ARCHITECTURE

Redefining a dream

The search for more affordable housing

PAMELA YOUNG July 16 1990
ARCHITECTURE

Redefining a dream

The search for more affordable housing

PAMELA YOUNG July 16 1990

Redefining a dream

ARCHITECTURE

The search for more affordable housing

In an airless Toronto lecture hall, a white-haired woman with heavy black-rimmed glasses had the rapt attention of about 650 people. Author and urban-planning theorist Jane Jacobs was speaking in her role as a juror in the largest architectural competition ever held in Canada. The aim of the design competition, entitled Housing on Toronto’s Main Streets, was to help alleviate, eventually, the city’s housing crisis by promoting the construction of medium-rise residential units above Toronto’s shop-lined main streets. Jacobs, for decades an internationally respected advocate of mixed-use development in cities, told the crowd that Toronto would benefit from the increase in residential space in shopping areas. Housing has become prohibitively expensive in several Canadian centres. Now, like Jacobs, many architects and urban planners are looking at ways of increasing residential density as a means of making shelter more affordable.

A move towards greater density is an about-face from the direction that North American cities have been moving since the end of the Second World War. During the late 1940s and 1950s, the single detached house in the suburbs became a dream that millions pursued. In the prosperous postwar decades, the dream got bigger and bigger: while the average size of an early 1950s new house was approximately 900 square feet in total floor space, new Canadian houses today are often nearly twice that size. And at the same time, the average number of people in all Canadian households, including single-person apartments and -

condominiums, declined dramatically, to 2.67 in 1989 from 4.07 in 1951.

But in recent years, rapidly rising costs and high interest rates have pushed housing prices out of the reach of many middle-income earners. In Vancouver and Toronto, Canada’s most expensive markets, newly constructed detached homes in May, 1990, sold for average prices of $444,657 and $446,360, respectively. Said Montreal architect Witold Rybczynski, author of the best-selling books Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World: “We have to re-evaluate the part of the dream that says that houses

have to be detached and spread out on large lots of land.” It will likely be a long and arduous process. In most Canadian municipalities, bylaws prevent high-density zoning in residential areas. And people who already own large houses often oppose the introduction of higherdensity developments in their neighborhoods.

Rybczynski and Avi Friedman, co-directors of the graduate program in affordable homes at Montreal’s McGill University, unveiled their own response to the housing problem last month. On the McGill campus, they erected a prototype house that they designed called the Grow Home, a townhouse with 1,000 square

feet of total floor space. The architects claim that the traditionally styled, two-storey unit, which is only 14 feet wide, could be built in most Canadian cities for construction and labor costs of $40,000. They estimate that, if the house were built a half-hour’s drive from downtown Montreal, the land cost would be $12,000 and the total cost to the home buyer would be $65,000. Said Rybczynski: “We knew that we couldn’t do anything about interest rates—I don’t think anyone can—and we couldn’t do much about land costs except to reduce the lot size.” Still, in some parts of Canada, land costs are much higher than in Montreal. Frank Clayton, president of the Toronto-based market research firm Clayton Research Associates, estimated that in Scarborough, Ont., the price of a Grow Home lot would be about $50,000.

The Grow Home is a basic, no-frills unit designed with young, first-time homeowners in mind. The architects assumed that the buyers will do some of the finishing work themselves: the top floor is an unpartitioned loft-like space that can be used as is or transformed into two bedrooms with the addition of a wall. The home is also designed so that owners can build additions on the front or back at a minimal cost. The prototype at McGill did not have a basement, but buyers could select one from an options list for an additional $4,246. Still, Friedman acknowledged that there is public reluctance about smaller houses. “Today’s first-time buyers grew up in the homes of the 1960s, and they are accustomed to large spaces,” said Friedman. “But when they try to buy one of these homes now, they see that they cannot afford them.” Adjustments in attitudes may also be needed to translate the ideas of the Housing on Toronto’s Main Streets

competition into practice.

Said architect Donald Schmitt, a partner in the Toronto firm of A. J. Diamond, Donald Schmitt and Co. who acted as a professional adviser for the competition: “There is a perceptual problem that living above a store on a main street is a secondor third-class level of accommodation.” But he added, “If the units are well designed, I think that it is a very desirable place to live.”

Organized by the City of Toronto’s planning and development department, and sponsored by municipal and provincial levels of government, the competition called for architects to design buildings with a maximum of five sto-

reys, featuring retail space on the ground level and reasonably priced residential units on the upper floors. At present, most buildings on the city’s neighborhood main streets are between one and three storeys in height. But Toronto’s planning department estimates that increasing the density in these districts by making the buildings taller could add approximately 80,000 housing units to the city.

For developers and planners, building residential units on existing urban streets makes good sense. Said competition co-ordinator

Lome Cappe: “The infrastructure is already there— public transit, parks, schools, churches, sewers. Everything, in fact, can handle more people living in the city.” He added that, instead of having to service raw land for new communities on the city’s outskirts, the Main Streets project provided “a way of intensifying use and strengthening the inner cores of many cities.” Response to the competition exceeded the organizers’ expectations: they received 1,100 registrations, some coming from as far away as China, Yugoslavia and Turkey. A total of 335 designs were submitted. In the end, the jurors awarded all 23 prizes to North Americans. The $10,000 grand prize went to a submission by Alain Carle, Denyse Gauthier and Nicholas Roquet, a team of architectural students at the University of Montreal. The team won for a theoretical

entry that set out guidelines

for main-street developments on a city-wide basis. All of the other winning entries were for buildings designed for one of the sites specified by the organizers. One design tucked a residential complex of smaller components between two existing historic buildings, forming a small courtyard in their midst, and another proposed studio residences for artists on Toronto’s bohemian Queen Street West district.

Because Housing on Toronto’s Main Streets was an ideas competition, there are no immediate plans to build any of the submissions. But

city officials intend to use the entries, combined with related parking and economic feasibility studies, as a basis for rethinking current zoning regulations. In many Canadian cities, existing bylaws make it difficult, if not impossible, to increase residential density. Because few Canadian cities permit lots less than 20 feet wide, the Grow Home, which is only 14 feet wide, would require a permit from the municipality if it were to be built on a smaller than average lot. Similarly, the high number of parking spaces that Toronto currently requires for new residential units could invalidate many of the Main Street competition entries. Said Gary Reardon, first vice-president of the Canadian Homebuilders Association and president of Reardon Construction & Development Ltd. in St. John’s, Nfld.: “The capability to build affordable homes is there. The problem is often overly stringent municipal regulations.”

But bylaws are only a symptom, and not the source, of the difficulty. “The problem is NiMBYism [not-in-my-backyard syndrome],” said Reardon. “If you’re living in a $200,000 home and someone wants to build $100,000 homes in the neighborhood, your first inclination is to say, ‘I don’t want that.’ ” In the months to come, NiMBYism may be put to an interesting test in Vancouver. The city has set up an initiative designed to help older residents who want to remain in neighborhoods where they have lived for some time, but who are now finding their large homes difficult to keep up. The city bought a plot of land in one such area for a test project. An architect designed an apartment building that looks like a house on the site for the older residents. It is denser than zoning regulations currently allow, but the residents themselves are knocking on neighborhood doors and explaining that they are the people who would be moving in if a zoning exemption is granted. By moving into the townhouse, they would free up their own sought-after larger homes. Said Ann McAfee,

_ associate director of planning for the

City of Vancouver: “It’s a way in which people who live in a neighborhood can help themselves.”

Only a generation ago, owning a home was something that the majority of North Americans looked forward to as a matter of course. But, in recent years, young people of moderate income have watched the prospect of home ownership recede. “In the long run,” said Reardon, “I think you have to educate people. You have to say to them, look, you bought your home in the 1970s and you’re okay, but think of your sons and daughters.” The idea of smaller homes and denser residential areas may be one whose time has come. In many parts of Europe, noted Friedman, narrow, tightly packed homes have long been considered desirable properties. Said the architect: “We’ve learned lessons about cars from Japan. Now, we have to learn lessons about housing fom Europe.”

PAMELA YOUNG