Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Density in the name of Sustainability and Affordability REDUX

Saturday, March 31, 2012


"What the hell is going on in this city?"

This is the question asked of me earlier this week by someone looking at the developer's illustration in the Vancouver Courier of the proposed Rize Development at Broadway and Kingsway "It just looks too big!" she said.

Two weeks earlier I had a call from someone concerned about a proposed new development in the 900 Block East Hastings Street across from the Ray-Cam Community Centre. He had just seen a rezoning sign proposing a 6 FSR development along a portion of a street presently populated by one and two level industrial buildings. "I like the idea of housing in this area", he said," but why would a developer or the City even consider 6 FSR in an area like this?" (As an aside, I'm told the density is necessary to support the city demands for additional light industrial space and social housing to be donated by the developer to the City.)I must say I understood my friends' concerns. Especially since I too have recently been disturbed about the significant increases in height and density for a number of approved and proposed developments scattered around the city. It was not that long ago that 6 FSR was the highest residential density permitted in the city, generally restricted to the Georgia Street Corridor. Recently the City has approved projects at almost three times this density. And now there is a proposal for 6 FSR on East Hastings! If it's acceptable in the 900 Block, is it acceptable for the adjacent ten blocks?The recently sold-out Marine Gateway development will be more than twice as tall as the Langara Gardens towers at 57th and Cambie, which have always been considered out of scale with that part of the city. (In the interest of full disclosure, I managed the successful rezoning for the fourth rental tower at Langara Gardens in the 80's, arguing at the time that yes, the buildings were out of scale, but does it really matter whether there are three or four towers, noting the need for more rental housing in the area and a resulting FSR of only 1.15.)

The STIR project at 1401 Comox proposed a 7.5 FSR on a site zoned for 1.5. While I support the idea of density bonuses to achieve new rental housing, even new market rental housing, I could not endorse a project at 5 times the permitted FSR, regardless of the merits of the design, talent of the architect, or community spirit and capability of the developer.On Main Street, the proposed redevelopment of the Little Mountain property is at an overall 'gross' density that in my opinion is too high for the area. It's higher than what the City approved for the Bayshore development in 1993. The late Jim Green, who worked as a community advocate for the project felt the same way, but argued the higher density was necessary to support the new social housing and other community benefits being expected by the City and community. He also pointed out that the Province was expecting a substantial payment for the land although he always stressed that neither I nor the public knew just how much the developer had offered to pay for the property. This was correct.

In each of these cases, the justification for heights and densities significantly higher than what would have been considered acceptable by architects, planners, and the general public a decade ago include:
  • the City is demanding community amenities (rental housing, social housing, commercial space, artists' live work space, daycare, etc.) or financial contributions in cash, which is pushing the higher densities;
  • higher densities are more 'sustainable'...and sustainability is an important goal for the city;
  • the higher densities are necessary to achieve more affordable housing;
  • all but Little Mountain had the unanimous, or almost unanimous approval of the Urban Design Panel.
Now, I happen to agree that increased amenities are essential if we are to accommodate increased growth. I also agree that 'sustainable development' especially close to transit is a good thing. And as a longstanding advocate for achieving more affordable housing choices through higher densities, I cannot disagree with the third bullet. So what's my problem?

Ironically, what prompted me to write this post was not just those people questioning the Rize, Hasting Street, Comox Street or Little Mountain developments. It was a conversation I had this past week at City Hall with City planners who asked what I thought of allowing higher densities and larger highrise floorplates than have historically been approved in Vancouver.

The floorplate of a building is the area of each floor. For decades the maximum for a highrise building has been around 570 square meters, which has resulted in Vancouver's 'skinny point-block towers' so often admired by visiting architects and planners. This was the size established for Downtown South, most of Coal Harbour and the North Shore of False Creek.

In a typical Vancouver building, approximately 70 square meters of the floorplate is taken up by elevators, stairs, corridors and mechanical shafts. The remaining area can then be divided up into suites. The ratio of the saleable or leasable area to the total building area is referred to as the building efficiency. In Vancouver, the efficiency of most buildings when factoring in the area of enclosed balconies and in-suite storage space is around 85%. This is less than larger buildings found in most other locales. Also, the point-block building form with extensive exterior wall relative to the building area is more expensive to build.

In recent years we have seen some notable exceptions to the smaller floorplate guideline. For example, the Woodwards Tower is much larger. (Fortunately the decorative metal designs that were to be a framework for greenery climbing up the building offset some of the bulk of this building.) The Shangri-la Tower is bigger, but its triangulated shape and overall height help minimize its bulk. Other recently approved buildings such as Telus Garden are also larger.

If you travel outside of Vancouver you can find many much larger, or may I say fatter buildings. eg: the towers in New Westminster above the SkyTrain station just north of Westminster Quay. While providing more affordable housing next to transit and an array of commercial facilities, these buildings are big...very big.

What prompted the question from the City planners is that they are now being asked to approve increasingly larger floor plates in order to improve building efficiency and affordability. The Planning Department is not just looking at fattening the towers; it is also being asked to consider alternative building forms such as larger double loaded slab buildings that are so common around Toronto and other cities. Unlike Vancouver's slender pointblocks, these buildings can easily be twice or three times the floorplate size and much more efficient and cost effective.
In principle, I support double loader corridor slab buildings up to say ten storeys. However, I don't really want to see the huge slab buildings that one sees driving into downtown Toronto from the airport.
One of the planners responded how ironic it was that I, once considered the developer terrible around City Hall for decades for proposing highrises and various rezonings for higher density four storey apartments along Vancouver arterials, now shared their concerns!

I think the time has come for a full public discussion on just how far Vancouver should deviate from its past practices when it comes to building form and density. Should we forego the slender point blocks? Should we permit Toronto sized slab buildings around the city in the name of affordability ? At what point do we trade off the form, massing and appearance of buildings in order to achieve greater 'sustainability? When is too much density too much?

This is a discussion that needs to take place not just on the pages of the Vancouver Sun and other community newspapers, or at politically charged Public Hearings. These discussions need to occur in the corridors of UDI, the Architectural and Planning Institutes, and our universities.

I hope that people like Gordon Price, Brent Toderian, Larry Beasley, Bob Ransford, Sam Sullivan and others will join into conversations about how much our city should change in the decades to come and what building forms and densities are appropriate in the name of affordability and sustainability. I would also like to see more on-line discussions at Fabula, City Caucus, the Vancouver Observer, The Tyee, and other similar venues.

Looking at plans for some of the new developments in the pipeline, I personally think my friends are right in asking what is going on in our city. I hope this post may help keep the conversation going.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Laneway housing at Interior Design Show West. Friday/Saturday Sept 20/21 2013

On Friday this week, I will be participating in a panel discussion at the Interior Design Show on Laneway Housing. The focus of the discussion will be a very innovative Laneway House that has been constructed especially for the show.

The house will be auctioned off on Saturday afternoon at 5:15 with NO MINIMUM BID! Proceeds will go to the Alzheimer Society.
Here are more details on the house and the overall event.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A new international financial centre for Moscow

I was honoured, and a bit surprised today to learn about the composition of the jury for a major international planning competition for Moscow's new financial centre. While I knew I had been selected, it appears I am the only juror from North America.

This two-stage international competition to select a team to prepare the master plan for a 460 hectare site located in "New Moscow" is now underway.

The subject of the competition is the development of the Rublyovo-Arkhangelskoye site, in accordance with the requirements set out in the Competition Brief.

The first stage is the preliminary qualification and selection of eight participants for the second stage of the competition.  

The second stage of the competition is the development of masterplans for the IFC and the selection of three finalists.

You can learn more about the competition here

The other jurors can be found here.

It is my hope that given Vancouver's success in planning new cities and neighbourhoods, one or two Vancouver teams will submit their credentials.

The adjudication process will involve three trips to Moscow over six months. I am obviously very much looking forward to this process and seeing what I suspect will be some spectacular international submissions for this 460 hectare site just outside the city.

Sustainabuild 2013

I have been invited to give one of the opening addresses at the forthcoming Sustainabuild Conference.In reviewing past conference programs,  I came across my 2011 presentation on-line. In reviewing it again, I'm surprised they invited me back!  What do you think?

Here are more details on this year's event.

I look forward to seeing colleagues at the conference.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

RV`s and smaller space living in Vancouver Sun

Weekend in RV offers poignant lessons
By Michael Geller, Special To The Sun September 7, 2013

Whenever I promote the benefits of living in smaller spaces, people often ask if I could live in the compact spaces I advocate for others.

Many years ago, I did live in single rooms and shared flats, but over the years, the size of my living quarters increased to the point where I now live in a house with rooms I rarely enter. However, I was recently reminded of the delights, challenges and potential benefits of small-space living when I spent a weekend in a 120-square-foot recreational vehicle.

At eight-by-15 feet, it included kitchen facilities, a small bathroom with shower, and dining and sleeping areas. There was a full-height clothes closet and numerous built-in storage areas.

I realized that while it is one thing to live in a small space for a weekend, it is another to do so for extended periods. However, I could not help but think how this could have multiple applications, both for those who might choose to live this way and those who cannot afford larger accommodation.
I was also reminded that the layout and features of such a space can offer design and lifestyle lessons applicable to a broad range of housing, including a reduction in water and energy consumption and creative approaches to maximizing the use of space.

Many years ago, I worked at CMHC on a design guideline publication for mobile homes, and did a thesis at the University of Toronto's school of architecture on how pre-fabricated modular housing could be used to create affordable housing on vacant sites.

There seemed to be a constant supply of vacant land in Toronto awaiting development, and it seemed reasonable that these properties could be used on an interim basis for affordable housing. The concept was similar to that of school portables - usually set up for a number of years, then relocated to other school yards once permanent facilities were built. To facilitate relocation, the housing was modular and compact, similar to worker housing in remote communities.

The practice of creating vegetable gardens on urban lots is similar. These gardens will not remain forever, but they serve a useful purpose, and many consider them a great alternative to allowing the properties to lie fallow or become parking lots.
As Vancouver seeks solutions to address homelessness and increase affordable rental housing choices, I believe it is time to revisit the idea of relocatable housing. There are numerous vacant lots around the city, and while many will worry there is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution, as long as the housing is on privately owned land, it will ultimately be relocated. For those who worry about the esthetics, I would point to the attractive Olympic athletes' village that was at Whistler. Its modules were later relocated to other communities.

We might also look at container housing. A recent such project in the Downtown Eastside was made to look nothing like the steel containers stacked along the nearby Port Lands. Ironically, however, one recently approved residential development in the 900 Block East Hastings was designed so that it will look like stacked containers.
Many of those who purchase RV lots create elaborate vacation homes incorporating built-in barbecues, fireplaces, cabanas, covered decks and landscaping. During my recent weekend in the RV, I chatted with residents who took great pride in their properties and the overall sense of community. While this may not be surprising in what is essentially a holiday camp, I believe it is possible to create such a level of community in urban developments.

Today, there is a growing interest in living in small spaces, as evidenced in part by the success of laneway housing in Vancouver and elsewhere. Books and articles have been written on small-space living, and there are numerous websites, newsletters and other online publications on the subject. At the same time, some have negative impressions of RVs, travel trailers, mobile homes, as well as small houses and apartments.

I think it is time to take a fresh look at living in smaller spaces. The result could be innovative, affordable housing choices, and improved living conditions for the homeless and others living in shelters and some of Canada's most decrepit housing.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer. You can read more about his relocatable housing proposal at  He can be reached at

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Postscript:  After this story was published my 31 year old daughter came over for dinner. During the course of the evening she confessed that while at a music festival in Nelson, she and a friend decided to buy a 23` RV and drove it back to Vancouver ($300 in gas) It`s now parked in front of her Main St area condo where some friends occasionally use it as a place to live....until she heads off to the next festival!