Do green and make green

October 11, 2010 at 10:45 pm | In architecture, green, housing, land_use, real_estate, vancouver, victoria | 1 Comment

There are times, I think, when having a tumblr (vs a blog) would be cool – then it would be enough just to post, free-standing, the smack-down that Peter Busby (“one of Canada’s leaders in green architecture”) gives Bob Rennie (“the influential Vancouver condo marketer who is the last say for many developers on what will sell”).

In this conversation recorded by Frances Bula, Busby and Rennie have just started talking about Victoria BC’s Dockside Green:

Mr. Busby: It [Dockside Green] did not make money because it was priced competitively against non-green product. Dockside was competing against buildings that weren’t trying to do anything in terms of green, so [the developer] didn’t get much of a premium in the marketplace for his green features. And that came out of his profit. And that’s why the project’s dead right now. And that’s why we have to have improved building codes. They must pay for a better envelope. Everything else is greenwash. If you don’t make a better building that performs better, you’re just putting green fuzz on buildings. (source)

I’m not heartened by reading Busby’s assessment of Dockside Green (that it’s “dead”), but he is so right to talk frankly to the marketer. I’ve been to developer luncheons – where there actually were developers who did real green projects – and their marketers (whom I spoke to as well) couldn’t get the facts, or push them into the marketplace. And I have no doubt that by the same token there are plenty of developers who continue to convince the moneybags and the marketers that it’s not possible to do green and make green.

I’d like to start something in the space between their arguments – work on retrofitting existing housing, for example. So much work needs doing there.

In case that Globe and Mail article link goes dead, here’s one to CTV News, which carries the same interview/ text.

n.b.: I do appreciate Bob Rennie’s last (literally) word:

Mr. Rennie: I’ll be there. But we can’t just tell the consumer to pay more. This has to work for them and, if it doesn’t, they aren’t going to buy it. They’ll move somewhere else, out of Vancouver. And, in the end, that’s what we have to look at, not just what rich people in the city are willing to pay for.

He gets it from the marketing p.o.v.: it’s no good if what you’re doing drives people away. Getting more people into your city is actually a good thing (something that too many people in Victoria absolutely do NOT get, sadly).

Dirty Wall Project: slums and cities

September 24, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In cities, guerilla_politics, housing, ideas, innovation, land_use, local_not_global, philanthropy, street_life, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off

I saw an amazing photograph in the temporary gallery Ryan Kane of the Dirty Wall Project has set up on Fort Street.

The photo is one of many that Kane is selling to raise funds for his venture: it’s a flat, saturated, picture-edge-to-picture-edge frontal view of one small piece of a slum in Saki Naka bordering the rail line. Its complexity makes Where’s Waldo look minimalist.

Monday Magazine published an interview with Kane last month. An excerpt from the introduction:

You’ve heard of guerrilla gardening and guerrilla marketing, but what about guerilla volunteering? The concept to “see a need and fill it” without worrying about paperwork, bureaucracy or religious bias is exactly what 28-year-old Kane Ryan strives to do with his one-person, not-for-profit organization called the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan just recently returned from India where he was working in the slums of Mumbai, organizing health camps, distributing tarps for the monsoon season, funding emergency surgeries and building a school for the children living in the Saki Naka slum community, among other initiatives. All of the money he raises—75 percent of which comes from here in Victoria through fundraising events, private donors and by selling his travel photography—goes directly to the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan pays for his own travel, food and accommodation out of his own pocket by working odd jobs during the months he returns to Victoria. The Dirty Wall Project is proof that one person can indeed make a difference. (source)

If you’re in Victoria, make sure you get to 977A Fort St (formerly Luz Gallery).

I can’t find an online version of the photo that grabbed my attention this afternoon. Here’s a substitute, which hints at the complexity:

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Visit Ryan’s site, or check out his photo book, Dirty Wall Project (on Blurb). See a need and fill it, make a donation.

Gentrification 2.0?

June 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, homelessness, housing, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

The title of my post is semi-serious, semi-ironic. I’m ambivalent about gentrification: if it means unslumming, I figure it’s good; if it means homogenization toward a single class (typically privileged) at the expense of economic diversity, it’s probably not-so-good, right?

When I write “Gentrification 2.0,” I’m saying that I’m not sure how this particular example – The Woodward’s Project in Vancouver – will play out. It’s 2.0 insofar as it’s not unslumming in Jane Jacobs’s sense, nor is it private market gentrification. It’s an interesting hybrid.

Canada’s National Post newspaper has started a series of articles about the Woodward’s Project. The reporter is Brian Hutchinson, who focuses on the neighborhood (Downtown East Side) and the social implications of putting a spiffy mixed-use high-rise development into its center. This is an unusual development, however: it has “125 fully equipped apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 spacious units reserved for families; 80% of the family apartments are rented at below-market rates” (source), while at the same time it also boasts market-rate condos valued at over $1million and provides the better-off residents with rooftop luxuries that afford (to use a word Hutchinson used) “bacchanalian” excess.

I wrote about the Woodward’s Project after taking my daughter to lunch in Vancouver for her birthday. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. Hutchinson is “embedded” at Woodward’s for a whole month.

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…

*

Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens

*

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)

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.

Front-line/Downtown – Community Solutions

April 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm | In addiction, community_associations, crime, health, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, victoria | 1 Comment

On Monday March 30, the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) hosted a public meeting, On The Front Lines: Community Solutions for Homelessness and Social Issues, at City Hall. Moderated by DRA chair Rob Randall, we heard from Victoria City Councilor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, the Coalition to End Homelessness‘s Jill Clements, the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s Ken Kelley, and Victoria Police Department Chief Jamie Graham.

Rob wrote a follow-up report on his blog – go check it out (especially the comments). Davin Greenwell also posted a great summary, and included photo documentation, so do take a look at it here.

I haven’t commented on Rob’s post, but just left a long comment on Davin’s entry. Click through to read my (partial) response to the session.

One of the categories I’m filing my post under is “leadership,” a quality that Jill Clements of the Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness seems to have, and it’s something we expect from Jamie Graham. We also see it in Charlayne Thornton-Joe.

As I was checking off categories, I also checked “justice,” as I was reminded of Graham’s discussion of implementing Restorative Justice (see Saanich’s program), which we hope to see used more frequently in Victoria. Incidentally, Restorative Justice is modeled on First Nations approaches to crime and social disorder, and reminded me that the American Congress (and Senate?) is modeled on a New World/ First Nations approach (vs. the British Parliamentarianism we still practice in Canada, where everyone shouts at the same time and heckles the opposition). Sorry, can’t provide a link right now, but just think of the concept of the talking stick. Works for me – bring it on.

“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.

Canadian cities in a quagmire?

December 19, 2008 at 6:56 pm | In affordable_housing, canada, cities, housing, justice, social_critique, street_life, vancouver | Comments Off

We’re experiencing an exceptional cold weather spell in southwestern British Columbia, and last night a 47-year old homeless woman died in Vancouver.  She burned to death, trying to keep warm with a live fire; the police think her blankets must have caught fire. The story is all over the news of course, including here: Woman’s body discovered in burning shopping cart.  Like so many others, she kept her possessions – and at night, herself – in a shopping cart.  The cart, enclosed by blankets, became her pyre.  Unlike many people who are homeless, she was also a drug addict and shelter-resistant (someone who refuses to use shelters).

Regardless of where you stand on the issues surrounding homelessness, shelters, affordable housing, and what to do about people who are mentally ill or drug addicted, there’s one thing that struck me in the news item.  It showed once again that Canadian cities don’t have the autonomy they need, and that they will continue to face unique problems because of this lack.

I’ve written several times that it’s wrong that cities in Canada are “creatures of the Provinces” that don’t have real powers while simultaneously the senior levels of government have downloaded (or offloaded, the terms are used interchangeably) more and more responsibilities to them.  Trying to solve homelessness with the limited abilities to raise money that cities in Canada have is a huge challenge.  Compound this with problems posed by people who are seriously mentally ill or drug addicted, and you get a quagmire.

Quagmire, as in beyond “mere” crisis.

Tracey, the woman who died, was approached three times by Vancouver police and asked if she would come inside into a shelter.  She refused, and got quite angry by the third try, which took place around 12:30 a.m. Dec.19.  By 4:30, she had set herself alight.  What’s the city to do?

Here’s what the article says:

[Gregor] Robertson [Vancouver's newly-elected mayor] is considering other ways to remove mentally ill people from the streets in life and death circumstances.

“We can’t literally let people die on our streets that can’t take care of themselves,” he said. “That’s immoral in my mind.”

One of the options is a program called “Code Blue,” where outreach workers can forcibly bring people inside if they’re believe to suffer from mental illness. It’s used in New York when temperatures dip below -9 C.

“It is something to look at,” says Rev. Bruce Curtiss of Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission. “If someone is out there and not in a capacity for whatever reason.”

A final decision could not be made by the city and would rest with B.C.’s provincial government. There’s concern a Canadian version of Code Blue would be unconstitutional.

“The issue there really is ‘are we barred by the charter of rights and freedom from implementing that particular system or is there some other approach that our government could use to help someone like this individual?’” said B.C. Solicitor General John Van Dongen.

Yes, and while the B.C. Solicitor General studies the problem and the city consults with its lawyers, more people will die.

Remember that Vancouver, alone among Canada’s cities (at least in the West) has a Charter of its own, and therefore more autonomy than other Canadian cities.  (It’s a unique fluke that Vancouver has a charter, as far as I understand it. Lucky Vancouver.)

But even Vancouver is hog-tied, if not by the Province (of which, even with a Charter, it is still a “creature”), but also by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which seems to have been concocted at a heady time when all freedoms (especially in the abstract …sorry, do I sound jaundiced?) seemed like a great idea and no one considered that cities would be the refuge of people who are homeless – a difficult enough situation in itself – but who might also pose extra challenges if they are in addition mentally incapacitated or drug addicted to the point where they will simply die on the street unless forced to survive (by being sheltered).

Oh, and don’t forget: Canadian cities are supposed to “solve” all this downloaded misery with 8-cents from every dollar that Canadians pay in taxes, and with property and business taxes they collect from the folks in their municipality. They can’t float bonds and they can’t collect income or consumption taxes.

Quagmire.

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