From Spacing Vancouver
Vancouver City Council approved the advancement of an Affordable Home Ownership PILOT program on April 20th. Based largely on “Shared Equity” models of affordable housing drawn from the US and the UK, the program identifies sites along arterial roads well served by frequent transit systems and close to Local Shopping Areas (LSAs) as potential locations for 6-storey developments provided they generate targeted affordability outcomes. “Inboard” sites within 100m of these sites would be eligible for 3+1/2 storey forms of development (stacked Townhouses, Rowhouses etc) provided they meet similar affordability targets.
Council directed City Staff to consult broadly with:
* Regional & Local Employers
* The Public
* The Development Industry; and
* Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation
The policy map above appears to be a natural iteration/evolution of Commercial/ Mixed-Use “C-2” and “C-3A” zoning on the streetcar grid that has defined much of our city for almost 130 years – a development template based the dual logic of electric mass transit and pedestrian mobility, married to convenient local shopping. The notable hole in the grid above is of course the Cambie Street CanadaLine corridor which is the subject of more intensive forms of redevelopment, serviced by the rapid transit line.
In my old neighbourhood at Main and 26th , I’ve seen a few new arterial buildings – built under existing zoning – that maintained great neighbourhood shopping in small stores at grade with new rental and ownership units above, notably the rental building at 28th Ave with the “East is East” restaurant and the new Liquor Store, and the BlueTree development on the NE corner of Main and King Edward Ave (which replaced a contaminated gas station). They’ve been positive additions to the community and they have added and retained valued local shops and services.
Here in the UK where I currently work, the idea of shared equity housing has been around for quite a while, typically included in large redevelopment programs and in the redevelopment of Council-Owned or Housing Association-Managed Social Housing Estates. I think that what is also interesting about the program is the income mix and the degree to which the interests of Shared Equity owners are highly aligned with those of other owners.The challenge is to find the 20% or so “public equity” and to resolve the equity questions in how that public asset is shared.
Provincial amendments to Vancouver’s City Charter are required for the City to enter into these agreements.
Just came across this blog this morning from Patrick Johnstone, a New Westminster City Councillor. Worth a read.
“There is a lot going on right now in the transportation file in the Lower Mainland, both good and bad news, and I can hardly keep up, never mind blog about it. So while the local radio stations stoked anger a couple of weeks ago about another TransLink “outrage”, I had something completely different to get angry about: this “Fact Scheet” produced by the provincial government in regards to the Massey Tunnel replacement project:”
Guardian Story: here
From Greenpeace UK
“Lord Nelson famously said that desperate affairs require desperate measures. 40,000 lives are cut short [in the UK] by air pollution every year. This is a national health emergency and people need to know about it. That’s why activists scaled Nelson’s column and 14 other iconic statues.
The Prime Minister could take some simple steps to start cleaning up our air, like bringing in clean air zones into town and cities to stop the most heavily polluting vehicles. Please sign the petition calling on David Cameron to come up with a bold and steadfast action plan to clean our air now:https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/airpollsign
If these statues were people they’d be exposed to dangerous, toxic and even deadly air. Researchers from King’s College & University Of London, found a normal day’s exposure of London air can be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes. 
We’re facing a health crisis with air pollution and need it to be on the top of the Prime Minister’s agenda. Can you add your voice to the growing movement of people calling for clean air now?
Please sign this petition: https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/airpollsign“
Jane Jacobs‘ thinking on cities, urban planning and urban systems lives through all of her many books, and also through the annual Jane’s Walks that signal the beginning of some great summer weather.
Jane was an inspirational woman and an icon for a new type of city planning and for different ways of thinking about cities. I was fortunate as a grad student to have met her. In 1997, I traveled from Vancouver to Toronto to deliver a plenary lecture at the 5th Congress for the New Urbanism (they are now on Congress 24!). I arrived early at the venue at the University of Toronto, so I asked if there was anything I could do to help out. The author Peter Katz (The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community) said “sure, can you hand-deliver these tickets to Jane Jacobs?”. That made me smile. I made my way on the subway to her place on Albany Avenue and had a nice chat with her.
Five years later, Jane was completing what was to be her last book. Her son Ned forwarded Jane my MA Thesis (Retrofitting Suburbs) and I soon found myself assisting with a review of a couple chapters of the manuscript for Dark Age Ahead. A few weeks after I sent some final comments and suggestions, a letter arrived in the post. It was tapped out on a manual typewriter and marked up with a bit of correction fluid here and there – thanking me for my thesis and for my contribution to her book. I keep the letter today in the sleeve of my copy of Dark Age. Her thoughtfulness equaled her great intellect.
What is great is that Jane’s ideas and energy are kept alive by her foundation and these great events.
Vancouver Co-Housing recently celebrated a move-in for their new development at 1729-1735 East 33rd Avenue rezoned from Single Family use to a Comprehensive Development by-law permitting 31 units on a 2 lot assembly (c.45 units/acre). The project was the subject of a lengthy review process and some debate but to their credit the owner-builders persevered. It’s an interesting project offering affordability (compact units, good design and shared amenities) and new types of community as a notable counterpoint to the more common demolition of single family dwellings and replacement with even larger homes in the close-in suburbs of our supply and affordability-hungry city.
Is there a collaborative way forward from here to refine some prototype designs so that subsequent projects can get started more quickly with less expense? It would also be great to do a follow-up study on the design, the approvals process, and post-occupancy interviews with residents and neighbours.
Architect Charles Durrett’s Co-Housing Public Lecture – Nov 19, 2012
Urban Design Panel – Oct 24, 2012 (Non Support: 2-6)
Urban Design Panel – 5 Dec 2012 (Deferred)
Urban Design Panel – Jan 16, 2013 (Non Support: 4-6)
Rezoning Report – Jan 29, 2013
Courier Article – Feb 26, 2013
Vancouver co-housing complex draws concern: Cedar cottage co-housing seeking rezoning
Public Hearing – March 12, 2013
Bylaw Enactment CD-1 (564) – April 1, 2014
CBC Story – Owners Set to Move In Dec 28, 2015
Courier Story: March 10, 2016
Owners of Vancouver’s first co-housing complex move in: ‘Breaking bread’ together a key component of the co-housing philosophy
Courier Story: April 18, 2006 “Support for shared housing vital to Vancouver’s future”
“We are concerned about the immediate social and environmental impacts of very dense developments and their long-term sustainability. We also observe that this new superdensity – which we’ve dubbed hyperdensity when it’s over 350 homes or dwellings per hectare – derives, not from London’s distinctive and popular urban forms, but from global development patterns. We may well ask, is London becoming a victim of its own success, meeting demand by sacrificing the very distinctiveness which makes people want to live and work here?”
– Superdensity The Sequel
I found this publication and thought it would be of interest to the current debates in Vancouver.
I think urban designers, citizens and city builders – like good artists – need a full range of colours on their palettes, and it is great to get perspectives from other places. London holds many good examples of high-density mid-rise buildings that we can take as inspiration for areas of Vancouver that can accommodate more housing, shops and amenities, but perhaps are not suitable for tower forms.
London also has cautionary examples of poor mid-rise design – what NOT to do – and I am thinking here of that city’s brutalist post-war super-blocks, and even some modern mid-rise buildings that do not really work well at the street level. I’ll perhaps do a little photo essay on that later.
Personally, I am not binary on the issue of high or mid-rise density. Londoners do not share our interests in ocean and mountain views, and they are quite comfortable squeezing buildings close together on narrow streets here in the UK – closer than we would in Vancouver. I also think Vancouver designers do high-rise development very well and I know from personal experience that you can create very happy communities in vertical living arrangements. London can learn a lot from Vancouver on how we tamed high rise buildings – ironically borrowing Georgian Townhouse typologies to create the lovely bases for our now famous “point tower on podium” form.
I know some of the principal architects at PTEA, HTA, and Levitt Bernstein here in London and I really like their work and that of PRP. Their joint publication below highlights some of the best in current Mid-Rise design in London from each their practices. Hope you enjoy perusing its pages.
A globally desirable city with high immigration and growth and not enough housing supply: London provides a cautionary example of what happens when supply shortages become chronic.
From PropertyWire.com, Here’s the perspective of London Homebuilders as they call on the next mayor of Greater London to help them increase housing supply. Its an indication of the scale of London’s crisis – still producing only half of what is needed. Makes you appreciate Vancouver’s relatively balanced supply numbers relative to demand (actual “fit” and affordability vs demand is another challenge!).
I think the UK authors could have covered many other systemic issues. The UK could learn from Canada and adopt specific legal performance (binding purchasers to complete on their contracts) and simplified purchase and sale agreements (the UK is notoriously complex and open to last minute negotiations [“Gazumping”]). These legal changes would create a better pre-sale culture and give developers enough confidence to build in larger quantums. On the design side, I think there is room for much cross cultural exchange – Vancouver’s contribution being compact mid and high rise models. London is developing some interesting mid-rise buildings that I’ll feature later.
(article here, reprinted below)
The organisation that represents house builders in the UK has issued a blueprint for London’s future housing supply which hopes that politicians in the city will take it on board when forming policy. The Home Builders Federation (HBF) says that its 10 point blueprint, Capitalising on Growth, should be taken into account by this year’s candidate in the London mayoral election when declaring their policies for housing in the city which is desperately short of new homes.
“Current London mayor Boris Johnson is regarded as having done a lot to boost housing supply and put in place a number of measures to continue his vision but he is not standing for mayor this time.
The HBF wants the candidates to adopt ‘tangible, workable and realistic’ policies to deliver the increases in housing supply and build on the significant increases in the number of new homes being built over the last two years.
The document includes recommendations that the next mayor of London ensures sites are viable and deliverable by introducing realistic levels of affordable housing and supporting the delivery of specialist private rented housing.
It also calls on the next mayor to make better use of and improve London’s existing estates while working with authorities in the wider South East to create a strategic approach to delivering homes that can support London’s growth.
The blueprint says that the mayor neds to act as a hub to coordinate efforts by all the public bodies with land holdings in London so that more land actually comes forward for house building and it calls for more underused commercial spaces to be turned into homes.
‘We welcome the very vocal commitments of candidates to increase housing supply in London. We now need to see realistic, workable policies to be developed that will allow these homes to be built,’ said HBF executive chairman Stewart Baseley.
‘If London is to maintain its status as the world’s capital city and keep on powering the national economy, it must continue to attract people, businesses and investment. The capital’s chronic housing shortage and resultant affordability crisis now threatens London’s status as a global powerhouse and can only be solved by a sustained increase in supply,’ he explained.
‘In just two years, housing supply has increased by over 25% but we are still only delivering around half the number of homes needed. We need to maintain a strong investment environment for developers, keep sites deliverable and ensure that planning resources are in place so that builders can obtain planning permission and get on site as quickly as possible,’ he added.”
I thought Pocket’s Two Bedroom Competition would make a nice book-end to my earlier post “Making Apartments Work Harder: the 3rd Bedroom Challenge“.
We can learn a lot from London, and the innovative companies tackling the city’s housing affordability and supply challenges. For almost 3 years, I’ve been leading the design and development of mixed-use housing projects in the UK, and I’ve come to appreciate how deep and systemic the housing supply issue is here.
Founded by Marc Vlessing, Pocket is focusing on the design and development of affordable apartments for “working Londoners” caught in the affordability and supply gap between Social Housing and Market housing. The firm aims to produce units at about 20% below the market rate with purchase mechanisms to keep them affordable over the long term. They’ve launched a partnership with the Greater London Authority to these ends, and they recently published the results of a very interesting Two Bedroom Design Competition that I’ll describe in a bit more detail below.
Pocket is challenging housing design and size as a way to increase supply and affordability. They recently invited 19 London architecture firms to prepare design prototypes for liveable, space-efficient two-bedroom apartments. Their instructions were to design smarter and compact (but not micro) units that could comfortably accommodate a small family. And they also challenged the design teams to be innovative with plans that increase liveability, functionality, storage, privacy etc. The architects experimented with open concept plans that bend some of the London Design Guidelines that set out minimum apartment sizes amongst other criteria.
Some of the interesting plans generated include design features like:
I’ve posted a few examples below:
What is impressive, and fortunate for all of us, is that Pocket shared their results online. Take a look! It’s well worth your time!
Some of the open plan design approaches will not be unfamiliar to Vancouver architects, and the lessons of many of these case studies could be easily introduced into new Vancouver buildings. One thing I found interesting is how many of the UK architects who participated in this competition chose to use “single-aspect” designs – that is apartments with windows on only one side. “Dual aspect” design – with windows on two elevations – is a general requirement of the London Design Guidelines but in my experience it does not encourage compact building forms or efficient internal circulation routes.
This is perhaps where London can learn from Vancouver where we create very efficient buildings (Net floor area: Gross Floor Area) by designing units off of a central hallway and a shared lobby where you can create a bit more amenity. This approach does create some single-aspect units, but apartments on corners still benefit from windows on two different elevations. Light and ventilation are typically achieved through open plan designs and shallow unit depths.
It has been fun working and learning in another design culture and I really appreciate when other firms share their research so widely.
Kudos to Pocket for being such thought leaders.
From afar in London UK I’ve watched with great interest the evolution of Vancouver’s nascent Urbanarium, both online and in it’s physical venue at the Museum of Vancouver. It’s been the longtime vision of many people including, most notably, former City of Vancouver Director of Planning Ray Spaxman.
I am planning to move back this year to work on the unfolding story of Vancouver and its Region, so it’s great to see the level of interest in the Urbanarium take off as it has with the latest series of debates. My only regret is that I can’t be there quite yet!
What I can share from here is a bit about London’s Urbanarium, which is curated by an organization called New London Architecture at “The Building Centre” at 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT. It is well worth the visit if you are ever over this side of the Atlantic.
Some stats on the NLA’s scale model:
The model and related displays are very informative. A computer projector beams information onto the model, covering a variety of themes. All around is exhibition space with a regularly changing series of displays.
From this base, New London Architecture runs a full time program of lectures, workshops and exhibitions on the evolution of Greater London. The NLA also hosts a variety of urban interest groups, and the space is often rented out by design and development firms for various meetings which must help them cover costs.
As an example of a recent event that may be of interest to Vancouverites, the NLA hosted “1oo New Ideas for Housing” focusing on the supply and affordability of housing in the UK’s massively under-supplied primate city. Each of the 100 ideas is captured in the linked document. Many are incremental and iterative – additions to existing buildings for example. Others would bring new scale and intensity to the City.
Supply is a big problem in the UK – and as I have mentioned before, little Vancouver builds more units every year than London does.
Best regards from London.
The first post from Michael, who will be guest editor this week.
In the spirit of the Guardian’s 2015 global review …
What are your views on the best City improvements across Metro Vancouver over the past year? Placemaking, transportation, housing, public art … whatever you think merits recognition and why.
Happy New Year friends!
Michael Mortensen MC MCIP RPP
A Vancouver Developer and Urban Planner abroad.
From The Guardian Newspaper
As the curtains close on 2015, I’m reflecting in appreciation of all of the people who contribute ideas, feedback and constructive debate to the ends of improving our housing, streets, high streets, neighbourhoods, cities and regions. In particular, I am thinking of people like Gordon Price whose blog his friends and colleagues have committed to run while he recovers from surgery. How many years has Gordon been at this?! How many years has he served his many communities?! Truly amazing – and even more impressive when you actually take over his blog for a week and get an idea of the time and energy it can require. Something to think about when we read over the list of those honoured with Order of Canada awards this week. Will Justin Trudeau beat Christy Clark to where I am going on this …. ?
In the blog-and-twittersphere, that sometimes anonymous other-world of asynchronous communication, it is easy to find difference and easier still to not realize the extent of common ground people actually share on an issue. I have to thank Yuri Artibise for bringing this article to my attention and prompting me to look for more. My hope and my resolution for 2016 and beyond is to have better online and face to face conversations – one conversation at a time:
Some Tools and Ideas for Online Engagement
Happy New Year!
Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP RPP
A Vancouver Developer and Urban Planner abroad.
It’s been fun running Gordon’s blog for the week. Planner and walking cities specialist Sandy James now takes over as guest editor. I’ll be back in a while with some new contributions. Till then, have a great holiday!
Cheers from London,
from Stephen Quinn in today’s Globe and Mail
’Twas a week before Christmas, a depressing year-ender,
Metro mayors had just heard from Peter Fassbender
They had asked for the power to plan transportation,
But were left with the usual humiliation.
“TransLink is great as it is!” said the minister,
Though his hidden agenda bordered on sinister.
“We want more transit, road pricing and density,
We don’t get the province’s auto propensity.”
“For decades we’ve had a great plan in the works,
But one that is always derailed by these jerks.”
Yes, the very same week they had sent mayors packing,
The province announced something other than fracking.
A giant new bridge, seven lanes of new traffic,
It came with a really cool CGI graphic.
And the price tag for this? Only 3.5 billion,
Give or take overruns, what’s another few million?
“The cost will be covered by tolls,” said Todd Stone,
“The rest of the cost from a sizable loan.”
“And we’re hoping the feds will step up and be seen,
If I can convince them that highways are green.”
And the groundbreaking for this historic erection?
Some time around the next B.C. election.
Meanwhile, 45 hundred klics north,
Santa was pacing the floor back and forth.
“With Arctic ice melting and polar bears croaking,
What are those guys down in Vancouver smoking?”
“Do they really think a new bridge is the answer?
It’s like fighting a tumour by injecting more cancer.”
Santa knew what it meant to live climate change,
He found public apathy decidedly strange.
“You can’t build your way out of traffic congestion,
You’d have to be daft to even make the suggestion.”
“Why can’t they see greenhouse gas is the culprit,
Should I have to keep preaching from my now-thawing pulpit?”
Yes, a week early, but he needed to try,
To convince politicians they’d better change course,
That a fossil-fuel future they shouldn’t endorse.
On his sleigh he took flight, just after dark,
He plotted a course straight to see Christy Clark.
The Premier was nestled, all snug in her bed,
While visions of LNG danced in her head.
When Santa arrived as he does with a clatter,
She found herself facing a more serious matter.
“Shush,” Santa said. “Yes, I am the real thing,
I’m just here to talk, I don’t have any bling.
“I sent you an e-mail. Didn’t you read it?
Oh wait, let me guess, did you triple delete it?”
“Very funny,” said Christy. “You don’t get this town.
I make sure now I never write anything down.”
“Well the gist of it was,” Santa said to the Preem,
“That the future you’re plotting is not very green.”
“Now I know what you’ve said, but I judge by your actions,
And so far they’ve given me no satisfaction.”
“A referendum on transit, then a new 10-lane span?
Forgive me for saying, but that just doesn’t scan.”
“And I get your motives, the votes you might win,
But your us-and-them politics is wearing quite thin.”
“To toll the main routes? To the south of the Fraser,
Here, why don’t I hand you this political razor.”
“You don’t need a psychic, or exotic soothsayer.
Why don’t you just listen to your own mayors?”
His logic was sound, his arguments clear,
But it was something the Premier did not want to hear.
“I’ll give it some thought,” she said with a yawn.
Then rolled over and counted the hours till dawn.
“She’s not even listening,” Santa said with a sneer,
Then whistled and shouted and called his reindeer.
Then a week later, on Christmas Eve night,
Santa crept back to Christy’s – he was making things right.
A big lump of coal, he left at her feet,
And handwritten note that she couldn’t delete.
“Please take this coal as a single small token,
A reminder to you that something is broken.”
“It’s not meant as a threat, there’s no need to report it,
But if I know you well, you’ll try to export it.”
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.
From VancityBuzz.com …
“On Wednesday evening, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved the Oakridge Transit Centre Policy Statement, which provides the overall guide to the rezoning and redevelopment of the 13.8-acre asphalt-paved property.”
Well, an interesting discussion thread over the last couple of days, apparently populated by a few people who have information, press lines and FAQ responses that are not available to regular citizens – even through our Province’s Access to Information and Privacy legislation.
The widening scandal of public record destruction in the provincial government’s offices should be of concern to all citizens regardless of political stripe. I like many who subscribe to this blog am driven by interests and principles, not politics. It smacks of hypocrisy that an $800M regional transit initiative is forced to a referendum when the province can spend $3.5B ($4,000 out of the pockets of every household in Greater Vancouver) in virtual secrecy.
Is this going to be the new system of provincial record keeping for multi-billion dollar public projects funded with our tax dollars?
We need transparency and a proper forum to debate this important issue.
Thanks for your comments. Stay involved.
Museum of Vancouver & Vancouver Urbanarium invites you to
Explore challenges and solutions relating to citizens’ greatest concerns
When: Jan. 21-May 15, 2016
Where: Museum of Vancouver
1100 Chestnut Street, Vancouver, BC
Vancouver, BC – From the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), in partnership with the Vancouver Urbanarium Society, comes a provocative and timely exploration of the future of Vancouver. In response to mounting concern about a rapidly changing region, Your Future Home: Creating the New Vancouver, on display at MOV from January 21 through May 15, 2016, will immerse visitors in an experience that spotlights 20 visions for tomorrow’s city, while focusing on four topical issues: housing affordability, residential density, ease of transportation, and quality of public space.
NOTE: The First Debate is on Jan 20th.
– 30 –
Thanks to Scot Hein for bringing this forward.
An excerpt from the Policy Statement suggests an overall intensity of use at 2.1 Floor Area Ratio or FAR (Total Gross Floor Area / Total Site Area) over the entire 14 acre site. The form of development is predominantly mid-rise in character, tapering to blend with the lower density of adjacent lands.
A back of napkin analysis suggests the site would generate 1,600 to 1,700 units in total if it were all developed at an average net unit size of 650 sf. Some land however will not be residential, and the requirement for family units will push the average unit size up, so the likely number of units will be significantly less.
The overall density envisioned for the Bus Barn site is generally comparable with the intensity of use permitted at the 25 acre Arbutus Walk site in Kitsilano, rezoned and redeveloped in the 1990s (without the benefit of a LRT station a short walk away).
Given the Transit Orientation of the Bus Barns, and the pressures for more housing in Vancouver, is the plan for the 14 acre Translink Bus Barn site dense enough?
One observation is that the curving roads envisioned in the plan yield some difficult development sites (triangular sites are a real pain!), in contrast to the Arbutus Walk development where the masterplan worked off the orthogonal grid of the city fabric.
A bit of “Sketchup” analysis:
Approximately 40% of the Bus Barn site is given over to park and road space. So, it’s 2.1 F.A.R. on the gross site . 2.5 FAR if you net out the Park. And 3.5 FAR if you net out the roads as well. That’s not a particularly high level of density and it even requires a couple spots for 15 storey buildings to get the numbers up (note that many leafy neighbourhoods in Vancouver’s inner streetcar suburbs have accommodated some high rise over the past decades).
Does it make sense to approach suburban densities for such a large transit oriented site? Are there ways to generate more developable land out of this parcel?
Interested in your thoughts.
Georgia Straight Story here:
Condos, townhouses, and park seen for old Vancouver transit centre by TransLink
Thanks to Ken Ohrn for passing this on.
Regards from London,
A Vancouver Developer and Urban Planner abroad.
By Michael Mortensen, Guest Editor
London’s “Shard” and the “London Eye” greet me every morning on my 15 Km cycle to my office in Mayfair. They’re symbols of London’s strength as a world city and also it’s sense of play. With all the recent debate about iconic architecture in my home city of Vancouver BC, I thought it would be interesting to see what lessons could be learned from London’s experience with iconic architecture.
As a world city, London naturally attracts its share of iconic buildings. Most are commercial with designs based on size and scale, the distant view, and the aerial image. Successful buildings offer high quality design at street level and skillfully manage light, shadow, views, and wind. Unsuccessful ones fail on many of the same measures, notably on the first test of the quality of the ground plane.
Notwithstanding the marketing efforts of developers to brand their buildings, most iconic buildings here attract cheeky nicknames; the public is less kind when naming less successful buildings. Can we have iconic architecture that still ‘shares’ the skyline and treats the human scale ground level with as much attention to detail as the ‘iconic’ bits? Here is a quick tour of two iconic buildings in London’s skyline to see what lessons they have to teach: one is an iconic success, a RIBA Sterling Prize winner; the other is the winner of the 2015 “Carbuncle Cup”.
Iconic success: The Gherkin is a well known London landmark and an exceptionally successful iconic design. For their work, Foster and Partners, won the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize for the best new building in 2004. It was the first time the RIBA committee had ever made a unanimous award decision. A modern building set within an older fabric, the Gherkin occupies the site of the former Baltic Exchange and Chamber of Shipping, which were destroyed in a 1992 IRA bombing.
Exceptional Design: From afar, one is struck by the Gherkin’s shape, its triangulated steel structure, and the detailed design of its double-glazed envelope made more interesting by bands of differently coloured glass. It’s a piece of jewelry, with views inside – a contrast to the reflective glazing of many other office buildings. Functionally, it uses half the energy of typical buildings of a similar size, drawing on passive solar heating and the venturi effect to move air through its double-skin envelope.
Fantastic Ground Plane: I think what is most exceptional about the Gherkin is the very human scale of the building when it hits the ground. The building’s numerous entrances offer shelter and enclosure, inviting you in. The public realm at grade is sensitively designed with plenty of space to sit and relax. Trees, landscape and public art all contribute to a great sense of place. When I visited to take these pictures, workers were installing a new sculpture of 700 chromed bicycles by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Iconic Failure: London’s “Walkie Scorchie” was the 2015 winner of the Carbuncle Cup, a prize awarded by the editors of Building Design to “the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months”. Launched in 2006, The Cup is a humorous counterpoint to the Royal Institute of British Architect’s prestigious Sterling Prize and is based on a shortlist of nominations and votes from the public. Since 2009 the final winners have been selected by a small group of critics.
Design Shortcomings: An early prelude to such recognition for entry into this famous competition has to be the presence of a humourous building nickname. Despite the best efforts of project marketers to brand these iconic buildings with their own identity, the public often takes over and runs with nicknames that stick. The Walkie Scorchie certainly earned some of its fame. Not long after it was completed, a reporter fried an egg on the pavement in the beam of sunlight focused by the building’s parabolic facade (a “must watch” video). Soon after, a Jaguar owner suffered the same fate when he parked his car in a similar spot.
Disappointing Ground Plane: Land Securities and architect Rafael Viñoly created a structure that expands as it rises to take advantage of higher rents for higher floors. The design-by-economic-calculus results in a clumsy looking building. The owners’ marketing tag-line “There’s More Up Top” is ironic because there is so little joy at the base of the building, where thousands of pedestrians walk by each day. It’s a bland structure paired below with an unremarkable ground plane furnished with a double row of anti-car barriers, a few trees and six oak chairs. All of the ground floor frontage functions exclusively as a building reception.
Environmental Impacts: The building’s impact on local comfort is questionable. Some reviewers suggest that the shape of the Walkie Scorchie scoops high level winds that follow the Thames River and directs them down to the street. The origin of the reflecting facade is open for conjecture, but apparently someone value-engineered out the fins that would have prevented the windows on the building’s parabolic face from focusing the sun’s beams. Once the glazing was in, the building began frying things. Not a great start. The developer had to retrofit the building to take care of that problem.
Iconic Promises: The developers also promised a park-like “Sky Garden” for public enjoyment. However, the devil is in the details and in this age of high security, a member of the public must reserve weeks in advance to gain access and bring photo identification for screening before admission. You can’t bring your own food if you want to enjoy this park – if you want to eat, you have to buy your food from the restaurant café in the garden. On criteria of accessibility and amenity, it pales in comparison to a proper public park. This summer, Westminster Council alleged publicly that the developer had unilaterally reduced the public area of the garden during construction in order to increase the private space dedicated for restaurant use. The issue remains unresolved.
WALKIE SCORCHIE LESSONS
“A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
London’s experience shows that iconic buildings can be spectacularly successful and shape a positive image for the wider city; however some can also present spectacular failures that can mar streets and skylines for decades into the future. As Vancouver considers the role of more iconic buildings in it’s urban centres, we should:
Once in a while we need to be reminded of Vancouver’s longstanding Downtown Official Development Plan which offers clear guidance on these matters:
“The Downtown District is the regional centre of commercial development. It contains the greatest concentration of the working and shopping public within the region. The well-being of this concentration of people requires more than the customary regulatory mechanisms in order that the buildings, the open spaces, the streets, the transportation systems and other components of the urban scene can be arranged appropriately for the benefit of the general public.”
Vancouver is well set up for this. We have robust planning and public involvement policies and we have an Urban Design Panel that has been operating for decades, an exemplar advisory body that many other cities don’t even have in place today.
What do you think?
Cheers from London,
a Developer and Urban Planner abroad