Monday, April 22, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild raises issues regarding many heritage restorations, including West Vancouver's Vinson House

     This week I wrote in the Vancouver Courier about the future restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral and a discussion that took place at West Vancouver City Hall regarding a proposed Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) for a 1954 Ron Thom House.
     At issue is how much should a heritage building, whether it's one of the world's most famous buildings, or a modest house overlooking Park Royal, be allowed to be altered over time. A similar issue has arisen with regard to our West Vancouver Vinson House.
Should a future home buyer be allowed to paint all the woodwork in this heritage house off-white?
     The 1913 Vinson House  has been completely restored including the replacement of original pearlized push-button light switches with modern replicas.
      A new sprinkler system has been carefully concealed within the beamed ceilings and new electrical and mechanical systems have been installed, along with state-of-the-art telecommunications and security systems.
     While the heritage look of the kitchen has been retained, it too has been completely rebuilt with modern cabinets and appliances.
      This heritage house is still for sale. While this may no doubt be due in part to market conditions, it is also due to the reality that West Vancouver homebuyers do not appear to appreciate 100-year old houses with elaborate mahogany beams and wainscoting as much as those yearning for similar homes in Shaughnessy and Kitsilano.

     One potential buyer said he would consider buying the house provided he would be allowed to paint all the dark wood off-white. While it may come to this if the house does not sell soon, one hopes there will be a buyer who appreciates the distinctive interiors and craftsmanship of yesteryear.  

Opinion: Notre Dame Cathedral restoration raises issue of modern modification April 22, 2019

Heritage preservation sometimes at odds with modern realities

Last Monday, people around the world were devastated as they watched Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral on fire. That evening, I was invited by Corus Radio Network’s Charles Adler to offer an architect’s perspective on the building’s heritage and significance. While I urged the show’s producer to invite a more knowledgeable heritage architect, time was short, so I did the interview.
I told Adler every architectural student around the world studied Notre Dame’s design and construction with its awe-inspiring interior spaces and innovative use of “flying buttresses.”  While the cathedral had originally taken almost 200 years to build, I was certain it would be rebuilt, and within the next 24 hours we learned that hundreds of millions of euros had been pledged towards its reconstruction.
Since then, many have lamented that the cathedral’s wooden beams, each created from a different 300-year-old oak tree, can never be replicated.My initial thought was there was no need to construct new beams from giant oak trees. Instead, they could be manufactured with innovative engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber, like those used to construct the internationally acclaimed 12-storey wooden student residence at UBC.
But then, I wondered why should the new roof even be built out of wood? Why not fireproofed steel? After all, many of the world’s greatest landmark buildings have been altered over time using newer designs, materials and building technologies.
The day following the fire, I attended a meeting of West Vancouver’s recently reconstituted Heritage Advisory Committee, of which I am a member. Before us was a proposal to develop a modern house on a portion of a lot occupied by an early 1950s house designed by Ron Thom, one of Canada’s celebrated mid-century architects. In return for approval, the Ron Thom house would be designated a heritage structure in perpetuity.
The committee was asked to comment on to what extent the interior of the heritage house could be altered. While some members thought the living room’s distinctive raw concrete block walls should be protected, others observed that the house had already been substantially modified with new skylights, kitchen and gas fireplace.
In this column, I have often advocated for the preservation of heritage and character houses both to conserve our city’s architectural history and create alternative infill housing choices. 

Which brings me back to the Notre Dame Cathedral. While the fire was horrifying, fortunately much of the building remains intact. Only the roof and parts of the vault were completely destroyed.

Now the debate can begin. Should the wood beams be replaced with metal? What about the heavy two-inch thick slate roof shingles? Perhaps the new roof should be glass, as one British architect has suggested.
While I would prefer not to see the Ron Thom concrete block walls covered with drywall, the modern should oftentimes be allowed to replace the authentic.
I look forward to the continuing debate in Paris, and Vancouver.

'Desperate' times as West Van home prices tumble. Star Vancouver April 12-14, 2019

While my partners and bankers were not happy to see this story appear in the Star Vancouver, which resulted from a tweet, the truth is I am getting desperate when it comes to selling this lovely heritage house and two adjacent infill houses in West Vancouver. While the story did not generate a sale, hopefully there will be increased interest in this property outside of West Vancouver, where the locals do not appear to be as interested in buying a restored 100 year old house as people in Shaughnessy, Kitsilano or New Westminster!  

     VANCOUVER—The charming cottages and suites in a beautifully restored heritage home in West Vancouver’s Ambleside neighbourhood should not be hard to sell.
     But eight months after the restoration and infill project was completed, the homes continue to sit empty, and developer Michael Geller has taken to social media to call for buyers and offer realtors a $25,000 bonus to sell the Vinson House Cottages.
Developer Michael Geller says he hasn't been able to sell this restored heritage house and infill cottages because of a dramatic price correction that has hit West Vancouver particularly hard.  (SUBMITTED)
     Geller and his partners have accepted an offer on one of the units, which is subject to the buyers selling their West Vancouver house. But it’s far below the $2.2 million to $2.7 million price range the developers had originally set, with an expectation they’d make a 15 per cent profit.
     Now, Geller said, he’d be happy with a 5 per cent profit.
“I had someone say to me, ‘Michael, you’re sounding desperate,’” said Geller. “I said, ‘I am desperate!’”
     Geller, who has worked in the real estate industry for 45 years, said this market is the worst he’s ever seen — and that includes downturns in the early 1980s and the 2008 financial crisis. Jason Soprovich, a realtor who has worked in the West Vancouver market for 26 years, echoed that assessment:      “It has truly been the worst downturn I’ve seen in my career.”
From stratospheric highs that peaked in early 2016, Metro Vancouver’s real estate market has slowed, and prices have dropped, in all areas and housing types.
     But no neighbourhood has had as hard a fall as West Vancouver, followed closely by Vancouver’s west side. The two tony areas saw many single family homes soar past the $5-million mark, and higher, during the peak of the real estate bubble. Between June 2015 and June 2016, home prices in West Vancouver and Vancouver’s westside rose by 37.8 and 36.4 per cent, respectively, according to statistics released by the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board.

How bad is @WestVanDistrict housing market. Learned today one West Van realtor is now working at Fresh Supermarket. So I'm offering $25,000 bonus to any realtor who can sell any 1 or all 3 remaining homes at 

     Now, it’s a different story: March numbers show that single-family house prices fell by 17 per cent in West Vancouver, the steepest drop in the region. The drop is even steeper for specific segments of the market: Homes priced in the “high end” (above $5 million) have dropped by between 22 and 30 per cent, Soprovich said, while homes in the “low end” ($1.5 million to $5 million) have dropped by 15 to 22 per cent.
     Soprovich and Geller said a series of government taxes aimed at foreign buyers and speculative activity, and tougher bank lending rules brought in by the federal government, are behind the dramatic drop.
Those taxes include B.C.’s foreign buyer tax; a speculation tax aimed at vacant properties and homeowners who don’t pay taxes in B.C.; an increased property tax that applies to homes worth over $3 million; and Vancouver’s empty homes tax.
     Soprovich said buyers from Mainland China were a big presence in the West Vancouver market in 2015 and 2016, but tighter capital flow restrictions brought in by the Chinese government, and the decision to introduce the foreign buyer tax and then increase it from 15 to 20 per cent, have basically “put the brakes on foreign investors.”
     He said most of the buyers he’s seeing now intend to live in the home as their principal residence, and many of the potential sales involve older owners who want to sell their large home and move into a smaller house or condo in West Vancouver.
     But unless sellers are willing to drop their prices — something that’s taken some time for many homeowners to accept — the houses will sit on the market for months, Soprovich said. On the upside, while buyers have been sitting on the sidelines for months, there now seems to be more interest from buyers as prices have dropped.
     For realtors, the change in market conditions has been painful. Geller said he’s heard stories of former realtors who have had to take other jobs, while Soprovich said the downturn has meant cutting back on his firm’s marketing budget and working even harder to find business.
     “I’ve personally felt it’s been a dramatic change. It’s devastating, to a certain degree,” he said.
“When you’re used to selling 100 homes a year and you’re dropping down to less than 30 or 40, that’s a significant impact.”
Jen St. Denis is a Vancouver-based reporter covering affordability and city hall. Follow her on Twitter: @jenstden

Opinion: When it comes to housing Vancouver’s homeless, we need to think small Vancouver Courier April 8, 2019

Modular homes should be used to provide affordable housing for broader range of households
While this is not a modular house, it illustrates how by wrapping small buildings with pretty designs, smaller modular buildings can become very attractive. 

“It's irresponsible for a mainstream media outlet to publish a headline advocating persecution of some of the most vulnerable members of society.”

This was just one of the many comments on the Courier website following my recent column expressing concern regarding the number of presumably homeless people camping out on the streets near Granville and Georgia.
On Twitter, @DevonRowcliffe wanted to know if I would “lobby for more services for the homeless, (including addiction treatment, employment programs, and prevention initiatives such as KidCare Canada), or continue to bemoan the aesthetics of homelessness.”
However, many shared my concerns, including readers troubled about the worsening conditions in the Downtown Eastside and the new plaza in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery becoming a defacto bedroom for homeless people.

Many asked where I thought the homeless should go. While any place would be preferable to camping on the sidewalks outside Pacific Centre or the corner of Georgia and Burrard, here are some additional solutions.
Shelters are one option. While many are well run, albeit at considerable cost, homeless people often report they do not want to stay in shelters because they feel unsafe, and possessions are often stolen. Others complain they do not offer an address when seeking employment.
Surely two obvious solutions are to provide lockers where people can lock up their possessions and allow those seeking employment to use the shelter’s address for mail.
Both the province and City of Vancouver have rightly boasted about the many people who have been quickly housed in temporary modular units. However, these projects can be relatively expensive, in terms of capital costs.
But they need not be. Ten years ago, when NSDA Architects and I prepared the relocatable modular housing study for BC Housing, which ultimately led to the program underway, we proposed much more modest housing layouts, like those found in workcamps.
Three design options were put forth. Trailers containing eight sleeping rooms approximately 120 sq. ft. with shared bathrooms, and similarly-sized sleeping rooms with small, private bathrooms. A third option offered even smaller sleeping units with communal bathrooms. In all cases, communal living spaces would be provided. At the time, the units were estimated to cost less than $50,000 each.
Rendering by NSDA Architects
Rendering by NSDA Architects
When we first announced this concept to housing activists in the Downtown Eastside, they vehemently objected to it for various reasons, including a fear the projects would be ugly. However, when we presented detailed plans, with creative exterior designs, they opposed the concept since they thought the units would be too attractive and therefore not temporary. This would give governments an excuse to delay building permanent buildings with larger self-contained units, something they were seeking.
Given today’s collective desire to house more homeless people in modular housing, I would recommend that BC Housing and the city now consider building much smaller, less expensive units, like those recommended in our report.
I am not alone in suggesting smaller units could be suitable. At the University of British Columbia, student housing planners have developed innovative “nano-suite” designs.They measure 140 sq. ft. and contain a pull-down bed/desk, kitchenette with mini fridge and bathroom with stand-up shower. 
Elsewhere in Canada, and across the U.S., cities are setting up “tiny house villages” for the homeless, comprising small, colourful structures 8 feet by 12 feet, with separate shared bathroom facilities.
By offering smaller sleeping rooms, with and without private bathrooms, governments could house many people for a similar amount of money.
Meanwhile, today’s relocatable modular designs should be used to provide affordable housing for a broader range of households. Currently, I am working with a Marpole apartment building owner to explore the feasibility of adding three or more levels of modular units above his rear yard surface parking.
While we often hear Vancouver is running out of land, I would argue we are not making the best use of the land we already have. With ingenuity, we can build accommodation for the homeless and others seeking affordable homes. Today’s modular housing projects are just the start.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

In celebration of wood. Vancouver Sun March 30, 2019

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance regarding The Lagoons, a condominium development at the entrance to Granville Island. He was certain his third-floor apartment was in a concrete building. I told him it was a wood-frame building with a lightweight concrete topping on the floor.
“Do you want to bet a bottle of scotch?” he asked. I told him it would be an unfair bet since I was part of the project’s development team and had watched it being built.
“Well it seems like a concrete building,” he responded.
I was reminded of this exchange at the 15th annual Wood Design Awards organized by WoodWorks, a program of the Canadian Wood Council that celebrates innovative structural and architectural achievements using wood.
In early March, more than 400 architects, engineers, designers, builders, owners and government officials gathered in the Vancouver Convention Centre, an appropriate venue considering the walls are covered in B.C. wood.
There were 103 nominations in 14 categories, showcasing wood’s strength, beauty, versatility, environmental and cost benefits. Submissions came from throughout B.C., as well as the U.S. and Asia, with international projects in China, Korea and Tajikistan.
Since 2005 when the program began, there have been some remarkable changes in wood construction in British Columbia. In those days, the maximum permitted height for a wood-frame building was four storeys.
Today, six-storey woodframe buildings are becoming the norm, and during the awards program, it was suggested that one day 12 storeys might be the norm.
I thought this might be wishful thinking, but a week later the B.C. government announced changes to the building code to allow the construction of wood buildings up to 12 storeys.
Much of the credit for this code change must go to Brock Commons, an 18-storey wooden student residence at UBC that won multiple prizes at the 2017 awards. At that time, it was the tallest “mass timber” building in the world using new engineered wood products and construction techniques.
While some may question whether taller wood buildings can be sturdy and safe, it is noteworthy that most of Gastown’s older buildings have structures made of wood.
While their heavy timber construction differs from the lightweight “balloon frame” construction used in houses and smaller apartments, today’s new cross-laminated timber — or CLT — panels, glue-laminated timber, and parallel strand lumber products are the equivalent of heavy timber. These products, made from gluing layers of smaller pieces of lumber together, can be as strong and fireproof — yes, fireproof — as steel and concrete.
The award categories included residential wood design, commercial and industrial wood design, interior design, use of red cedar, prefabrication and other innovations.
For those of us interested in housing design and construction, there were two categories, single-family and multi-family.
The seven single-family finalists included Michael Green, a Vancouver architect who has become internationally acclaimed for his pioneering wood designs. Other finalists included architects Peter Rose and Farouk Noormohamed. However, the winner was Clinton and Piers Cuddington of Measured Architecture for their visually striking Shift House.
Shift House, a project from Clinton and Piers Cuddington of Measured Architecture, took the single-family award at the 2019 Wood Design Awards. [PNG Merlin Archive] PNG
The jury commented that the shingles, modernized with seven custom colours, were installed on a near 45-degree bias, with similarly coloured shingles paired to create an illusion of 10-by-10-inch hexagonal shapes.
While the shingles were stained and refined, the architects also used unstained, tongue-and-groove Western red cedar as a secondary cladding.
Finalists in the multi-family category included Allwood Place in Abbotsford, Royce in White Rock, Travino Square in Saanich, West Quay in North Vancouver and Yorkson Creek in Langley, with the winner being Adera Development Corp. for Virtuoso. (Adera won in the same category last year for its Prodigy project.)
Designed by Rositch Hemphill Architects, Virtuoso comprises a six-storey mass timber building and townhomes with a stunning West Coast design, and is Canada’s first private residential multi-family building to be constructed using cross-laminated timber.
Like Brock Commons, Virtuoso uses CLT panels in its flooring systems. They are exposed at each balcony overhang, enhancing the building’s style and highlighting this beautiful wood material.
Another benefit of this innovative floor- and wall-assembly system is that it can significantly reduce sound transmission between homes, exceeding standards in both traditional wood-frame and even concrete construction.
It was not that long ago that the so-called leaky condo crisis caused significant grief for many B.C. homeowners, architects and developers. While industry experts questioned whether wood construction would ever become popular again, it was evident to everyone attending the awards program that, thanks to new wood products and improved design and construction techniques, wood is back.
This is not just a good thing for the residential construction industry. It is also positive for B.C.’s economy.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, real estate consultant and developer. He serves on the adjunct faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and Resource and Environmental Management. His blog can be found at and he can be reached at