How tall is tall
How tall is tall video transcript:
Hello, thanks for having me here today. In thinking of what to talk about today, I decided I wanted to flag three things that rock, three things that don’t and add three things that need to happen next. Then lay out some of the challenges, opportunities and exciting things that are happening. To begin with: density is good. City plan objectives for density mean that based on current applications alone the number of homes in the Dalhousie Community Association could see a 100% increase. That means more homes, more families and more people. Good well-scale density can be a good solution to our density targets. Paris, for example, is a city of 11 million people largely in six to eight storey buildings with a density of 21,000 people per square kilometre. Compare that to Ottawa at a measly 317 per square km. Paris is also a great walkable city supported by excellent transit with great neighbourhoods filled with Parks trees and vibrant street life.
More people means more services. More homes, more people mean that there’s a demand for new and better schools, for community centres, parks and public spaces, as well as more people supporting small businesses in the community. The greater the density, the higher the quality the public space needs to be. That means high quality public spaces like parks, buildings for social infrastructure and critically the design of the exterior of private buildings. There’s a social contract between the architects and the public to create something that is of high quality, that the public is left to look at for generations. These are places that can create social equity through built form. More density means less sprawl, which, in the long run, means a more sustainable and affordable city. We definitely need housing that suits families and is affordable. Our current approaches to design mean that urban infill housing tends to be small and not well suited to families; driving families to suburbs. How can we address that through proactive policy approaches that encourage more families in more urban settings? How do we break down the myth that you can’t raise a family in an apartment when that’s the norm in so much of the world?
So there are three things that need improvement. The wrong kind of density can mean greater tension between super tall towers and existing low rise or detached homes, especially if that density isn’t designed for families. 432 Park Avenue in New York City, for example, at 85 storeys, pictured on the right, stands out in the crowd of New York City skyscrapers. Aside from this being for the ultra rich, with a penthouse at 95 million dollars, imagine if we looked at our density targets in Ottawa as being achieved only by high-rises. Measuring density by units per hectare can be incredibly misleading. A four-storey 38-unit infill apartment building, like the 360 Lofts pictured on the left, was designed by our office nearly a decade ago. It provides an average density of 47 homes per hectare. The city of Ottawa targets for 2031 are that we have an average density of about 15 homes per hectare. So, a decade ago, the 360 Lofts tripled the 2031 target. By contrast, 900 Albert is over 800 units per hectare. Which is the right density scale that depends on the site, the location, its transit, access connections and how we create a positive social outcome through high quality design. Schools are funded separately and the city has nearly no control over them being built. Investing in parks, community spaces and other public amenities needs not only Capital funding but sustained operational funding if we’re going to care about what we build for the future. We fund capital investment separately for maintenance, we hire professionals for the design of capital projects by, to a large extent, risk avoidance based on marginalised scopes of work that limit outcomes and approaches based on the absolute lowest possible fee.
In a recent discussion with city staff, for example, the budget for maintenance work on 28 library branches was about $650,000 for the year. Staff had a priority list of urgent repairs. One roof leaked earlier than expected and caused damage to the building and, as a result, all other urgent projects got shelved to address the critical issues. This not only denied the public the opportunity of access to critical social space, but it shelved all other projects which just become more urgent with the next crisis. We need to rethink not only what we fund, but how we fund it. That might mean uncomfortable discussions about taxation and priorities to decide what our goals are. Current policies and approaches discourage the sort of moderate mid-rise density we need. A recent, last minute policy change, limited development on streets like Parkdale, Booth, Gladstone, and Somerset to four storeys even though, for example, some of these streets have existing 6 to 12 storey buildings. When we add both the physical setback at the front and a tapered 45 degree plane at the rear, both starting at a low four-storey elevation, the result is a series of expensive changes in profile and utility that limit the number of homes, create more expensive solutions, and change the viability of land for development. We absolutely need to rethink our approach to planning. We need to change. We need to make better places for people. We have to have a better understanding of not only the right kind of density, but we need to see projects, even private development, as part of a holistic city making process. Every new and renovated building should demonstrate a positive social outcome. We should leverage the talent and creativity of our population to create hundreds of small spaces that lift the human spirit, and we should do this in addition to the big city making projects that transform our city on a macro scale, like the LRT, the central library or a new hospital. People aren’t passive users and consumers of the built environment, they’re living, breathing, striving and thinking individuals whose diverse backgrounds and capabilities, dreams and desires contribute to Canada’s Multicultural character.
Architecture has the potential to enhance human life on so many levels and enable Canadians to live more socially enjoyable, inspiring and meaningful lives. In the example you see on the screen, when HCMA partnered with local business improvement associations to transform laneways from being a shortcut to being engaging public spaces that contribute to the vibrancy of Vancouver with permanent art installations and performance space. One of the alleys saw more than twice as many people using the alley, while the proportion of men decreased and that suggested that the space not only got busier but it became more welcoming and inclusive.
We need to rethink the process by which we fund, design and maintain our public assets to get better places for people, while that sounds good that we’re spending 688 million dollars on renewal of city assets. Where we see that breakdown is in the detail: We spend 76 million dollars on road surfacing in addition to tens of millions on new roads, renewal of roads related to sewer work, and other road-related projects, but we only spend seven million dollars on building repairs and only 15 million dollars on supportive housing. Yes, we need roads, and we need to repair and maintain them, but we need to rethink our process of creating new roads. Where we choose to dedicate our priorities for the most vulnerable people in society, how can we live with ourselves when we spend billions on an LRT, hundreds of millions on roads, and then destroy the homeless and campus?
We need to rethink our policy approaches to incentivize the right kind of density scale and typology. We need a national architecture policy to help set goals for the society we aspire to and to integrate existing, disparate policies. We need to think at a local scale of how we can create incentives for private sector development that moves us towards the sustainable, equitable and socio-cultural city of compassion that we want to be.
Of course, one of our crises is housing affordability. One big factor is the time-to-market, small-scale infill projects, where an owner redevelops their own home or builds a secondary dwelling unit, are quick to go from idea to completion, but there’s a limited market for this sort of densification and a limited appeal. Most units like this aren’t accessible; They have much more limited sustainability targets and they meet lower regulatory thresholds for design planning, and approval mid-rise projects still take time; planning approval alone can be a quarter to a third of the total schedule of a project. Independent studies from 2019 show that the cost of unnecessary planning delay can add over twenty thousand dollars per unit, per month, of delay to the total cost of a home with more than a third of that being direct construction costs.
A 50-unit building unnecessarily delayed for six months could see a six million dollar total cost impact and over two million dollars of that being in direct construction cost increases. That cost is passed on to renters and buyers, large projects take even longer, they require more land, generally, and take longer planning approvals since they tend not to comply with zoning or their planning requirements, and end up in appeals and delays. A larger project takes longer to build and, by extension, occupy, because it’s nearly impossible to occupy the lower floors of a tall building until the upper floors have been nearly finished.
Recent changes under the More Homes For Everyone Act make it possible to have this earlier occupancy but only on buildings more than 65 storeys in height. What this boils down to is that we need to improve the time-to-market. We need better procurement strategies for public sector housing projects and better planning approaches that prioritise the development we want in a more collaborative approach to getting mid-rise missing middle density. Mid-rise works better for sustainable options, like mass timber, that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in construction. Sequestering carbon in a durable building that relies on local technical expertise, Canadian lumber and is freer from the sort of price escalations we see with steel and concrete. More sustainable buildings impact our overall greenhouse gas emission strategies. A six-storey building can support a solar grid that allows it to be Net Zero Energy while the same footprint on double the height has twice as much floor area. If the roof and solar grid remains the same, getting to Net Zero Energy becomes impossible.
Using this data from the Toronto atmospheric fund, if our city is made of more sustainable buildings, has fewer cars and relies on public transit systems that are electrified, we could tackle up to 77 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. The great thing about sustainable buildings is that they last, unlike an electric car or bus that might make it for a decade. A sustainable building sits there looking good for decades, not moving and adding to our quality of life. We need to rethink the operations maintenance and life cycle decisions we make. This circle represents the life cycle cost of a building, considering everything and everyone affected by it. That grey section is the salaries of the occupants and users of the building. The orange is the operation and maintenance cost; Everything from the new roof to the cleaning and utility bills. The blue: that’s the design and construction cost. So, if a new library has a budget of 10 million dollars, then the design fees might be a million dollars, giving us 11 million dollars for the blue wedge. That might mean the operating cost is 99 million dollars over the life of the building and the cost of the people living, working and playing in the building is a staggering 440 million dollars. So, when we design and plan a new public asset and we pick the cheapest fees that don’t allow for the creative exploration of an idea, that reduces maintenance costs or sets arbitrary capital budgets that don’t consider life cycle value, We impose a massive additional life cycle cost on the public, all in an effort to save a few dollars in design. As the charts on the left show, the level of influence is highest in early stages of design and the cost of making these changes is the lowest. Once you get into operating and maintaining a building, there are very few changes you can make and the cost of making them is enormous. Put this another way: If my design eliminated utility bills, isn’t that worth something? Or if my design saved someone 10 hours a week in cleaning efforts, times 50 years of maintenance, or reduced the sick days in the occupants by 20 because the design is better, isn’t that worth something?
Design has the power to transform lives, to create positive outcomes that lift the human spirit. Design has the ability to make places, to create experiences, to affect lives and address social equity. Design can be part of reconciliation and tackle sociocultural legacies, giving voice to marginalised people. In creating an equitable environment in which people feel like they matter, through design, we can make experiences positive. We can also do the opposite: We can look at design as a commodity, as a means to an end, as a line item on a budget sheet. These are choices we make and one that can be changed by the voices in this room and on this call. These are our choices, and it’s up to each of us to make design matter because architecture is a political act.
So many people ask: what is the missing middle? How do we get more of it and why does it matter? Well, it’s effectively defined by what it’s not; It’s neither single detached homes and it’s not high-rise development. Some definitions in the missing middle include duplexes and townhouses, as well as low-rise apartments, and some definitions extend up to mid-rise buildings as much as even eight or ten storeys.
In our context, we should think about the missing middle as being four to eight storeys, but there are some key thresholds. Under four storeys, an apartment building is generally governed by part nine of the Building Code and is exempt from accessibility requirements. It generally doesn’t require an architect and has low thresholds for sustainability. Typically, buildings like this would have surface parking, since the cost of an underground garage, as well as the space requirements, isn’t practical. This scale of building is also often exempt from some or many of the planning requirements that allow for a positive conversation on how the site affects the community. If the project is quite small, such as a townhouse or semi-detached or stacked units, there can be virtually no community consultation. If there are no variances or other planning approval needed all of that changes at four storeys, when not only do you have to make the building accessible to visitors, you also have to add a percentage of accessible apartments, you need sprinkler systems, common space requirements for ventilation, air and higher sustainability metrics. Typically, the scale of this building triggers an underground parking garage which adds more cost spreading. The cost of sprinklers ventilation systems, fire alarms underground parking, elevators and months or years of delayed planning approval across four floors is typically expensive on a per-unit cost, never mind the cost of the land alone. Adding two more floors gains 50 percent more units in the building, allowing the base cost of these systems and investments to be cheaper on a per-unit cost, making projects more viable. All of this changes again in more than six storeys. Unfortunately, building codes don’t see any difference between a seven or seventy storey building. At seven floors and up, you need more expensive fire suppression systems, firefighter elevators and ventilation systems. That, again, is hard to recover in cost from the marginal increase in units between the sixth and seven storey building.
Then we have the challenge of our infrastructure; When we choose not to bury overhead hydro lines like we did on Bank, Somerset or Gladstone, we impact the available floor area of the building above, creating expensive offsets. When we layer on snow loading setbacks and angular plane restrictions, we make anything above the fourth floor difficult to build, and it’s virtually impossible above the sixth floor, as a result of a decreasing floor plate. That causes significant structural offsets, increased risk of leaks and damage, unusable floor plates, elevators and stairs that no longer work effectively, or at all. When we combine these elements, moderate infill, four-storey buildings don’t really work if our goal is to create housing that is affordable, durable and sustainable.
So how do we get more missing middle? Well, we have an official plan that sets goals. These are aspirational, but they need collaborative integration of policies and bylaws to make our aspirations a reality. We need to politically engage in design and communicate a positive message that, for example, the new official plan codifies road widenings on traditional main streets like Bank Street in Old Ottawa South. That official plan and road widening demands that new development give up as much as 6,000 square feet of building area to widen a road, instead of removing traffic lanes or on-street parking that staff have indicated is sacrosanct and can never ever ever be removed. We need to see to the heart of key issues that inhibit our ability to become the city we want to be through policies that hold us back. We need to connect social outcomes to development goals. We need to incentivize the development we do want. These are choices we make when it comes to committees that approve applications, set policies for development charges, and incentivize sustainable outcomes. We’ve known, since the 1951 Massey Report, that design matters, but we ignore the power of design to have a positive impact on our lives because we choose not to make design a priority.
We need to communicate that design, that architecture, matters to each and every person by conscious choice. For example, Edmonton reformed its procurement process of public sector work. Every great architecture firm in Canada works in Edmonton. That pays off in high quality public spaces, public art and international attention for design quality and positive social outcomes that are delivered for the same or better dollar. Edmonton has launched international design competitions for city-owned parcels of land that include new missing middle projects drawing international teams partnered with local firms.
We could choose to do this here in Ottawa. For every city-initiated project, and for vacant land parcels, we could choose to develop all of our affordable housing projects through creative, open-ended public engagement. We could choose different. We need to think innovatively and be creative.
A few years ago, GRC Architects undertook a self-initiated design study to see what would happen if, instead of widening the Queensway, we buried it or removed it from the core of the city and then reconnected our communities with linear parks and appropriate development. We need creative solutions like this. We need to see the potential that exists in our city and the people who are here to make the transformative change. We need to be the city we want to be.
Examples like this are award-winning, feasible and local. The talent to make a difference in our communities is right here. We need to raise our voices and demand better built environments. This isn’t only on city projects, but applies to how we plan, design and approve private sector work. We need to renew the social contract between developers, architects and creators, and people, to make sure that people have a voice in how our communities are designed. This Angus Reit survey information shows that we need better places, more diverse voices, and a focus on design for positive social outcomes. The survey is closed by now, but I encourage you to take a look at riseforarchitecture.com to add your voice to a growing national movement to make better communities. Thank you.
Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of our projects, check out our portfolio here. Follow us @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.