A WOONERF SOLUTION

How a Woonerf Could Anchor Redevelopment of the James-John South District
Paul Shaker

Good, proactive urban planning reimagines city spaces that may be overlooked but hold great potential. This is the case in the area just south of downtown Hamilton.

The James-John Street South district (SouthTown) is a diverse commercial area in Hamilton, south of the downtown Central Business District. The area contains a variety of land uses, such as St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Hamilton GO Centre as well as nodes including the restaurants and pubs on Augusta and the retail Terraces on James South. Functionally, the district extends east to the other major corridor, John Street South and includes the connecting streets such as Augusta, Young, and Charlton.

While other commercial districts around the city including Locke Street South, James Street North, and Ottawa Street North, have gone through impressive revitalization, SouthTown has remained relatively stable in its vibrancy, experiencing small cycles of decline and renewal over the past decade. There are distinct nodes of vibrancy, but the district lacks continuity and connectivity between these nodes that would help the area achieve greater prosperity.

In this context, Civicplan and dpai teamed up a few years ago to develop a concept plan for the district. Central to the plan was the creation of a focal point for the area: the Augusta Street Woonerf.

Woonerf: A Living Street

A woonerf is a concept first developed in the 1970s in Holland. The concept is to transform a street by prioritizing pedestrian and cycling over cars. It allows for street space to be flexible, used in multiple ways, for cars, parking, cycling and pedestrians. The Dutch employed the planning model in residential areas, but it is becoming more common, particularly in North America, to see it employed in commercial areas. It is also known as a “living street” and is aligned in North America with the idea of complete streets.

Common elements of a woonerf are the elimination of sidewalk curbs, and the blending of pedestrian and vehicle space. Additionally, the woonerf is designed using a different material or pattern than traditional streets to differentiate it from a traditional street, for example paving stones instead of asphalt. The benefits of a woonerf are primarily traffic calming, pedestrian safety, and bringing life to a street. It encourages commercial spaces to connect with the street through the use of patios and outdoor spaces.

The Augusta Woonerf

In the SouthTown district, the Augusta Street Woonerf would transform the underdeveloped street into a pedestrian-friendly civic space connecting the two major north-south arteries (James and John) together. Augusta Street has an excellent cluster of restaurants and pubs, giving it a base to grow street vibrancy.  However, street design and the prevalence of street front parking lots are limiting further growth. Some of the opportunities for the Augusta Street woonerf include:

1. Redesign Augusta making the street a pedestrian-friendly civic space better connected to the James Street and John Street South commercial nodes.

2. Encourage scaled infill design consistent with existing building massing at the street.

3. Introduce more landscaping and tree planting to provide some green/open space for the district.

4. Target high potential sites for initial catalyst development.  Focus on uses that are attracted to the district’s demographics, character, assets and vibrancy (e.g. post-secondary).

The SouthTown Concept Plan

This was just one element of the SouthTown concept plan, which had the goal to not only articulate a vision for the future of the area but to help guide public investment in order to kickstart development. Other key elements of the plan include:

About the author

Paul Shaker is a Principal and co-founder of Civicplan. He is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Registered Professional Planner in Ontario.

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.

#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

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

David Premi

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.

DESIGN DISRUPTION

David Premi

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

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

WHAT IS URBAN DESIGN?

David Premi

Urban design is the practice of arranging the elements of a city that provide infrastructure for a healthy, lucrative and productive environment for residents. Urban design deals with built form, transportation, density, public space, architecture, landscape design, land use, public transportation, public health, recreation, sustainability, politics, public art, micro-climates, and ultimately the character and quality of the built environment. It is a holistic practice that considers the complexities and inter-relationships of all these systems.

Urban design must therefore be a collaborative effort, and must a acknowledge and embrace the context of its political, economic, environmental and cultural complexities. Many voices must be heard and included to ensure success.

Urban designers

Unlike the roles of planners, architects and engineers, urban design is a relatively new profession. The title ‘urban designer’ was coined over 25 years ago but to date, there is no professional accreditation for this role. It is a curatorial activity that considers and acknowledges the many forces that shape a city.

Good urban design

Urban design should consider the ideal quality of the human experience. It’s proactive in that it delivers a quality master plan that the individual interventions strive to satisfy while supporting a vision. Issues arise when there is an overemphasis on zoning, often creating unnatural environments based on an artificial and arbitrary set of rules that are inherently inflexible, rigid and predetermined.

For urban designers to succeed, they need to be at the table as a primary driver of vision alongside planners. They also need to make sure that when individual interventions are made, they are not in conflict with the mission and values of that vision.

Even when the best process is followed, some results will be unexpected. Such is the nature of the complex and unpredictable system, and for that, we need urban designers.