Vancouver Day-trip

March 12, 2010 at 12:18 am | In architecture, vancouver | Comments Off on Vancouver Day-trip

A daughter doesn’t turn 16 every year, so I made a special effort to get over to Vancouver to have lunch with E., who’s studying at UBC. She had enough time for a leisurely early lunch at Vij’s Rangoli, followed up by coffee and (birthday) cupcakes closer to UBC.

Then I hied myself as fast as I could to the Woodward’s. (Wikipedia entry here, commercial website here.)

The still-under-construction atrium showcases Vancouverism, an exhibition subtitled “Architecture builds the city” (till 3/27). I had to see that – and it was worth it.

But the real thrill was the atrium itself, which features a huge (seriously huge) back-lit photograph I initially took to be by Jeff Wall. It is, however, a “30 by 50 ft. piece by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas. named Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 depicting the Gastown riot in 1971 and completed in 2009″ (source).

I took some photos (also all in an album here, with the last 2 photos from an SFU student show at W2):

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This one is much the same, just framed a bit differently:

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I was completely underwhelmed by the historic facade left standing at the corners of W. Hastings and Abbott – I can see the point of keeping it, but the thoroughness with which everything else beyond the facade was erased really made me wonder how exactly the rationale behind keeping it worked.

The old facade is basically directly outside/ attached to the (new) commercial building that faces inward on this atrium (not visible in my photos). I couldn’t enter the new building, but presumably it’s of the same caliber and feel as the atrium. The old facade meanwhile is four or so stories of brick. Again: I’m not against saving it, but the contrast is a bit out of synch right now. There might still be some work that needs doing before the marriage between exterior facade and new innards appears consummated.

If you were to walk straight through to the doors below Douglas’s photo-mural, you would reach an open courtyard, which is flanked by the new SFU arts center on your left and a very funky, engaging-looking new condo tower on the right. Here are a couple of views of that courtyard and the new condo tower, which is rather breath-taking – if only because it’s so different from the usual clear-glass and steel condo construction in Vancouver. This one is openly …decorative, perhaps playful, and seemingly allusive. Very different.

Some final pictures.

First, the courtyard with a view of the exterior image of Douglas’s photo-mural:

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Next, the new building’s modern touch in meeting the podium and courtyard area, followed by a reveal of its decorative tower:

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Architect: Gregory Henriquez

Entitlement

March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm | In architecture, cities, green, homelessness, ideas, land_use, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

In yesterday’s post, Thinking out loud on social media platforms, I responded to a comment with an extended rant about Victoria, the pressing strangeness of its people and their often bizarre sense of entitlement:

Much of the strangeness comes from their huge sense of entitlement, which is weirdly crooked, and is based in large part on this crazy notion that, since we live in the best place on earth, we’re entitled to act with an attitude of entitlement – even though we have done nothing to earn it, for what can you do to earn the beauty of nature, which is our only saving grace? Yet the entitlement attitude persists. For example, at the downtown YMCA where I work out, women steal from other women in the membership-plus changing rooms. These are members who pay a premium for a “plus” membership, yet they steal from other “plus” members. It’s the sort of behavior locals might associate with “the big city,” except we’re not the big city. We just think we can get away with shit.

For those who are wondering why I know about thieving at the gym: because I read the posted notices about upticks in petty theft; because I make it a point to talk to people; and because I’ve seen women looking for items that, whoops!, went missing in the blink of an eye. What’s also interesting is that the women who steal don’t just steal from other women, they also steal from the gym. Who would steal from the YMCA, I wonder? It’s all small stuff (the facility’s towels, or other members’ high-end cosmetics, or maybe a $20-bill that’s left unattended in an open locker for a few minutes), but it adds up.

To what? Misplaced entitlement.

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Victoria BC

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Without a doubt, Victoria is one of the most naturally beautiful (urban) places in Canada. It’s the low-rise yin to Vancouver’s upright, high-rise yang. However, there is nothing, not a single thing, that the people who live here have done to create or to earn this beauty.

Our older residential core neighborhoods are quite pretty – they are densely built up (a good thing) and are incredibly leafy, festooned with an abundance of fabulous trees (which city workers strive hard to maintain), and of course year-round greenery. Some folks start mowing lawns in February. Aside from the bouts of landscaping mandated by the Ministry of Perpetual Gardening (that’s a joke, coined by David Burke), we haven’t, however, done anything to earn natural beauty: it’s just there, and it grows on, just as the Olympic mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait simply exist, just as the granite outcroppings simply are (when we haven’t blasted them to smithereens to build a subdivision), just as the ocean ebbs and flows.

What we have actually built – particularly since World War II and particularly where it really matters, namely in our downtown where the urban part of our urban existence should shine – is largely awful.

In Vancouver, the beauty of the recent built form is earned. People in Vancouver built it, they built it in the last 30 years, and it looks great. It looks even better set against the unearned majestic beauty of the landscape: looming close-up mountains (very yang and very different from our far-off and therefore yin elevations) and restless ocean, beaches and the thick forests of Stanley Park.

But in the past 75 years, Victoria’s downtown has earned little.

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

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Old Town (photo, above) and Chinatown are charming, but their structures were finished around the turn of the century before the last one. What was added last century is for the most part a dog’s breakfast – whether we refer to Centennial Square, to the uninspired commercial buildings that replaced older (and actually taller!) buildings, or to the wasteland of one- or two-story buildings lining what should be key shopping streets (which now sport far too many “for lease” signs).

Face it, Victoria’s more recent “pretty” parts aren’t downtown, they’re in the village centers of the older neighborhoods, from Oak Bay Village to Cook Street Village to Fernwood Square, to James Bay, and so on. (And even then, some of those areas would be boring white-bread toast if it weren’t for the trees.) Downtown has been left to languish, and aside from recent handsome Humboldt Valley developments (which the NIMBYs fought tooth and nail), there is little to please the eye.

Downtown as a whole has in fact turned into a slightly watered down version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (and yes, Vancouver isn’t perfect as it has a huge problem there), with panhandlers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill sleeping in the entryways of all those useless one-story buildings with the empty storefronts sporting “for lease” signs.

I can put a date on when things really changed: in 2005, seeing a trio of emaciated, hollow-eyed addicts tweaking (see def. #4 under “verb”) at 3 p.m. on the SW corner of Vancouver Street and Rockland Avenue was unusual enough to make me call a friend on the neighborhood’s community board: “Hey, I just saw a two women taking their clothes off, trying to hook passers-by, and there was a guy with them who looked like he was their pimp. All three of them seem totally strung out…”

In the five years since then, I’m not surprised anymore by anything I see in my neighborhood or along Rockland Avenue (on my way to the YMCA), even though this is a “nice” area. Junkies, people smoking crack in Pioneer Square (where a sign reminds me that I can’t walk my dog, even as the clean-up patrol daily comes ’round to pick up used needles), human feces, vomit, guys peeing against buildings, people tweaking.

Most mornings (and especially on recycling day), I wake (and fall asleep again) to the dawn-time jingle of “binners” pushing (stolen) shopping carts past my window, in search of bottles to take to the nearby Bottle Depot. In 2005 there was one single binner, “our” binner, in this neighborhood. Now there are dozens, competing for the scraps we might toss out.

I used to write blog posts about how awful this human misery is (looking for this post, I realize I published it as “private” in 2005, meaning that no one was ever able to read it; go read it now, and most especially listen to the singing iceberg, linked at very end). I used to support all the pious studies for how to end homelessness.

But I almost don’t care anymore. It’s so depressing to see this acceptance of drug use and destruction, and to see it wash over every block of your neighborhood and your downtown. Of course the homeless, most of whom have mental health problems as well as drug addictions, are left to fend for themselves by Federal and Provincial governments that have handed the problem to cash-strapped municipalities. The municipalities make all sorts of lovely noises about task forces and helping and asking Mr and Ms Jo-Shmo Citizen to kick in some extra money for shelters, but things have just gotten worse. At the same time, because the poor and the hard to house really are getting shafted by senior levels of government, everyone on the street (which tacitly includes us, the non-homeless residents) feels that they, the homeless, really are entitled to be exactly where they are: on the street, making everyone feel guilty or bad or fed up.

Because (the thinking goes) where else, after all, can they go, given that the services they need are located in the city?

You see where this is going? Here, even the homeless are entitled. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about entitlement, it’s that you don’t earn it. You just take it.

And all the while, we build nothing of beauty, even as those of us who have housing smugly think we’ve done something to earn the natural beauty that surrounds us. That’s why everyone likes to bleat on about the lifestyle here.

Gag me with the lifestyle already.

This isn’t Lotus Land, but we are surely Lotus Eaters: addled into feeling we’ve earned the natural beauty, we’re totally apathetic about actually creating a built beauty, blind to how cheap and ugly-looking Victoria, in particular its under-built and under-utilized city center, has become.

A retired city worker recently told me that much of Victoria’s downtown real estate is owned by families, some of whom have held the property for generations. They don’t need to sell it (they’d be penalized with capital gains taxes on the sale), they make enough from renting the ground floor out to some crap store that sells t-shirts to the tourists, and they don’t bother with a seismic retrofit of the upper story, they just leave it empty. In other words, it’s blood-sucking, half-empty, not-earning-its-keep, underutilized real estate that the trust fund kids can keep in their back pockets, collecting the monthly $5000 to $10000 in rent, all without doing a stitch of work or doing anything useful with the building. That, according to my source, is a big problem with real estate in the city.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d make it illegal to have property downtown that isn’t operating at a minimum of 5:1 FSR. That would put the fear of god into any useless leech who owns valuable land downtown but does nothing with it to improve the commonweal.

But then again, in this city of entitled Lotus Eaters, “developer” is a dirty word. The anti-development NIMBY crowd thinks that development contributes to the city’s ugliness. Oh kids, grow up. Our built city (not its natural setting) is ugly because it’s underdeveloped.

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Now, there’s a codicil to this rant…

I believe that the desire to have earned what is naturally given is what underwrites the burgeoning and absolutely exciting currents of outright biophilia that in our region finds expression in land conservation, in stewardship, and in the uptick in environmental groups and causes and projects. The Capital Regional District (that is, Greater Victoria and the surrounding municipalities from Sooke and Metchosin in the west through to Saltspring Island in the Georgia Strait to the east) and the Cowichan Valley Regional District just to the north of us are home to eco-living initiatives gaining world-wide attention. (More on those in a later blog post.)

The biophiliacs are trying to earn beauty through environmental stewardship – and they’re succeeding.

But as a fan of cities, I wish that my fellow urban biophiliacs would spend a bit of energy on fixing our built environment, so that we can earn an urban beauty worthy of the fabulous natural beauty that surrounds us.

I’m not sure whose “job” this is. As far as I can tell, the city’s urban planners are asleep at the wheel, as are the politicians. If I had a magic wand, I’d kick them all to out and do what Vancouver did: hire the best, hire people with imagination. The latter is nowhere in evidence in Victoria, and it’s also missing in our largest neighboring municipality, Saanich, judging by the atrocity of Uptown (a shopping center redevelopment) now under construction.

A new retail/ commercial/ mixed use development in Saanich, BC that just screams Fuck you to the humanity hurtling by

A new retail/ commercial development in Saanich, BC that just screams "Fuck you"

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So that’s my wish: I want us to lay off the Lotus Leaves that lull us into thinking we’ve earned the natural beauty that surrounds us, and to focus instead on earning a built beauty that aspires to be the best. And I want the NIMBYs who try to thwart development downtown to take a hike. Come back when you’ve earned the right to contribute, otherwise you’re just acting entitled.

Update, 3/5:

There’s an excellent photo of the Uptown development on Flickr, taken by Glenalan54. Check out the astute comments.

Thinking about built form

February 8, 2010 at 8:54 am | In architecture, housing, just_so, urbanism | 3 Comments

I started writing something long and complex about how the house I was born in still shapes my ideas of how and where to live. (I was born at home, with midwife.)

It got too complicated.

So here’s a picture of the building instead:

1 Berger Allee, Duesseldorf

1 Berger Allee, Duesseldorf

It’s the one right at the corner. (Full photo here.) When we lived there, Duesseldorf’s Altstadt was not yet (re-)gentrified and the doctor who practiced next door provided (then illegal) abortions to the area prostitutes. But you can see it used to be (and, I’m told, is, once more) a handsome building on a street with equally fine apartment buildings. Five to six floors of apartments, and retail on the ground floor (a couple of years ago “my” building had an art gallery – not sure if that’s still there now). Frontage right to the sidewalk (or Trottoir, as Rhinelanders called them), and green spaces in the enclosed Hof (courtyard) behind the buildings.

There’s something about that density I really like.

(Maybe this will be the year I finally manage to read Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec.)

Unsorting

February 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, housing, ideas, land_use, politics, social_critique, urbanism, writing | 7 Comments

I read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to return to it for insight into several aspects of politics as I’ve experienced them here in British Columbia. True, Bishop writes about the US, and BC isn’t the US, and, true, Canada has three big parties, not just two. But in my province it’s really all about just two parties, the BC Liberals and the BC NDP (and our first-past-the-post electoral system ensures that third parties have a nearly impossible row to hoe). Where I live, people do “sort” themselves in ways that are practically as pernicious as US counties sorted into all-blue or all-red group-think ideological camps.

But more on that some other time…

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Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens

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First, some observations on sorting and urban form…

Recently, the offspring and I were talking about All in the Family, which I watched often growing up, since it was a favorite show of my father’s. Thanks to YouTube, salient bits of it are instantly available to younger viewers.

Last night I heard laughter coming from my son’s room – he had just finished watching Jeff Rubin talking about how our oil-dependent economy will have to change radically. In the talk, Rubin conjured an image of Archie Bunker and Al Gore together in bed, based on the new paradigm we’re heading into. So of course my son had to research (ahem) All in the Family, and he was watching excerpt after excerpt on YouTube (hence the howls of laughter – I initially worried that he thought Rubin was funny, but no, it was the Bunkers).

The Bunkers

The Bunkers

Mostly, aside from marveling at how Archie could spew his sometimes vicious opinions without the PC police censoring him, my son was struck by how impossible it was for Archie to avoid the objects of his prejudice. Everywhere Archie Bunker turned, he ran into “coloreds,” “communists,” “Polacks,” “homos,” and so on through the entire unsorted bin of …well, of what?

Of a mixed urban neighborhood – versus neighborhoods sorted almost exclusively through (upward) economic choice or (downward) economic non-choice.

Without New York City and its population-packed boroughs (in the Bunkers’s case, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens), Archie could have become isolated (sorted), and found affirmation in a like-minded tract development. But in that more urban environment, which isn’t upscale enough to maintain homogeneity and therefore has to accept newcomers constantly, he has to accept neighbors whose views he dislikes. Because Archie himself isn’t rich enough to move, he has to mingle. Because real estate and rents are so dear in densely built-up areas that have easy access to the downtown core, no one has the luxury of living on his own hectare, at a distance. In fact, Archie has to put up in his own four walls with the “Meathead” (Michael, his Polish-American, social-work studying, non-laboring son-in-law with hippie roots). Rents are too expensive for the Bunker daughter Gloria, newly married to Michael, to move out. So the lucky couple gets to live with her parents.

Which brings us to how the tendency to sort, as described by Bill Bishop, even finds expression at the domestic level, in house architecture.

Since the seventies when All in the Family was produced, it has become unexceptional for each kid to have his or her own bedroom. It’s expected that parents have an “en-suite” – a full bathroom of their own, off the “master” bedroom (oh, those feudal aspirations!, sovereigns all, we parents are loosey-goosey in our permissiveness, but masters of our own domains, with hot and cold pulsating showers to warm our cold clean hearts, and Jacuzzi tubs for all that stress, of course!).

It’s not unusual for the kids to have either their own (shared) bathroom, or possibly even have en-suites of their own. We’ve become a bit antiseptic in how we provision for privacy within our own homes, and we sort in our own four walls.

Since the days of All in the Family, it’s normal for a family member to go off to his or her own domain (senior masters and junior masters-in-training) for entertainment. A TV in a kid’s room isn’t unusual, I hear…

Within Archie Bunker’s economic class and in his Queens neighborhood, that sort of domestic sorting was impossible: the houses weren’t built for it. And the social sorting proved equally impossible for the same reasons. If you were lucky, you might climb into Queens (economically), but it was harder to climb “above” Queens and still stay within spitting distance of the city. Unless you struck it insanely and unusally filthy rich (as The Jeffersons did, the Bunkers’s African-American neighbors who moved to Manhattan), you had to forsake the urban if you wanted to climb out of the Queenses of most older American cities. Hie thee to an ex-urb and sort yourself! Stay in Queens and be ready to rub up against people.

It’s kind of strange to think that television had to beam Archie Bunker’s discomforting vitriol into the already-sorting 1970s living rooms of low-density suburbs, where people were replicating in their domestic living arrangements the social sorting they preferred in their neighborhoods.

Even Archie noted that it’s natural for people to be “among their own kind” (which for him meant blue-collar bigots). He was just lucky enough not to be able to afford it.

A fluke: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archies lair

(A fluke encounter: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archie's lair, er, chair)

Better gold through green

May 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm | In architecture, cities, green, innovation, land_use, leadership, real_estate, resources, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

It seems everyone is going green, or will be. Today I went to Victoria’s UDI (Urban Development Institute) luncheon to hear Terasen Energy Services‘ Gareth Jones present “All About Geo-Thermal: Learning from Local Projects.”

Some basic take-away points: unless I severely misheard, British Columbia prices for energy (or electricity) will rise 80% in the next 10 years; the best place to make inroads in meeting the very ambitious greenhouse gas reductions (which are nearly as ambitious as Europe’s) set by the BC Liberal Party is in communities/ municipalities; and the best places to get the best bang for the buck in alternative energy is in dense settlements, whether multi-family complexes (including highrises and townhouse developments) or densely settled neighborhoods.

Other points: we in BC often think that we get most of our energy/ electricity “from hydro” (i.e., from hydroelectric power projects, therefore from “clean” water-driven sources), but we actually import 15% of our electricity from out-of-province, and those imports are “dirty” (typically derived from coal-fired plants). In addition to that little wrinkle, only 21% of our total energy needs in BC are met by electricity in the first place (and of that 21%, remember that 15% aren’t “clean”). The remaining 79% are met by natural gas (another 21%), other fossil fuels (can’t remember the exact number – I think it was around 20%?), wood (another 16%), and other sources. Alternate sources are at present but a small, very small piece of the pie.

There was more, and it all deserves a longer blog post or article, for which I’ll have to dig out my notes and do some research. What struck me today was the sense of urgency that came across in Jones’s presentation: that we really don’t have a lot of time to sit on our hands in pursuing alternative energy – not least because an 80% rise in costs will really do a number on the economy. It would probably make the current recession look like a walk in the park.
Energy System plant

Jones encouraged all the developers, builders, and planners and politicians at the luncheon to explore the myriad ways that the provincial government and Terasen Energy Services are trying to make alternative energy production (and consumption) more commonplace.

Meanwhile, there’s more to research and think about: Living buildings and how they’re cost-effective, for example.
Living Building diagram
Next week, there are two events scheduled in Victoria – first, at the University of Victoria on June 3, Jason McLennan, CEO, Cascadia Region Green Building Council will speak on The True Costs of Living Buildings, and the next evening (June 4), a less formal event showcasing some examples will take place at the Burnside-Gorge Community Centre. (I have to admit that after hearing Gareth Jones explain the benefits of density when it comes to installing alternative energy both for new and retrofitted buildings, Jason McLennan’s homepage photo disturbs me. It’s of an isolated single home – a converted church even? – in the middle of nowhere, which is probably the most large-footprint lifestyle, in environmental terms, that privileged westerners can choose. Perhaps his home is environmentally sustainable, but it’s still not a great model in the sense that it’s not anything we should strive for. Ok, end of sour aside.)  (Update, 5/27: If readers click through to the comments on this post, they’ll see Eden’s comment, which corrects my assumption about the photo. It’s actually not a private home, but the barn of a sheep farm. That’s really good to know, because the myth of the self-sufficient yet large single-family family home on a large property – a “green” variant of the suburban lifestyle – exerts a strong and unsustainable pull, which I prefer not to see strengthened. Thanks, Eden, for the additional info!)

And since it pours when it rains, there’s an out-of-town event I’d love to be able to go to: The Seattle Architecture Foundation will lead a tour through South Lake Union, called LEED: It’s Not Just for Buildings Anymore:

SLU’s close proximity to donwtown’s and existing transportation lines are the foundation for a successful sustainable neighborhood. Community design focusing on adaptive building re-use, alternative transportation, storm water management and other sustainability techniques is revitalizing the neighborhood adjacent to Seattle’s urban core.

SLU was accepted into the USGBC’s LEED-ND Pilot (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – Neighborhood Development) program, and is one of the first existing neighborhoods anticipated to receive LEED certification.

Catherine Benotto and Ginger Garff from Weber Thompson and Katherine Cornwell and Jim Holmes from the City of Seattle will explain how great neighborhoods are created. Highlights of the tour include the Terry Thomas Building, the redesign of Cascade Park, the street car maintenance facility and an exploration of the master plan for Terry Avenue.

Seems to me that the South Lake Union walking tour would be a perfect complement to Gareth Jones’s presentation, but then again, Jason McLennan’s presentation is a lot closer to home…

February article: Housing 2.0

April 14, 2009 at 1:18 am | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, FOCUS_Magazine, housing, writing | 3 Comments

It took a while for me to catch up with my own goal to blog about the articles I’ve posted to Scribd, but here (finally) is a quick pointer to Housing 2.0, the piece I published in the February 2009 issue of FOCUS Magazine.

It’s a funny title in some ways, but this brief introductory description, followed by the first paragraph, might clarify the intent:

Using the Wikipedia model, along with modular housing, to solve homelessness: As web 2.0 development has shown, people are able to unleash creativity and energy when they see how to move forward and get things done from the bottom up.

Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez wants to tackle Vancouver’s crisis of homelessness with temporary modular housing. Homelessness, he points out, is growing at a much faster rate than housing can be built, which basically means that housing production should speed up. The problem is that traditional housing construction can’t.

So, the gist is that it’s another attempt on my part to shift our thinking away from “let government do it” to “let the people do it.” If we have a group of people who’ve become systematically beaten down (sometimes through their own bad choices, sometimes through the bad choices others made for them), does it make sense to keep them passive and in a state of learned helplessness, or is it better to help people move – step by step – toward autonomy? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. I know what my answer is.) Henriquez tried to make a case for what he called “Stop-Gap Housing,” and it makes a lot of sense in our housing market (which is both imploding in some ways, while still incredibly unaffordable at the same time).

I also, in this article, try to get a “2.0” kind of thinking focused on bricks and mortar (literally), which is something that’s badly, badly needed in land use and development. There have actually been some great historical precedents for that kind of fluid thinking, in particular Archigram’s DIY City concepts (I blogged about this and my ideas and responses around “housing 2.0” here).

I’m not sure the Victoria readership appreciated all the weirdo references I threw out in this piece, but everyone should get out of their comfort zone occasionally, right? 😉

Note: The March article, Victoria’s Urban Forest, is also up on Scribd, and I’ll blog a short post on that one tomorrow.

“Timber!” or “Timber?”

January 21, 2009 at 4:50 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, canada, housing, land_use, victoria | 2 Comments

After attending today’s Urban Development Institute Luncheon on “The Story Behind the Six Storey Mid-rise Initiative” (with speaker Trudy Rotgans, Manager, Building and Safety Policy Branch in the BC Government), I have some additional thoughts on the topic (first broached from another angle here). As billed, the presentation’s topic was this:

You heard about it first back in September of 2008 when Housing and Social Development Minister, Rich Coleman, announced the province would increase the limit on wood-frame construction from four to six storeys by the beginning of this year. Since then, a detailed and intensive round of consultations and studies were undertaken looking at everything from seismic testing and wood shrinkage to fire fighting capacity. Also tied to this initiative is the government’s focus on finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Minister Coleman asserts six storey wood-frame buildings allow us to reap “the environmental benefits of density while preserving the character of [our] communities.”

Come find out where the conversation started, what questions and answers popped up along the way, and whether or not six-storey wood-frame has been both safe and successful in any area comparable to Victoria.

First, I found it useful to see the frame (as it were) for building codes. Their roots lie in disasters – London’s Great Fire, or incidents involving New York City’s firefighters or earthquakes up and down the Pacific Rim of Fire.

Seeing that frame made me think about how building codes are reactive creatures, and how once they’re in place, they stay in place. This happens even if they outlive their usefulness because there’s no apparent reason to shift them. Fires and earthquakes are never “outlived,” of course, which means that the only good reason for a code to outlive its usefulness is if building technology shifts in a significant way. But then it’s a major effort to do the shifting because fires and earthquakes obviously don’t change their nature.

For some silly reason, I had always thought about codes as something proactive (not reactive), as something that pushes us or builders toward better quality. Their reactive quality had escaped me. So, ok, reality check: codes are not proactive, generally. They are essentially reactive creatures. That was the first part that made me go “hmm.”

For if it’s the case that the code is reactive, there have to be equally compelling reasons to shift it. This moves the heavy lifting into the court of the proponents who want to revamp the code to allow for changes, in this case to allow six-story wood construction.

Readers in other countries where more-than-four-story wood construction is already a given, bear with me. It’s a whole new frontier here.

Speaker Trudy Rotgans correctly noted that, given some of the hoarier aspects of our building code, some assumptions about the code are “worth challenging.”  And indeed they were when Rich Coleman (Minister for Housing, BC) approved the amendment for wood construction on January 9, 2009 (effective April 6, 2009).

As she delivered her presentation, questions regarding the government’s motivation to change the code arose almost immediately, and Rotgans answered that certainly, the Canadian Wood Council (an industry goup) has been working on these revisions for several years. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with admitting that BC’s forest industry could benefit from the leveling of a playing field that currently favors one material over another (concrete and steel over wood) for mid-rise construction, or for the government to look for ways to help one our key industries.

But by lessening some of the code’s more reactive measures, the government hasn’t simultaneously built into the revamped code anything proactive in my naive sense of the term: there’s nothing in there, from what I could gather from today’s presentation, to ensure quality. When (in my May 13, 2008 entry) I linked to E3 Kaden + Klingbeil’s Berlin project (7 storey wood construction, video here), I was thinking of quality wood construction.

No builder here would get any benefit – time, money – from building like they do in Berlin. It’s more likely that the usual techniques – relatively slight wood-framing, plywood sheathing, fibreglass between the studs, and drywall to finish the interior – will be used. And if that’s the case, then you have to wonder whether it’s worth it.

It won’t necessarily be cheaper to build in wood with quality craftsmanship and attention to the building’s durability, its sound-proofing and fire-proofing aspects. (The Berlin building is certainly durable, it must be as good as sound-proof, and it doesn’t look like fire could do much damage. It has LEED or environmental advantages, but I wonder whether the financial bottom line was that much better than an equally good concrete building’s.)

Yet a desired cost-advantage was what had some of us wishing for the mid-rise initiative. We have a housing crisis, and many of us hoped that it would prompt builders to take advantage of savings to construct more housing at a lower cost, whether rental housing or condos.

So that brings us back to code: the architects and builders I spoke to after the lunch were skeptical. As one of them put it, “who’s going to go first?” Who will build – using the North American West’s notorious (imo) fast-food equivalent of suburban house construction techniques to build 6-story condos or apartments? Which insurer of home buyers will back it? Which builders’ organization will?

I’m usually relentlessly optimistic, but today’s presentation didn’t convince me. By simply taking away some of the reactive aspects of the code, the framers of the new amendments didn’t put anything proactive in place. It’s left to the builders themselves to re-invent the wheel, and it’s going to be an expensive wheel (so there goes the affordable housing hope) if they go the quality route.

I think most builders want to build quality. The diehard cynics who think everyone is on the make 24/7 will disagree, arguing that builders are waiting for a chance to throw up crap. That’s untrue. From what I sensed in today’s crowd – and it was a sold-out event – there was a real measure of disappointment that these building code amendments don’t really show a way forward.

Diigo Bookmarks 07/18/2008 (a.m.)

July 17, 2008 at 5:33 pm | In architecture, links | Comments Off on Diigo Bookmarks 07/18/2008 (a.m.)
  • Fascinating essay by Kazys Varnelis, which takes as its jumping off point the potential discrepancy between designing for “hard” stuff (whether factories, industrial production, or …architecture/buildings) vs. designing for networked stuff and software and mobile technologies. After this initial set-up, Varnelis then quickly goes into describing some very specific site- and urban-intervention type projects that subvert the “hard” aspects of planning & building via software/ new technologies. The former points are not that difficult to address, using predictable interventions and affordances (see my notes/ annotations), but the latter are mind-blowing and difficult to contain within predictability.

    tags: varnelis.net, futurismo, architecture, urban_design, portals

The April 2008 FOCUS Magazine article is up

July 12, 2008 at 5:32 pm | In architecture, FOCUS_Magazine, victoria, writing | Comments Off on The April 2008 FOCUS Magazine article is up

Scribd works like a charm — it’s just I who am slow in getting these print articles scanned and then formatted into a single document for uploading!

Without further ado (but a bow to Richard Florida for title inspiration), here’s my April 2008 FOCUS Magazine article, Who’s your heritage?, which argues that even for heritage architecture, buildings need to earn their keep, not just look pretty.

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