significantly lower than what our shelters, no doubt with additional staffing, are costing. One other consideration in Laguna Beach....The impact on tourism!

Homeless shelter at ACT V parking lot approved

Council pleads with advocates to stop feeding homeless in parks; food and shelter will be at new site. By Barbara Diamond

A haven for the homeless is planned to open by November in Laguna Canyon, offering shelter from winter’s chilly temperatures and rain — away from the city’s parks and beaches.

The City Council unanimously approved Tuesday a temporary nighttime shelter accommodating about 50 people at the ACT V parking lot, to be operated by the city in collaboration with three organizations experienced in working with the homeless. Enforcement of state laws banning camping or lodging on public property is expected to begin as soon as the shelter is open, with preparation of a city ordinance prohibiting camping in areas not designated for such use to follow.

“This is not a long-term solution, but it will end camping in the park,” said the Rev. Colin Henderson, founder and chairman of Friendship Shelter, which will collaborate in the operation of ACT V with the Laguna Relief and Resource Center and Mercy House, which operates seasonal shelters in several Southern California armories.

“We know there will be opposition,” Henderson said. “We know it will be expensive. But something needs to be done.”

The cost of the operation for the first eight months is estimated at $165,000, including $500 a month to the Relief and Resource Center to be open eight hours on weekdays where the homeless can shower, an amenity not proposed for ACT V. Set-up cost is estimated at $70,000.

Pietig said the goal was to open the site on or before Nov. 1. The original concept was to buy an event-size tent, to be furnished with cots, three portable toilets, picnic tables, heating and bus service. Duffel bags, which hold more than lockers, will be provided for regulars to stow their stuff. After research, the staff recommended, and council approved, swapping out the tent for leased modular units, covering about the same area and costing $50,000 less than the original estimates. Two restrooms would be installed in the modulars in lieu of the three portables, and no heater would be required.

“This is a difficult issue — it has been challenging to come up with a solution, and it may be unsolvable, but we do the best we can,” said Ed Sauls, who chaired the Homeless Task Force and the Advisory Committee on Homelessness.

The notion that the city should not take so much on its shoulders was a common thread among the opponents. “I encourage the city not to take ownership of the homeless,” Wendy Crimp said. “It is a regional problem.”

The Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau gave its support to the proposals in a letter signed by the board of directors and voiced at the meeting by Vice President David Shepherd.
“We are offering this letter in support of the City Council’s efforts to provide a practical solution to the challenges facing all of us with regard to the plight of the homeless and the need for a balanced, humane effort that will allow businesses to continue to operate in a profitable manner,” Shepherd said.

According to the letter, visitors are checking out of hotels early due to interaction with the homeless; diners have said they will not return to restaurants because they can’t walk in daytime or nighttime without being approached for money and harassed; and residents have moved family weddings out of town.

“We are not debating the issue of homelessness,” Shepherd said. “Our concern is how this issue has affected the hospitality business and how it will shape the long-term health of Laguna Beach.” The approved proposals are not seen as a panacea.

Homeless Shelter Rules

Site opens at 6:30 p.m., when meals will be served, and lunch bags will be distributed in the morning, provided food is no longer served in the park.
All food and services must be approved by the city.
Anyone under the influence of alcohol and drugs will not be admitted.
Disruptive behavior will not be tolerated.
No pets, weapons, radios, television, excessive lights or noise will be permitted.
Site to be cleaned daily by users and belongings removed.
No smoking.

How to get people to start using the stairs

One of my special facebook friends, Avril Orloff, who knows I enjoy creative ideas, sent me this U-Tube link. I love the idea, and the thinking behind it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Another Chapter in Vancouver's Olympic Village Saga

This week, the City of Vancouver released a public version of the confidential KPMG report that was commissioned to provide the citizens of Vancouver with a better understanding of what really happened in the process leading up to the revelations late last year that "the city was on the hook for a billion dollars!" due to mis-management of the Olympic Village project. I have not yet read the report, but I decided nonetheless to share some initial thoughts on Frances Bula's blog, following the comments and questions of other readers, and a very inaccurate front page story by a writer who usually gets it right....Miro Cernetig.

The following is my posting on Frances' blog:

I have still not had time to read the report, but that won’t stop me from commenting briefly!

In terms of the selection process, public agencies generally use either a single stage, or two-stage proposal call to select the winning proponent. The latter generally involves a ‘Call for Expressions of Interest’ to PRE-QUALIFY proponents in terms of expertise, financial capability, the proposed consultant team and sometimes a written design concept or approach.

A short-list of proponents is then expected to do much more work in terms of preparing their detailed bids.

Now again, after pre-qualification, a public agency has a choice…it can make the selection on the basis of price, or design, or a combination of the two. In other words is this a design competition, or will the winner be the team which offers the most money andcomplies with all of the project requirements.

Based on my experience with many such calls, I prefer to place the emphasis on one criterion, or the other, rather than both. However, if the project is complex, such as this one, it is not unreasonable to evaluate a range of criteria. However, it is normally expected practice that the issuing agency will advise the short-listed proponents of the selection framework in advance, with a clear indication of the relative weighting of criteria.

While proponents may not be told the precise weighting for design concept, price offered, construction methods and time frame, special features, other financial considerations (eg: timing of payments, proposed profit sharing, etc.) etc. etc. it would be normal practice, in my opinion, that the relative weighting of criteria be pre-determined by the evaluation committee BEFORE the evaluation process begins.

Let me add, that in a two stage call, when proponents have been pre-qualified, it would be most unusual to disqualify a team because of lack of financial capability or expertise, unless there had been a significant change in its circumstances from the time the initial short-list was prepared.

Now many have asked why the city didn’t ask for a financing commitment before the selection. Answer…. because it was impossible. No lender would give a firm commitment until it had seen the detailed proposal including design drawings, cost estimates, appraisals, geotechnical reports, etc, etc. Instead, all it could offer is ‘a letter of comfort’ saying it knows developer x and is willing to provide the necessary funding provided the developer submits satisfactory documentation….etc….etc.

And as noted, in this case there was the added complication of the city’s desire to retain title to the land until after completion, because of the Olympics obligations. The significance of this requirement cannot be understated.

In terms of cost over-runs, they are more likely to occur on a ‘fast-tracked’ project which starts construction before all the plans and building details have been finalized and all the fixed prices have been received for the structure, windows interior finishes, etc. And that’s what happened here. Furthermore, as others have noted, this project was undertaken during a period of unprecedented construction price increases.

Some additional thoughts:

In considering this proposal call, which if I remember correctly was a two stage call, it is worth reflecting on the earlier Woodwards proposal call which was also managed by the city.

In this case 4 teams were shortlisted including Millennium. After short-listing, two of the four teams combined resulting in three proposals…while I do not know pretend to know all the details of the bids, I do know that the highest financial offer came from Millennium…however, they were proposing a high-rise tower which was considered less desirable than the much lower, and much ‘greener’ form of development by the Westbank team. Westbank won, and then built a very high tower!

In this case, I understand that Millennium’s bid was significantly higher than the other bids….perhaps in the order of $50 million more, when one considers a variety of factors. Now, if the city had accepted one of the other bids, and Lehman Brothers hadn’t collapsed, and Fortress hadn’t got into difficulty, how many of us would have questioned why the city left SO MUCH MONEY ON THE TABLE?

I have to comment on a recent article by Miro Cernetig, a highly respected Vancouver columnist who chastised the city for pretending to be a condo developer with the intention of building these units and then flipping them after the games for a profit. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH.

The city got into this project decades ago with the intention of re-creating the success of the earlier phases of the South Shore of False Creek redevelopment, but this time with an even more sustainable, model community. It never set out to develop condominiums. Rather it set out to convert derelict industrial land into a new community.

The city did the overall plan, and committed to building a new seawall and parks and necessary services. It was always intended that the serviced development parcels would be offered to private and non-profit developers who would build the housing. This is what happened back in the 70’s and this was always the plan.

The city’s situation changed however, when the city staff decided to seek one developer, rather than a number of developers, and the one developer it selected could not get financing because the city would not transfer title to the land.

I repeat, that’s when the city’s situation changed from what had happened in the past, and what has happened in literally hundreds of similar proposal calls on public land around the world.

Because the city would not transfer title, the lender wanted the city to provide a guarantee to the lender essentially equal to the proposed value of the land (less the deposit). AT THIS POINT, THE CITY CHANGED FROM BEING A LAND DEVELOPER, TO A PARTNER IN THE DEVELOPMENT. Did they do this because they wanted to be a developer of condos and flip them for a profit after the games? Of course not.

The situation further changed when the lender decided not to make further advances, and the city had the choice of either seeing construction stop, or paying for construction to continue. We all know what happened. (I certainly remember because once the council’s ’secret’ decision became public, many of my potential voters decided to stay at home!)

A final thought. As I noted, a major problem was the law department’s insistence that the city not transfer title of the land until after completion. As I said, this deterred all Canadian banks from getting involved, and Millennium was forced to seek financing from a more expensive lender willing to accept higher risks.

It also resulted in the city having to give a guarantee and then assume direct financing. In many respects, this was the major factor in the current situation….rather than the decisions of Cope, NPA, or Vision Councillors or most staff, in my opinion.

If the law department hadn’t required that the city retain title, the project would have been financed by RBC or CIBC or HSBC and even though the cost over-runs would still have occurred, one can reasonably assume that the lender would have continued to finance the project since it too would not want to see Canada embarrassed by not finishing the housing on time and…..

And this is an important point that keeps getting forgotten, A private lender would also know that it COULD CALL ON PERSONAL GUARANTEES AND OTHER ASSETS that were pledged as security, if the developer defaulted.

While some have questioned whether these assets have value, I suspect they do. Just go over to West Vancouver and see what Millennium is doing there. (I don’t know the extent of mortgages, but I do know that there is usually a higher equity in land holdings than other forms of property.

I’ll be curious to know how KPMG evaluated these assets, recognizing that they are worth significantly more today than they were last December. In other words, in determining the city’s exposure, how much did they assume could be recovered from corporate assets and other security? How much could be recovered today?

So to conclude, there are lots of people one could try to blame, but in reality, the situation changed because of the desire to seek one developer, rather than a few; legal requirements imposed by cautious lawyers; the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the major shift in world financial circumstances; undue optimism by Millennium and its advisors and perhaps questionable judgment in accepting a price for the land that seemed too high (you may remember that I told this to Jeff Lee at the time, although to be fair, I thought Millennium had over-paid for other sites and they ended up doing very well, thank you),

It’s a complex story, but in my opinion it is difficult to say that any councillors acted recklessly or improperly; similarly I can’t say the staff were stupid or irresponsible….

Finally,I believe the current Council and administration have done a good job in trying to address the problems that have occurred in the past. However, as we move forward I do hope they will stop blaming Kim Capri and Elizabeth Ball and other NPA councillors because as I have tried to explain, this is not a simple matter. It is definitely not their fault!

And let’s not forget that the Fairmont condominiums that are just being completed were sold at an average price in excess of $1500 a square foot…and in my opinion, many of the condominiums in the Olympic Village are better than many of the condominiums in this building. So even if the costs end up at $1100 a square foot or whatever, it is not out of the question that the eventual revenues will be sufficient for Millennium to repay the loan to the city, and still make a small profit.

I could be wrong….I’ve been wrong many times before when trying to anticipate the price of housing…but it’s not out of the question.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Infill housing on front lawns?

One of the challenges in adjudicating the submissions to the prefab 20*20 housing competition was the fact that some of the ideas were very practical, while others were more conceptual and provocative. In this regard, one of my personal favourites was a proposal to site modular housing on the front lawns of Westside Vancouver single family homes. Now the proponent realized this might upset some of the neighbours so they came up with an ingenious idea...

they disguised the housing to look like a well trimmed hedge! Congratulations to Alyssa Schwann and Sean Pearson and the Rural Urban Fantasy Project from Salt Spring Island, Canada.

Prefabricated Housing is ready for another look

Today's Vancouver Sun Story on the 2020 Pre-fab housing competition

Michael Geller
Special to the Sun

When I was studying architecture in the 1960s, I was fascinated by a group of British designers, Archigram, whose fantastic architectural concepts questioned the form and function of city and building design and championed new technologies and materials, especially prefabrication and plastics.

Two of their most famous projects were Plug-in City, a giant mega structure with relocatable prefabricated modules, and Walking City, which included 40-storey self-contained buildings with telescoping legs that could move around the world.

I thought about Archigram earlier this month while judging an international design competition, for a 400-square-foot prefabricated home.

Prefab 2020, organized by Architecture for Humanity Vancouver, a not-for-profit society and sponsored by Azure, a Canadian art and architecture magazine; Interior Design Show West and the Architectural Institute of B.C., the competition attracted 285 teams from 26 countries.

Other jurors included Oliver Lang, an award winning architect and a former architecture professor at the University of B.C.; Maged Senbel, a teacher at the UBC planning school and associate at Studio Senbel Architecture + Design; Kristina Lee Podesva, most recently artist-in-residence at Langara College; and Duane Elverum, an Emily Carr University professor.

Submissions ranged from the provocative -- cantilevered modular housing above city streets -- to the practical -- prefabricated modules as infill housing -- to the outrageous. ''Para-site'' attached housing pods to the exterior walls of buildings. Hummer Home demonstrated how to construct housing out of Hummers.

According to Linus Lam and Patrick Chan of Architecture for Humanity Vancouver, one of the goals of the competition was to demonstrate that prefabricated housing need not look cheap or ugly, and thus overcome the social stigma associated with it.

Another goal was to illustrate how compact living can be smart living, contributing to a more sustainable future.

Submissions were judged on their overall concept and design, prefabrication creativity, and social and environmental impacts.

Given the high quality of the submissions and range of ideas presented, the judges had a difficult time agreeing on which projects were worthy of special recognition.

The task was made all the more difficult by the fact that some proposals were more realistic and could be easily implemented in various locales around the world, while others were deliberately fantastic and put forward as provocations.

While the submissions originated in more than 100 cities and the ideas were varied, there were a number of common themes. Many entries explored how we might put housing where it does not normally belong -- above streets, between buildings and in spaces currently used for parking.

Others illustrated how modular housing could be hoisted onto roof-tops, thus giving new life to a variety of buildings. Another popular theme was the floating of prefabricated buildings on water.

Some submissions such as the Drawer House blurred the line between housing and furniture with a high degree of built-ins and expandability.

Anyone who has ever spent time living on a boat or in a recreational vehicle knows that these structures make much better use of space than conventional apartments or houses.

While prefabricated construction is effectively used in other countries, for a variety of reasons it has never really caught on in Canada.

The response to Prefab 2020 demonstrates that given new technologies and attitudes, now may be the time for greater use of prefabricated construction to create more sustainable and affordable housing.

To view submissions, visit on the Internet.

- Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, developer and Simon Fraser University adjunct professor. E-mail:

© The Vancouver Sun 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making our streets Safer

When I was in Belgium, I was impressed by the variety of efforts to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. Some of the steps taken included raised intersections, more clearly marked pedestrian crosswalks, warnings for motorcyclists, and separate bicycle lanes.

On returning home, I have become aware of other differences between traffic in Belgian cities and Vancouver. The following are three areas that I think warrant further consideration:

Drivers in Belgium are much more disciplined in terms of the lanes in which they drive. People rarely 'pass on the inside'. Instead, drivers tend to stay in the inside lane, except when passing. And then they return to the inside lane. I also noticed this level of driver discipline in Australia (albeit, there they keep to the left, except to pass). In fact, it's a CRIME to pass on the inside. I can't help but think this would reduce accidents since on our roads, people seem to be very impatient, passing on the inside, the outside....

Of course we have speed controls along our roads. However, although the applicable speed zone registered on my GPS navigator in Belgium and Luxembourg (see below, I was in a 70km zone), this does not appear to be the case here (unless I need to do some additional programming). I found it very helpful to be able to check the speed zone, and my actual speed on my navigator as I drove around Belgium, especially since I was also notified of fixed and mobile radar zones. Now, why don't we allow the applicable speed to register here?3. NO RIGHT TURN ON RED LIGHTS
Throughout Belgium, right turns on red lights are prohibited. NowI realize there may be merit in allowing right turns on red lights in certain situations. However, in most others I think they threaten pedestrian safety, and increase the likelihood of vehicle accidents. I wonder if studies have been done to compare traffic accidents in jurisdictions that restrict turns, and those that don't.

Now, some will argue that turns on red lights are necessary to keep traffic moving. I understand this. However, another and perhaps better way to keep traffic moving would be to legislate against people who drive into intersections, and then get 'stuck'. In UK, you would never drive into the intersection 'box' unless you were absolutely certain you could proceed through before the light changes since you would receive a very substantial fine. Why don't we do the same?

Some things to think about.