MICRO-HOMES: A SOLUTION

By Wendy Yuan

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Homeownership has long been the “American Dream”. Achieving this dream often requires people to put their entire savings into real estate. With housing prices skyrocketing and the threat of global warming, micro-homes or tiny houses have become a suitable alternative for some.

Micro-homes refer to any residential structure under 400 square feet (37 square meters). They can range from cob houses and shipping containers to buses and even boats.

I was first introduced to micro-homes in an Architectural Technology course, where students were required to design Net-Zero Energy tiny houses for single families. The main benefits of micro-homes that appeal to me, include:

Affordability

Because of their sizes, tiny homes cost much less than the traditional options. It is less likely for people to be handcuffed to long-term mortgage loans. For example, this Japanese Tiny House on Wheels cost $30,000 USD in construction. Aside from the small purchase price, micro-homes also demand a relatively low cost of upkeep and insurance fees.

Customizability

Customizing a micro-home is more manageable than renovating a standard single-family house. Many have built their homes from found materials, others have tailored their space to their needs through DIY projects. However, what fascinates me the most is the ingenious solution to the limited space: shapeshifting. With pulls on handles, the walls slide across this 344 square feet (32 square meters) Transformer Apartment in Hong Kong, to create more “room”.

Sustainability

Tiny houses are environmentally conscious. Often constructed out of recycled materials and converted from “undesirable” spaces, they have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Some owners prefer an “off-the-grid” lifestyle, which means they must source their own water, electric and plumbing services. Introducing water recycling system, solar-integrated roofs and compost toilets!

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Micro Homes in Canada?

Although interest in micro-homes is high in Canada, municipalities are slow in accepting them. Some set a minimum square footage requirement; some even specify the colour and type of building materials. No city yet provides adequate zoning description or building by-laws to encompass tiny houses.

Progress is slow but present. Some cities, such as Vancouver and Edmonton, are softening restrictions for secondary suites. There have been plans to build communities of micro-homes in towns such as Okotoks, Alberta. The City of Hamilton has recently shown it’s progressive side by approving a zoning by-law that permits the construction of laneway houses on inner-city lots containing a detached single-family home. In this case, the size of the units are limited to 50 SM in area and 3M in height, adding much needed smaller units to the mix. This allows residents to age in place, or simply add some more affordable units to the retail stock.

Micro homes can offer refuge to the homeless, improve social wellness and contribute to the fight against climate change. Most importantly, they offer some simplicity to life. We can live for ourselves, instead of living for our houses.

#CLIMATESTRIKE

In March 2019, the City of Hamilton officially declared a climate emergency (we wrote about it here). The declaration was necessary, but it’s not enough.

We are running out of time. As architects, we are uniquely positioned to change the way we design cities and buildings. It is the obligation of our profession to exert influence over our clients, consultants, and the authorities having jurisdiction to introduce new design and building practices into the market. Net-zero buildings are easily within our reach; it’s not rocket science. It comes down to better detailing, more insulation, careful design and renewable energy. The longer-term financial viability of a net-zero building is radically better than the kinds of buildings we are accustomed to building.

In response to the Global Climate Strike, the Canadian Architects Declare pledge was created, urging architects and designers to raise awareness of the impact of the built environment on climate change and take immediate action through their projects.

About 150 architects signed the pledge, committing to:

  • Raising awareness
  • Taking immediate (and measurable) action
  • Designing for holistic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Eliminating waste and harm
  • Adopting regenerative design principles and practices
  • Advocating for the rapid systemic changes required

As architects and designers, we can make a difference. According to Architecture 2030, the urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual global GHG emissions: buildings alone account for 39%. 

We should never underestimate our impact.
Together, we shape the world.
  
#ArchitectsDeclare #StandwithGreta #DesignforFuture

GRIT AND KINDNESS DESERVE BETTER

By Ralph Benmergui

When people ask me what it’s like living in Hamilton (and believe me, every time I return to Toronto, they ask), I usually say that it’s great. Hamilton, I tell them, is a human-scale city. “But why would you leave Toronto?” they ask. “Because it’s full,” I say.

When we were considering the move (or I should say, when I was considering the move, along with my reticent family), I asked a friend who previously lived in Hamilton and Guelph which she preferred.

“Guelph if you want to fit in, Hamilton if you want to make a difference,” she said.

Case closed, we moved to the Hammer.

This is a decision I have not regretted. Here, people and the city itself, seem a good mix of grit and kindness. The working-class ethos, the waterfalls and the casual conversations just about anyone will have with you. This is a pre-war city.

But I’m not starry-eyed on Hamilton.

The car has supremacy here.  Speeding is expected. Bike lanes are nominal and dangerous in almost all parts of the city. On Hamilton’s main drag, a red light is considered an affront, as the goal is to get the hell from one end of town to the other, tout suite. This is sometimes good for drivers, but for anyone thinking of starting a small business, opening a café or even living on these corridors, good luck. I see block after block of wasted opportunities.

I’m not a city planner or a traffic flow specialist, but I am a citizen who sees avenues of loneliness and disconnection. The unfettered five-lane roadways, particularly Main Street, downtown and east end, keep us isolated.  They make daredevils of those who want to ride bikes and strangle the creative energy out of small business people who could be welcoming us into their shops.

Whenever I mention turning these arteries into two-ways with parking and protected bike lanes, locals roll their eyes and say (like those once told that one day the Berlin Wall would fall) that this will never fly in Hamilton.

What does a former Torontonian like me know about such matters anyway? Tribal war paint aside, I am a citizen with a lived experience that tells me that this city should have two thriving grand boulevards with treed pedestrian and cycling paths running through the middle of the streets. LRT, cafes, local grocers and specialty stores all the way from Dundurn to Gage Park.

So, I ask, do we need to get somewhere or be somewhere?

If we dare to move, I’m thinking that all that grit and kindness that we love so much here in Hamilton can find places to pollinate, and we might not be quite so big-city lonely.

About Ralph

Ralph Benmergui is a Canadian television and radio broadcasters, strategic communications professional and spiritual counsellor. Follow Ralph on social at @RalphBenmergui

HOW DO YOU SHAPE THE WORLD?

It was almost six months ago that we launched Shape the World blog. In that time, we’ve explored topics such as progressive urban design, social housing, public art and virtual reality, just to name a few. We also hosted four podcast episodes and an urbanXchange event.

The blog was created to promote the impact and importance of design. Although most of us aren’t urban designers, architects or city planners, we all have a major impact on the world around us. Every decision we make shapes the world in some way.

Now we want to know how YOU shape the world. We will be participating in Supercrawl 2019, in Hamilton, ON on Saturday, Sept. 14 from 2-4 pm. Stop by and let us know!

Can’t make it out? Let us know below, how YOU are shaping the world:

THE GILETS JAUNES: A REACTION TO PROGRESSIVE URBAN DESIGN?

By Nicholas Kevlahan

Gilets Jaunes meeting in Grenoble. (Credit: Coline Buch)

I spent the past year working in Grenoble, a city about the size of Hamilton (metro population: 452 000) in southeast France near the Alps.  As someone interested in urban design, I was particularly looking forward to seeing how Grenoble’s new Mayor, Éric Piolle, was implementing his bold plans to make Grenoble more environmentally sustainable, attractive and inclusive. 

These changes have included implementing a default speed limit of 30 km/h, shifting road space from cars to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit, and an effort to “green” the city by planting more trees and improving public parks.

He is also building a network of long-distance separated bike paths between downtown and the suburbs (“Chronovélo”: 44 km on four routes to be completed by 2020).  On the social inclusivity front, they will increase the proportion of geared-to-income social housing from 21% to 25% of all housing stock by 2025.

Park-like LRT lines in central Grenoble.

At the same time, however, France was being shaken by the weekly Saturday afternoon demonstrations and riots of the “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests). Although the Gilets Jaunes were protesting many different issues (including rising inequality and the reforms of the new centrist President Emmanuel Macron), at its heart the movement was a protest by those living in rural and exurban areas against those living in France’s cities. 

They were protesting not just against the relative success and wealth of the cities, but against their values.  And, in particular, the “green” environmentally sustainable values being promoted by people like Grenoble’s Green Party mayor. 

La Fête des Tuiles: a celebration of community and environmental groups on the Grenoble LRT lines last June.

It turned out that Grenoble was unaffected by the extreme violence and disruption that hit cities like Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse.  The Gilet Jaune movement was relatively peaceful and rapidly decreased in size after the initial November and December “Actes”.

But the Grenoble Gilet Jaune protests did share one common feature with these others: they were almost exclusively driven by people who came in from the surrounding regions and neighbouring departments, not by the residents of the city itself.  They were coming to protest against their fellow urban-dwelling citizens, as much as against the government. 

Why did the protesters feel the need to drive for an hour or more to protest in Grenoble (or in Paris or Bordeaux or Toulouse) rather than protesting in their local towns?

One factor is that mid-size and larger French cities really are, in many ways, very successful attractive places to live.  And in many cases, they are becoming much wealthier than the surrounding rural areas.

Public transport is excellent, infrastructure is very well maintained and they are lively and liveable.  Outside of Paris, they are also relatively affordable: it is cheaper to live in Grenoble than in Hamilton, even though Grenoble is a very economically successful high tech hub that attracts a lot of international residents.  Even though Paris is becoming increasingly unaffordable for buyers, it maintains some socioeconomic diversity because it is required (like all French cities) to ensure that at least 20% of all accommodation is geared to income. 

The attractiveness and investment in cities has paid off, but it has also accentuated the contrast with rural and exurban areas which have seen steep declines in population and resulting cuts in services. 

For many rural residents, the cities are another country filled with residents they perceive as “elites” who look down on them and their values. Gilet Jaune protesters often spoke of city residents watching their protests with a look of disdainful amusement.  They felt that they were in foreign territory! 

This protest by rural residents (not all of them poor) against the cities is an entirely new phenomenon.  It is important to note that these protests were apolitical: spanning the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right with many politically unengaged citizens in the middle.  Although various parties on the left and right tried to capture them, the Gilets Jaunes remained outside traditional politics. 

They are protesting not so much inequality or elitism per se, as the urban/rural divide.  This divide in wealth and values has developed in many countries (especially the USA), but you don’t see rural Americans travelling en masse to protest in New York, Chicago or LA!

The aftermath of a Gilet Jaune riot Saturday 25 November 2018 on the Champs Élysées in Paris. (Credit: L. Nicollet)

One little noticed feature of the Gilet Jaune movement, especially outside France, is that it is in some ways a protest movement of motorists against policies that they feel disadvantage driving. 

The protests were triggered by two reforms: a small rise in the gas tax (to reduce carbon emissions) and a reduction in the speed limit on rural highways from 90 km/h to 80 km/h (to reduce injuries and fatalities). 

Neither of these changes would seem to be that significant (in fact the second should cancel the cost of the first), but they triggered a wave of outrage in the countryside.  They were seen as the unfeeling decisions of an urban elite who didn’t care that rural residents depend on their cars.

As we’ve seen in Hamilton’s two-way conversion debate, even in cities many motorists’ self-identity is closely tied to their cars.  An attack on easy and cheap driving is an attack on me! 

One of the unofficial leaders of the movement, Éric Drouet, is a long-distance truck driver and car tuning enthusiast who posts numerous videos and commentaries on Facebook while driving around the country.  Outside the big cities, the signature Gilet Jaune actions were to camp out on roundabouts, damage photo radars and block (or make “free”) autoroute toll booths.  (At one point about 75% of all photo radars were put out of action, which resulted in a big jump in motorist deaths that the Gilets Jaunes and motorist groups blamed on … the speed limit reductions.) 

The Bulgarian sociologist Ivaylo Ditchev has even claimed that the Gilet Jaune protests are essentially a protest by motorists against the efforts of urbanites to reduce the place of cars in cities (and in society as a whole). 

The “war on cars” does not just make their life more difficult and expensive, it strikes at the core of their identity.

He points out that driving is a largely solitary, private, activity and that a motorists’ movement will therefore necessarily be individualist and lack a clear focus or political structure.  It is a reactionary movement of individuals with a range of personal concerns and priorities, not a political movement in the traditional sense. Almost all the organizing was done at a grassroots level via social media postings (primarily Facebook), rather than actual meetings or through the formation of a political party.

This is clear from the central political demand of the Gilets Jaunes (decided via Facebook polls): the Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). This is essentially government by referendum, with the aim of bypassing political parties and members of parliament entirely and letting the people make all decisions directly and individually. 

For those interested in urban design, the most important lesson from the Gilet Jaune movement is perhaps that decisions about city structure and mobility are not just about engineering, protecting the environment or optimizing how we get around. Our feelings about where we live, how we live and how we get around are central to our sense of self and self-worth.  They define us.

When the Mayor of Paris or Grenoble states that their goal is to make their city more liveable by reclaiming space that has been given over to the automobile, many people (especially rural or exurban residents) see this as a personal attack on them and their way of life. 

When these urban design decisions are actually successful (despite over-wrought predictions of disaster every time a bike lane is installed), it actually increases tensions since cities become ever more attractive places to live and work.  Those who objected to the changes forget that the city has become wealthier and more attractive in large part because of the changes they opposed.

Here in Canada, the yellow vest movement is a very different beast.  But it does feed off some of the same anti-elite and anti-urban feelings of the Gilets Jaunes.  Somewhat shockingly, the yellow vest protesters at City Hall have even used vehicles as weapons, driving a school bus at counter-protesters.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop making our cities more liveable, economically successful places (and Canadian cities like Hamilton suffered decades of under-investment and decline before their recent tentative revival).  And it doesn’t mean that we should stop reclaiming urban space lost to motor vehicles for human beings.  But we should perhaps be more sensitive to the fact that many people see these changes as threatening attacks on their core values and sense of self. 

RETHINKING SOCIAL HOUSING

By Ala Abuhasan, intern architect, dpai

Cities around the globe have been planning and building social housing projects for decades. Focused on maximizing the number of units, the quality of dwellings is usually overlooked. Generally, certain typologies have driven the way we design social housing. For instance, a top-down planning philosophy—or a military planning philosophy—is evident in many projects. This method of approaching social housing usually leads to the design of endless rows of depersonalized dwelling units. No attention is given to the quality of life nor to the community aspect of such spaces.  

An Illustration of Military Planning Philosophy

Most of these schemes are built in rural areas—far from cities and job opportunities—making them socially isolated, dehumanizing and unsustainable. Therefore, changing our approach to the design of social housing will ultimately create more sustainable communities.  

An excellent example of successful social housing is Goldsmith Street, in Norwich, England. The street is a high-density social housing scheme by Mikhail Riches. The project re-imagines social housing as an opportunity to create a highly efficient, economical, community-driven fabric within the city. The Passivhaus design of dwelling units drastically reduces fuel bills for tenants. Communal gardens and planted alleys allow for safe areas for children to play and for residents to engage in social activities. The design enhances the wellbeing of occupants and establishes a strong community.

Other examples of successful social housing include Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain by MDW Architecture. The designs focus on creating a variety of spaces to accommodate different family needs. In addition, each complex houses a children’s playground and areas for events and social gatherings.  

As architects, we work to sustain our communities. We are obliged to design good spaces that promote healthy living.  In successful housing projects, residents build emotional ownership of the place, they connect to it, they love it, they maintain it.

CIRCUS ACT

Photo from www.bexcarney.com, “Fire Jammers”

Bex Carney is a multitalented performer with experience in theatre, film, dance and circus arts. Bex spends much of her time with Circus Orange as the Artistic Director, actor, fire performer, dancer and choreographer.

dpai’s David Premi had the opportunity to chat with Bex to learn how she turns an idea into a circus performance, for the Strange Process podcast.

“With Circus Orange [it’s about] what kind of performance I can give the audience and where I can push boundaries.”

Strange Process is a series, by dpai architecture inc. and Mohawk College, where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work. Listen or watch below:

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

In the investment world, short-term investments are generally associated with higher risk. If this is true, why do investors often fail to look long-term when constructing buildings?

Many investors, donors, developers, institutions and purchasing departments embrace the lowest initial cost for their buildings and designers while placing less emphasis on the life-cycle cost and the legacy that the built form will represent.

With the evolution of Building Information Modeling (BIM) we can calculate how much a building will cost over its lifetime, which can help investors decide where to cut costs and where to spend.

The initial investment of a building includes the construction cost plus “soft costs”. A significant soft cost is the fee for professional design services such as architects and engineers. Choices made during the design phase are critical because they will continue to impact future profitability, flexibility, operational costs and occupant health, happiness and productivity for the lifespan of a building. It is during the design phase of the process that a building owner has control over how much the project will cost in the long run. It is more accurate to refer to professional design fees as an investment rather than a cost.

With the current low-margin model, buildings of relatively poor quality often reach the end of their serviceable life after 50 years, before being demolished and replaced by new ones. What once seemed like a great investment is reduced to a pile of rubble in a landfill. We know that this trend is not financially nor environmentally sustainable – and there is a better way forward.

A more profitable and sustainable model exists, allowing us to construct better quality and more energy-efficient buildings. It’s now possible to build to a net-zero standard, where buildings produce as much energy as they consume. There is also a growing trend to perform deep retrofits to existing buildings, which is a renovation of an existing building which results in a substantial reduction in energy consumption. These approaches come with an incrementally larger initial investment in both design fees and construction cost but drastically reduce operation and maintenance costs over the building’s lifetime.

To better understand lifecycle cost, check out the video below:

Common sense and history tell us that investors who take the long view are the ones who end up on top. As designers, it is our responsibility to encourage our clients to see beyond the initial costs to gain an understanding of the true value of their investment.

CREATOR OF SOUND

We had the opportunity to sit down with internationally acclaimed recording artist Jeremy Greenspan to talk about his process as a creator of sound.

Jeremy, best known as half of the electronic pop act Junior Boys, says he became obsessed with music as a kid. Today, his creative process is still something he considers to be play.

“I’m a very equipment-based, hardware-based musician. I have a recording studio where I have a lot of gear and so for me, it’s about tinkering with a bunch of equipment, some of which I’m very familiar with or some of which I’ve just got. It’s a lot about play. It’s a lot of complete randomness – it’s literally like playing with toys.”

Strange Process is a series by dpai architecture and Mohawk College where we explore and demystify the process of how multidisciplinary artists produce their work. You can watch the full interview on Youtube. Or listen here:

Check out his band at their website juniorboys.net or on Twitter @JuniorBoys.

THE ART OF PLACEMAKING

First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.

Jan Gehl, Professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture in Denmark

Placemaking is a multi-faceted, people-centered approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. For the most recent instalment of urbanXchange, dpai’s quarterly panel discussion series tackling issues concerning Hamilton and the city’s urban fabric, we looked at the role of public art for placemaking in a civic context.

“First off, we need to define public art,” said panelist and dpai architect Petra Matar. “Whatever the answer is, its role is to express who we are as a society and who we aspire to be.”

After graduating from architecture school in Dubai, Petra relocated to Hamilton because she saw the city’s potential.

Hamilton is a real city. People are invested in where they live here,” she said.

Panelist Robert Zeidler, managing partner of the Dabbert Group and owner of the Cotton Factory, a multi-use, commercial and artist studio in Hamilton, also sees opportunity in this city, believing the economic downtown following the decline of the city’s steel industry in the 1980s has made many opportunities possible.

“Without the downturn, buildings like mine [the Cotton Factory] wouldn’t exist. So much of downtown Hamilton wouldn’t exist,” said Rob. “We are in a lucky spot. We have an opportunity to ask what kind of city we want to live in.”

When it comes to placemaking, Rob says it takes more than just beautifying a place with a mural or sculpture: “It’s about using art as a driver for innovation and community building and development.”

For panelist Lennox Toppin, the purpose of public art is to provoke.

“I want a big reaction – I want it to open a discussion,” said Lennox, Board Director with the Hamilton Arts Council, which works to strengthen the role of the arts and culture in the City of Hamilton by making the arts accessible and relevant.

Also weighing-in on the panel was Ken Coit, program manager of public art and projects with the City of Hamilton, who said for public art to thrive, community members need to buy in.

“We start every initiative [with the city of Hamilton] with a focus group asking the community what is important to them. You can’t make place without the social stuff, or without the history.”

The history of our city includes Indigenous art, which panelist and Indigenous Fashion Designer, Angela DeMontigny, said the city is heavily lacking.

“Indigenous art has a story. It reminds us where we came from,” she said. “We could use a lot more visibility in the city.”

urbanXchange offers opportunities for audience participation, this time hearing from Mary Lou Tanner, Deputy City Manager at the City of Burlington, who said we all need to do better when it comes to public art and placemaking.

“If we are not paying artists for their work or investing in our cities, we are not building the connectivity that takes us from being good to being great,” she said. “There is a long history of cities disinvesting in their cores. Artists push us to think better, do better and be better.”

urbanXchange is moderated by Laura Babcock, a nationally established communications professional and community expert and hosted by dpai principal & CEO David Premi. Portions of the urbanXchange series are available for viewing on The O Show on Cable 14 and live-streamed on dpai’s Facebook page.