MICRO-HOMES: A SOLUTION

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.

GRIT AND KINDNESS DESERVE BETTER

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 broadcaster, strategic communications professional and spiritual counselor. Follow Ralph on social at @RalphBenmergui

THE GILETS JAUNES: A REACTION TO PROGRESSIVE URBAN DESIGN?

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. 

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:

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.

AN INHABITED SPACE IS A LIVING EVENT

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

Wendy Yuan

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

Chloe Moss, Drew Casford, Benita Whyte, Petra Matar, Max Schramp

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

THE STRANGE PROCESS OF A THING MAKER

Photo by Hamilton Farmers’ Market

We are excited to share our latest podcast episode! This time we talk with Dave Hind, a local thing maker, visual artist and sculptor on his creative process and how he brings his ideas to life.

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.

“I’m a big fan of the process because it never follows a particularly straight line,” says Hind. Listen to the full episode to learn more about the methods of this local creator, whose collaborative and public art works can be seen around Hamilton.

Listen below or watch on YouTube
Follow Dave Hind @davehindthingmaker
Visit his website, davehind.com

VIRTUAL REALITY BRIDGING THE GAP OF EMOTIONAL CONNECTION

Max Schramp

Experiencing virtual reality (VR) was previously limited to reading books, watching television or movies, and experiencing one’s own imagination. Whether it was through the “OASIS” from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One or directly embedded in your subconscious like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, people have been fascinated by the concept of alternate realities where anything is rendered possible.

A common trope among all examples of such environments is that these realities are generally accessed through some form of game platform. I’m willing to bet there’s a whole generation of architecture students who, when asked why they chose this their field, would respond “Minecraft.” Not only is Minecraft the world’s best-selling, with more than 176 million copies sold, it is also widely considered to be the perfect sandbox game.

“Sandbox” is synonymous with the genre “Open World”, which according to Wikipedia can be defined as “a level or game designed as nonlinear” i.e. “open areas with many ways to reach an objective.” For years Minecraft existed without any storyline or objectives, but as a virtual universe where players created their own narrative. This poses the question: How does a low-resolution world of cubes with no objective or narrative keep people of all ages immersed for years? For me, the answer is an emotional connection. Experiences with other humans in real-time that harness multiple senses are the key to compelling immersion.

Virtual Connection

Over the past year, a group of friends and I have organized three “virtual festivals” in Minecraft. Our group grew up playing hours upon hours of the game during our formative years, while concurrently pursuing careers in electronic music. As we became more established artists in the electronic scene, we realized there was a clear gap in our community: it’s financially impossible for a community of international, independent musicians and fans to meet up in the same place at the same time and perform.

Using our knowledge of Minecraft, we collectively “hacked” a version of the game that would allow us to create a music festival. We built a virtual world that involved not only stages, but an entire environment to explore. This included various sculptural works, houses, carnivals, city streets, and even an art gallery featuring visual artists from our community. We asked artists to record sets and stand on the stage, “DJ’ing” in front of the crowd of virtual characters, who listened to the audio “in real life” streamed through an external website. All our marketing material was parallel to that of real-world music festivals, the exception being that the entire event took place in a virtual world.

Most people can relate to the feeling of getting goosebumps when they witness their favourite artist live, surrounded by hundreds of people experiencing the same feeling. We successfully recreated this phenomenon within a virtual reality for the over 100,000 people who attended our events. This has many implications for the future of performance art and the integrations of architecture.

VR and Architecture

There have already been multiple derivative events, but now there is now proof that virtual experiences don’t belong strictly in art galleries. As virtual reality becomes more accessible, will architects be able to immediately integrate international communities into their work? Why couldn’t millions of people attend the largest sermon in the world, all from their own home? How would one go about designing a cathedral, a temple or a mosque, for millions of people to experience? Without the limitations of physics or budget, how would the formation of spaces change? When speculative architecture has a feasible platform to exist, will it?

Applications of virtual reality in the field of architecture are still far from their full potential. Walkthroughs with VR headsets can engage with our visual senses, but truly experiencing architecture is more than that. How can we as occupants engage emotionally with the virtual representations of the built environment? How can we as architects simulate or encourage human interaction while in a virtual world? These are questions that will push the field and the technology further, as the possibilities remain infinite within virtual space.