Eco Friendly Building a part of Provincial Government’s Vision

I came across this great article in the Saturday edition of the Vancouver Sun. Worth a read for anyone interested in things eco or trends in real estate.

Ryan Coffey

The new face of social housing:

Projects win praise for modern design, green construction

Frances Bula
Vancouver Sun
A social housing project to be built at 188 East First Ave. designed by GBL Architects Group.
A social housing project to be built at 188 East First Ave. designed by GBL Architects Group.

The corner of First and Main in Vancouver is home these days to a sad-looking Burger King, a muffler shop, a tire store, Buster’s Towing and a steady stream of commuter traffic.

It’s not a place where you’d expect to find an architectural diamond.

But there will be one three years from now, when an unusual new building will rise on that corner. It will be a model of green architecture and innovative design, with an unusually rich exterior texture, in sharp contrast to the city’s ubiquitous all-glass towers.

It’s a building to which the city’s in-house jury of architecture critics — the urban-design panel — didn’t just give the usual approval recently. It also commended it as an exemplary project, with its repetitions of simple cubic forms, its graceful garden and common spaces, and the way its elevator will deliver incoming residents to a landing where they can look out over the downtown skyline.

That kind of praise doesn’t often come from the panel of architects, landscape architects and engineers who’ve been bombarded with mediocre designs in recent years as condo mania has run full-throttle in the city.

Besides its location, there’s another surprise to this building: It will be a home for 100 of the city’s most troubled citizens, its drug- and mental-illness-plagued homeless.

And then there’s a third twist.

It’s not a one-off, like Arthur Erickson’s building for the Portland Hotel Society on Hastings or Gregory Henriquez’s award-winning Lore Krill Co-op on Cordova.

Instead, this building is just one of what promises to be a wave of beautifully modern, environmentally cutting-edge buildings. It’s one of the almost two dozen projects the provincial government has committed to in a massive pre-Olympics social-housing boom in Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria, Kelowna and Nanaimo.

Two other Vancouver social-housing projects also passed through the urban-design panel recently. They too won praise for strikingly good design that, with their panels and use of colour, is faintly reminiscent of the city’s unique BC Electric tower, built in 1957 in the full bloom of modernism.

The two new projects — one at 1308 Seymour, the other at 1237 Howe — are part of a package of 12 buildings to go up in Vancouver over the next several years.

"They really are little gems" is how one panel member, architect Walter Francl, describes the models that are starting to appear at city hall for approval. "And they show a real respect for the community they’re serving. They are quite ennobling for a group that is generally not given that level of care."

So why is this happening? One might be tempted to speculate that the province wants some model projects to show off to visiting reporters during the 2010 Winter Olympics to forestall criticism of the city’s large homeless population.

But the changes are actually driven by a different provincial mania than the Olympics. These buildings are among the first government construction projects to fall under the province’s new mandate to achieve LEED Gold standards and near-zero greenhouse-gas emissions.

Having to meet those environmental standards pushes all the architectural teams to incorporate certain elements into their designs. A green building typically requires less glass because glass produces heat loss.

Usually, the walls are no more than 40 per cent glass; the windows are punched in. Think of the way buildings used to be built, with rows of windows set into brick walls.

The insulation has to go on the outside, so that means the exteriors are covered with materials like brick, clay tiles or Swiss pearl. (Swiss pearl is a kind of concrete, but the name tells you what higher-quality concrete looks like.)

Green design means taking advantage of natural light as much as possible, so there are skylights that flood interior hallways with light. To take advantage of the differing amounts of sunlight they get, each of the four sides of the building has a different design.

Finally, because these projects will be built on small sites and because the builder, BC Housing, isn’t asking to maximize the density, they’ve got an unusual shape for Vancouver these days. Instead of being sky-high skinny towers on flatbeds of stacked townhouses, they’re solid rectangular buildings of about 10 storeys.

"The scale is really pleasing to the eye," says Tom Bell, the architect of the First and Main project.

"It’s not the huge project that you would typically see in Vancouver," said Bell, a partner in the firm Gomberoff Bell Lyon. "And the interest comes because we’ve been free to design them, we’ve been able to respond to the orientation. When you walk about the Main project, no two sides are the same."

All of this makes them remarkably different from previous eras of Vancouver social housing, from the postwar military-type public housing at Little Mountain to the co-ops of the 1970s and the social housing of the ’80s and ’90s, much of which consisted of four-storey wood-frame buildings.

Alice Sundberg worked in the social housing field for three decades in Vancouver before retiring recently. She remembers the changes.

"There was an era of ‘build it fast, quick and dirty.’ That ended up with some real problems.

"Then the response to that was building really high-end, and there was not so much of it.

"In the ’60s and ’70s there was a lot of emphasis on making the buildings fit in so it wouldn’t look like social housing. The problem now is they’re not getting the money to maintain those buildings, so they are starting to not blend in."

The aim now is to ensure that they blend in and their high quality will endure.

"It’s a whole different housing type," says Bell. "Previous buildings had a look of social housing."

The environmentally driven changes are being accompanied by other changes that reflect the people who will live there. The rooms are small, so intense care is being taken with how each small space is put together.

Equal care is being given to the many common areas — essential for people who need to be able to alternate between places to be together and places to get away from one another.

Some of the buildings incorporate dining rooms and kitchens set up to serve communal dinners. The many common areas are a mix of big rooms for crowds and spaces big enough for just a few people.

That’s partly driven by suggestions from future residents.

Part of the design process for the First and Main building, which will be run by Lookout Emergency Aid Society, was to bring in people who live in some of Lookout’s residences in the Downtown Eastside to make suggestions about what the building should include.

It all sounds like a humanitarian paradise.

But, as always, there is one lead lining to this silver cloud: money.

There has always been a delicate balance that the province’s housing authority managers try to strike. They aim to build housing that lasts far longer than market buildings. And they want something that fits into the community.

Larry Adams, who designed the Seymour Street building, said architects often try to make the case that this is one kind of government service where there shouldn’t be any skimping.

"These people are marginalized already and they deserve nice homes," said Adams, of the firm Neale Staniszkis Doll Adams.

But no group is more wary of accusations about gold-plated government buildings than government bureaucrats. And, ultimately, budgets have limits.

"We are being challenged on them by BC Housing because they are concerned about the cost," admits Stu Lyon, who, like Tom Bell, is an architect with Gomberoff Bell Lyon. He designed a 110-unit building on Howe, between Davie and Drake.

BC Housing promises the quality won’t be undermined by "value engineering," the current construction lingo for cost-cutting. Craig Crawford, its vice-president of development service, said the goal is to try to preserve the original concepts as much as possible. The agency is bringing in the cost consultant and construction managers early for suggestions on ways to save money without altering materials or design. Sometimes, just changing the construction schedule can make a difference.

"We don’t want to promise something to the urban-design panel that we don’t think can be built," says Crawford. "I personally am really pleased with what they’re doing and their collaborative approach to design."

In a couple of years, when the buildings start going up, we’ll know how all of that worked out.

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