Architecture
April 19, 2021

Starchitect Designed Vancouver House Floods Itself: Should Radical Design Be Rethought?

Everywhere around the world the tall buildings are called marvels of engineering, providing custom work and employment for the Hollywood deck of designer darlings called “Starchitects”. Of course those same buildings overshadow parks and other buildings and usurp tons of resources. They also are being associated with a whole bunch of problems because they are so big, different, and house so many units.

It was Kenneth Chan in the Daily Hive that revealed the news:  starchitect Bjarke Ingels’ designed Vancouver House had a “severe failure of the building’s water systems, causing a deluge of water to pour out of pipes, into the condominiums, and out of the elevators.”

And it’s bad. There’s a series of videos documenting the water dumping from the 30th  floor area impacting nine floors below that, blowing out the elevators which are not not operational, meaning everyone is schlepping up the stairs.  A side note: replacing elevator cable subjected to water can cost $60,000 per cable. The units impacted are not livable: the degree of water infiltration elsewhere in the structure has not yet been assessed.

There are images of residents sloshing in water over their toes, and of course with no elevators they have to rely on stairs to get out of the building. Sadly there was water gushing down the emergency exit stairway as well.

And there’s more.

This seems to be the tipping point event that has made residents go public, with Mr. Chan receiving a photographic tome of building deficiencies, cracks, peeling exterior surfaces, and discoloured walls. As Mr. Chan carefully puts it, the graphic litany produced by a frustrated strata owner “highlighted alleged inconsistencies with the final product compared to the marketing materials, alleged building design and system deficiencies, and alleged damage from contractors moving equipment and materials in and out of the building for construction during the occupancy period.”

This water failure will cost millions of dollars to remediate, and will impact owner insurance rates for the 480 units, 105 which are market rental.

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Michael Kluckner riffs off the post from Michael Gordon below to recount the story of the building that marked the end of the highrise era in Kitsilano*.

2280 Cornwall

It was the end of ’71 when developer Ben Wosk started work on the apartment building at 2280 Cornwall, following the path set by the St. Roch at 2323 and Century House at 2370 West 2nd in 1966 (left), and Las Salinas at 2310 West 2nd and Seaside Plaza at 2324 West 1st in 1968. The earlier “highrises” are on big pieces of property, like the West End ones of the ’60s, with a lot of open space and low FSR, as were Carriage House and similar buildings erected at that time in South Granville and Kerrisdale. Very different from everything today.

People including some NPA aldermen naively believed that the height limit was three storeys at the beach, although it was actually 120 feet or 12 storeys. Bruce Yorke of the Vancouver Tenants Council led the protests – something people have a problem understanding today, that highrise apartments were equated with higher rents than the lowrise ones, and with displacement and gentrification.

(The blowback was so immediate that Tom Campbell, the NPA mayor at the time, intervened with Wosk to get a stop on the highrise proposal.)  Wosk agreed to build only three storeys “on condition the area is rezoned so that no other highrises can be built,” according to the Sun, February 16, 1972.

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Michael Gordon* explores a misconception about Kitsilano in the Seventies – that, in a reaction to what was felt to be ‘out-of-control overdevelopment’ (see West End), Kits was downzoned.  Not quite.

 

Many years ago, Vancouver’s Director of Community Planning advised me that the 1975 downzoning in Kitsilano to prevent highrise residential development was not a downzoning. Upon further researching this, I discovered to some extent he had a point.

In July 1964 Kitsilano, Fairview, Kerrisdale, Mt.Pleasant and other neighbourhoods had their apartment RM-3 zoning amended to encourage ‘tower in the park’ residential development up to 120 feet.** Previously, the maximum height was three to four storeys.  Subsequently in Kitsilano, only seven highrise residential buildings were built along with a variety of four-storey wood-frame apartment buildings.

The RM-3 zoning had encouraged large site assemblies because it was the only way to achieve the maximum density and height of 36.6 metres (or about 11 to 13 storeys). Density bonuses were given for large sites, low site coverage and enclosed or underground parking. (This zoning still applies in areas of Fairview and Kerrisdale.)  Small- and medium-sized sites were built to a lower density and three- to four-storey wood-frame construction.

Things started to heat up in Kitsilano in the 1970s when:

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By Michael Gordon

The City of Vancouver’s housing stock stands out as having the lowest proportion of single-detached dwellings (one house/one household) of its housing stock of major cities in Canada*.  In the City of Vancouver, according to the 2016 Census, single-detached dwellings with only one household living in it make up 19 percent of the dwelling units in the City’s housing stock.(For Metro Vancouver CMA: 29 percent.)

The trend in Vancouver has been downward, with single-detached dwellings emerging as a more modest part of the housing stock since 1981.  Most dwelling starts now in the City and Region are in multiple dwellings or townhouse developments.

Many of the houses in the City have two dwellings and are counted as duplexes by Statistics Canada.  Houses with more than two dwellings could be counted as an apartment or a flat in a duplex.

I’ve seen the data from BC Assessment which would appear to indicate most floor space built in the City of Vancouver is for ‘single-family’ houses. My choice in looking at this is from the perspective of choices in homes, noticing that increasingly apartments in multiple dwellings are the largest part of our housing stock.

In any case, in our housing stock we have lots of houses but there has been an increase in the number of separate households with their own kitchen in them.

Referring to our RS zones as single-family zones is a misnomer, given the prevalence of so many houses with two or more dwellings (two or more households living within them) and now with infill houses on the lane. From a built form perspective, they really are ‘house’ districts.

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The city-wide Vancouver plan discussion seems to be coming down to one thing: the end of RS-1 (or single-family zoning – the white part on the map*):

Critiques of zoning in the City of Vancouver typically begin with this:

Single-family zoning is why it’s illegal to build multi-family buildings, like apartments or social housing, on over 70 per cent of the land in Vancouver.

That was Adrian Crook in 2019. “Put an end to single-family zoning to end housing crisis.

As PT readers will be quick to point out, RS-1 is no longer about a single family.  That kind of zoning technically doesn’t exist, given that secondary suites, lane cottages, duplexes, etc. are pretty much buildable anywhere.  But the land-use consequences are the same: the buildings must be stand-alone, and the sites cannot be used for ‘missing middle’ alternatives.  The maintenance of single-family scale is still the determinant.**

But while zoning to maintain single-family scale may not be coming to an end anytime soon, actual stand-alone homes are diminishing, especially in contrast to the growth of apartments.  ‘Changing Vancouver’ writer Andy Coupland provides some data:

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