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

An exchange of ideas on urban issues affecting Hamilton

Urban design and the built environment significantly influence the lifestyle and quality of life of city dwellers. However, those who interact and experience cities every day don’t always get the opportunity to be heard and impact the decision-making process.

We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.

Winston Churchill

urbanXchange is a panel discussion and community gathering that looks at Hamilton’s current socioeconomic challenges, giving people the chance to express their views and suggest solutions. In a City under financial, social and cultural transition, questions and concerns have the tendency to grow rapidly and eventually replace positivity and optimistic thinking. Citizens have the need and the right to receive information directly from decision makers, pose questions and discuss matters from their own point of view.

urbanXchange discussions do not take sides nor present a subjective reality. The aim of the panel discussion series is to give people the opportunity to explore urban issues, based on panoramic views that are inclusive of all opinion.

Established industry professionals from Hamilton, the GTA and beyond, are invited to share their knowledge, express their views and discuss specific urban issues and concerns. Laura Babcock, a nationally established communications professional and community expert moderates the panel, hosted by dpai principal & CEO David Premi. All urbanXchange series panels can be viewed at The O Show on Cable 14 or on Facebook.

To date, topics have included gentrification or renewal, the future of transportation, intensification, sustainable cities and most recently art and place-making. If you have a topic you’d like to see covered, please reach out to us at info@dpai.ca

AN INHABITED SPACE IS A LIVING EVENT

Image and Article by Ala Abuhasan

In the last couple of years, we have been introduced to “interactive architecture” as architecture that moves, changes and is perhaps affected by its users. However, interactive architecture is not strictly kinetic or physically moving; rather, it is architecture that suggests events and influences the behaviour of its occupants.  During an interview about the topic, Brian Massumi states that “what is central to interactive art is not so much the aesthetic form in which a work presents itself to an audience … but the behaviour the work triggers in the viewer.”

A good example of this is the Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa. The museum has very minimal character. It is made of a single concrete shell with two elliptical openings connecting the interior space to the surrounding environment. In 2010 the museum was home to Matrix, an installation by Rei Naito. The installation constitutes of water droplets entering the space through the elliptical openings and landing on the concrete floor. Once inside, the droplets move on the floor’s gently sloped surface and gather in small puddles. The installation is not static; it changes daily as the wind moves the droplets from one place to another.

We enter the space barefoot, in silence. The space of the museum is empty except for the small water droplets. The rhythms of natural light flooding the interior and wind moving the small water puddles intensify our sensory functions and make us more attentive. The space invites us to listen, slow down, pause and reflect. It demands our physical and emotional engagement. The integration of architecture, art and surrounding nature creates an immersive environment. This is interactive architecture: it has the power to affect us, to make us feel, to “trigger our behaviour.”

Teshima Art Museum. Photo by Iwan Baan

Interactive architecture is like abstract art—its materials exceed their materiality and become a form of pure expression. An abstract painting, for instance, is not the sum of the materials it’s made of—paint on a canvas—it is the movement, the emotion it evokes and the behaviour that results.

We spend our lives inhabiting spaces that are designed. As architects, considering the fully lived experience—rather than strictly focusing on the predefined function or materiality of the space—will allow users to resonate with, to feel, to experience and to remember not only the spaces we create, but their experiences within them. After all, the two are inseparable.

PUBLIC ART AND ITS IMPACT ON CULTURAL IDENTITY

Article + Image by Wendy Yuan @tearypuppet

As we go about our busy lives, travelling from point A to point B, we often encounter works of public art without noticing or appreciating them. Their importance is casually undermined. Some people may spare them a glance, and some may question their purpose; frankly, I am not completely innocent of such behaviour. However, I have grown to value the richness public art can bring to our cities.

What is public art?

Mural, Artist Unknown

Plainly put, public art is art that is intended to be displayed in public spaces. It can take the form of all types of media, including monuments, architecture, street performances, murals and beyond. Whether permanent or ephemeral (designed to respect the life of its natural setting), it is used as a tool for artistic expression, community education or celebration of space.

Why do some people dismiss public art?

  1. Expensive. When a city decides to install a six-figure piece of public art, taxpayers undoubtedly question whether it is worth said value or just an awful misuse of their money.
  2. “Tasteless”/ “What does it even mean?!” This reaction often comes from a large disconnect between the artist and the audience. The public’s lack of understanding of the artist’s intention in their use of form and material contributes largely to their disinterest in public art. Though admittedly, some works could simply fall under the category of “ugly”.
  3. “Insensitive subject matter.” Recently, Gaetano Pesce’s Maestà Sofferente in Milan sparked public outrage. The outdoor sculpture, shaped in the form of a woman’s torso, angered feminists who believed it objectified women. Although the artist claimed his intention to be completely the opposite, he and his audience could not on meet on the same page.
  4. “Why do we need public art anyways? Let’s talk about it!

What are some good examples of public art, and why are they important?

Monumental statues:

The Statue of Liberty, New York

One of the most well-known examples of public art is the Statue of Liberty in New York, a torch-bearing female form that embodies so much cultural and historical significance that she inevitably finds her way into the sights of every tourist’s camera. Manneken Pis in Brussels and The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen occupy a similar iconic status. As defining symbols of their cities, these monuments have shaped the identity of their respective cities’ residents.

Pressing global issues:

My favourite type of public art is that which conveys thought-provoking messages. Ai Weiwei’ s Refugee Art Installation is one example. On the six Corinthian columns of Konzerthaus Berlin, he hung thousands of orange life jackets used by refugees. Regardless of one’s political take on the refugee crisis, the bright orange of the life jackets, in contrast with the weathering classical architecture, fills our view and sends warning signals to our brain. Similarly, Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson another beautiful yet daunting installation featuring 12 icebergs melted-off of a fjord in Greenland, harvested and displayed in prominent urban settings in the formation of a clock. This piece of land art makes it clear: we must act immediately because global warming is an urgent matter. We do not have much time left!

Architectural expression:

On a larger scale, architectural structures can also fall into the category of public art. For example, the Serpentine Galleries annually commission the world’s renowned architects to design a pavilion. Through this platform, architects experiment with technologies, materials, spaces and their relationship with people, and showcase their unique styles in architecture. SANAA’s 2009 Pavilion resembles their J Terrace Café in Okayama, which I had the good fortune of visiting this year. Bjarke Ingels’s 2016 Pavilion uses a similar strategy as his Telus Sky Tower in Calgary. These intriguing structures draw the public in to explore and interact with each other while showcasing their architects’ signature talent for design.

Landscaping:

The Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

To stretch the idea even further, the towering Supertrees and surreal Cloud Forest of The Gardens by the Bay in Singapore can collectively be considered a grand gesture of public art, responsible for greening the country. And like the Statue of Liberty, this horticultural attraction defines the community, shapes the city, and influences those who live near it.

And more…

I could keep listing all the forms of public art I have fallen in love with but ultimately it is our individual and communal experiences with them that really make a difference. It is hard to say that all public art is beautiful, however for those that are, we should spare a moment of appreciation. If we replace our attitude of dismissal with curiosity and an open imagination, it is not difficult to get past our fleeting assessments and stop to truly recognize the opportunity for cultural impact that public art offers our lives.

THIS IS NOT A PARK

Spaces are shaped by the people who occupy them. Public space is any area available to the public that is open to experience and enjoy. We own public space. We make it what it is.

THIS IS NOT A PARK is a pop-up opportunity in Hamilton, Ontario, for the public to enjoy an urban park experience through engagement and human activation. A sign reading “THIS IS A PARK” illuminates when participants enter the space. Without the presence of people, the sign turns off, reading “THIS IS NOT A PARK.” The portable park demonstrates that urban space comes to life when in use and that any public space has the potential to be enjoyed, even in the most unlikely of places. THIS IS NOT A PARK brings to light and celebrates our city’s underused spaces.

THIS IS NOT A PARK was originally designed for 100in1 Day Hamilton, an event showcasing innovative urban interventions by everyday residents around the city. The juxtaposition between the shortage of downtown park spaces and the abundance of forgotten or misused spaces in Hamilton calls for action. Common spaces such as sidewalks, alleyways, parking spaces and empty lots all have the potential to become vibrant public realms full of interaction and life. This installation seeks to activate these spaces and will be showcased in a number of locations throughout Hamilton which we have deemed forgotten or misused.

We aim to build a sense of community within these reclaimed urban spaces by encouraging meaningful interpersonal interactions and by inviting participation from all members of our city. The simple and raw design captures our vision: transformational, ephemeral, mobile and most importantly, activated by you!

Thank you to park sponsors:
LED Solutions
Historia Building Restorations
Beach Road Steel
Marshall Electric Contracting

WHY I DON’T LOVE GLASS BLOCK

By Patty Clydesdale, Registered Interior Designer, dpai architecture

My colleague Petra loves glass block. Ok, full disclosure, I don’t hate it. I love glass block when it’s used in a clean façade of a building against a backdrop of white stucco, and with an interior space that’s minimal and strategic. The play of light and shadow on a clean backdrop of a wall is to be celebrated. Just watch Agatha Christie’s Poirot for glass block that is on point and in context.

It has its advantages. It’s inexpensive (kind of), it can be easy to install and it provides limited privacy. Most importantly, it lets in glorious, beautiful natural light that is refracted into an interior space through the inherent patterning of the glass. What’s not to like about that you ask?

In my opinion, these qualities do not redeem its ugliness when used out of context.

Although glass block can provide access to natural light while covering up an unsightly wall or exterior view, there are many more effective ways to do this, like installing an operable window, or a sliding or overhead door. If that is out of the question, work with your neighbour to beautify your view: paint a mural, build a community garden wall, hire a graffiti artist if you wish to celebrate an urban landscape and your neighbourhood. Chances are if you could haul away the unsightliness, you would. If you can’t, make lemonade out of lemons. But, please don’t hide away from humanity and context – embrace it.

Glass block imposes an inherent grid pattern obstructing the view and casts a gridded and mottled pattern into the interior space.  It can limit you to embrace the shadow cast as the main event. As a designer, nothing drives me crazy more than when a door or small window is removed to be filled with glass block, or worse, like when an original stained-glass window is replaced with glass block.

If I’m being honest, glass block is not the issue. The issue is in its application. Glass block has become a tragic victim that I cannot continue to blame. When it comes to glass block, and all good design, there is a need for knowledge and advocacy.

DESIGN DISRUPTION

Rendering of a proposed streetscape by dpai.

Historically, disruption has been associated with bad behaviour; we all remember those disruptive students at school. But today it has evolved to have a different meaning. From a business or organizational perspective, “disruption” is defined as changing the traditional way that an entity operates, especially in a new and effective way.

Disruption is now ubiquitous. Profound transformations in industries such as transportation, hospitality and music continue to occur through disruptions sparked by Uber, Airbnb and Spotify. The design industry is no exception. Tradition must be challenged if a design process is to be robust. 

Creating a virtual reality

Today, designers can create functional, virtual replicas of their projects, neighbourhoods and cities. These virtual models can be navigated in 2D or visitors can be immersed in virtual reality. Bus schedules, tree species, existing built fabric, complete with materials and textures, and an accurate daily cycle of the sun’s path can be embedded into these models. Cars and pedestrians roam the streets based on actual traffic data. Soon we will be able to include dynamic computer simulated wind, air quality, and temperature data to assess the environmental impacts of a change to the built fabric.

Unlike the cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming practice of wind tunnel testing, unlimited iterations of a proposed building or park can be studied “live” with this technology. Designers can see the impacts of their design as it is in its virtual context. Through web sharing of the model, the visual and environmental impacts can be experienced dynamically by many groups of people simultaneously. Public consensus at this scale could have a profound impact on any political issues surrounding a proposal.

Disrupting traditional processes

As a public engagement tool, this technology has the capacity to seriously disrupt both the traditional development and planning processes. Imagine a proposed building, twice the height permitted by zoning, is empirically and publicly demonstrated to have only positive impacts. Conversely, what if a permitted height is shown to have unacceptable impacts, pressuring developers to reduce the density on which the economics of a development were based? Land values could be affected on a hyper-local level.

Could virtual reality hold the answer to a truly democratic and participatory urban design process?

CITIES AS A CANVAS FOR EXPERIMENTATION

Collage by Petra Matar

As architects and urban planners, we need to let go of the idea that we have complete control. Instead of thinking of our work in terms of a final product, what if we approached it as an ever-changing canvas, that both shapes and is shaped by people and the environment?

Architecture isn’t a linear process with a single vision of what is right, but rather an infrastructure of human life, within which users and their activities move, adapt and change. We don’t see our work as absolute – it is an intuitive collaboration of many inspired individuals overlaying their visions in a shared community. We need to employ intuition and encourage participation in modifying and creating environments that perform and inspire.

A disconnected design process

The making of structures and cities has become a disconnected process. Codes, regulations, minimum requirements, deadlines and budgets tend to reign supreme over intuition and thoughtfulness. These are crucial factors, but too often ignore qualitative conversations and considerations.

A property built by a developer is typically built to maximize revenue – an understandable requirement – however, its contribution to society cannot be ignored. The process of city building can and should give designers the opportunity to practice good intuition, and end-users the freedom to participate and modify their environment.

Hands-on growth

The organic formation of dense human habitation in many parts of the world holds intrinsic beauty and order, as a manifestation of immediate human need with a close relationship to materials, highly conditioned by scale.

Photo by Agung Raharja

Densely inhabited areas can inspire cities to grow according to need, employing experimentation and improvisation. They represent spaces that have been designed with human scale fundamentally considered. Cities are an act of human creation – why not design them to celebrate human participation, ingenuity and creativity?

Opportunities

Imagine a design process that sees beauty and opportunity in experimentation; design born of imagination, fully driven and supported to apply and experiment with its vision. Imagine a city that is a canvas of experimentation.

Our wish is for cities to invest in realizing bold new ideas – not for the sake of self-image, but for the sake of society. Despite our best efforts at planning, cities grow and change over time without end results being fully known. As city dwellers, we must be encouraged and empowered to participate in the creative evolution of our urban environments