Vancouver Character Homes - A conversation

On December 2, 2016 the Vancouver Sun published an op-ed by character retention advocate Elizabeth Murphy.  After reading the piece, I felt there needed to be a response; to clarify, to disagree, and to provide a broader context. The op-ed, reconstructed as a conversation, is below.

The text of this op-ed is reproduced below in italics, with my responding commentary (in bold).

Bryn Davidson

"Opinion: City hall must act quickly to save Vancouver heritage homes"

The City of Vancouver is finally considering options to create incentives for character house retention. After years of character and heritage houses being rampantly demolished and replaced by ugly new monster houses, it is way overdue for changes to address this issue.

We are definitely overdue for a real conversation about the future of our 1 & 2 family zoned neighbourhoods, but 'character' is only one aspect of that. We also need to talk about affordability, the fair distribution of density, and climate change.  We need a broad conversation about how our leafy, pleasant single family neighbourhoods might evolve into leafy, pleasant multi-family neighbourhoods that protect the climate and provide housing options for future generations.

It's also important that we clearly separate the objective arguments for keeping old homes from ones that are based purely on an aesthetic preference or nostalgia for bygone days.  

The original heritage and character housing stock is made of high-quality Douglas fir and cedar that was built with skilled craftsmanship. These are being replaced by glue-based composite materials that do not stand up over time. The traditional wood-frame buildings like we have are similar to those in Europe that can last hundreds of years if properly maintained, rather than new construction that has a life cycle of about 30 years, sometimes even less. Over time, new materials are more susceptible to structural failure and mold than the older stock.

The idea that 'skilled craftsmanship' somehow ended in the 1940s is offensive to anyone working today who has made the craft of building their life's work.  There were cheap 'spec' houses built in 1910 along with many fantastic quality custom homes. The same is true today. The big difference is that today we are also working to improve energy consumption, accessibility, and comfort.

As for materials; to the extent that older buildings have resisted moisture damage, its largely due to the massive quantities of fossil-fuel heated air that is blown through their leaky walls and roofs every year. To say that this approach should be celebrated and protected is to willfully ignore the climate crisis and the gross inefficiency of many of these old homes.

Sustainability should require adaptive reuse of these character houses rather than demolition and putting them in the dump or grinding them up to burn as wood biofuel. 

Adaptive reuse is great, as long as it can be adaptive.  In the past homes would evolve over the decades as new additions were added for a growing family. In Vancouver - by contrast - the city's zoning bylaws limit what you can do with your house, and this challenge is compounded by character guidelines which prioritize the retention of external features and  rooflines over adaptation.

Paradoxically, our character rules often make it harder to retain and re-use those buildings with 'good bones'.

In addition to environmental sustainability and protecting neighbourhood character, the older housing stock is also more affordable than new construction on a square-foot basis. So more needs to be done with what we have.

Old homes and buildings play a key role in providing affordable housing and  supporting the formation of new businesses and cultural production, but this is true of both 'ugly' old buildings as much as 'character' homes.  An effective housing policy would remove barriers to rehabilitating old buildings, and provide incentives, but these efforts shouldn't depend only on arbitrary assessments of 'character merit'.  

Character should be part of the mix, but not the whole mix.

However, this requires a rebalancing to ensure that the economics work to encourage retention and that unintended consequences are avoided. Both changes to zoning and building bylaws, as well as how they are administered, are needed to make this work. Currently there is a systemic city hall bias towards demolition and new construction that has to change if these fine buildings are to be retained and upgraded for current uses.

There is an economic bias towards demolition and new construction that exists independently of any perceived bias by the City.  Part of this has to do with stratospheric land values which have far exceeded the value of the house, and part has to do with the necessary evolution of the city from low density suburban development toward a more 'urban' form of community. 

Some of the economic drivers are global, while others have recently been tweaked through the introduction of new taxes.  Those aside, the fact that we have high demand, limited land, low vacancy, and high land prices will continue to drive change in our neighbourhoods.

We can fight a losing battle against this change, or we can have a real conversation about how we want that change to unfold.

The intention is to change zoning to give economic incentives that favour retention of character houses in certain RS zone areas where there are larger concentrations of pre-1940s houses. But some also think that houses built during the 1940s deserve consideration as well since many neighbourhoods were built out at that time and into the 1950s. Most of these are solid and liveable homes.

There are absolutely many homes that were built after 1940 (including many mid-century modern classics) that are equally worthy of preservation efforts.  On top of that, many of our post-1940s houses have better foundations than their pre-40s counterparts and lend themselves more readily to the addition of a new top floor.

Again, incentives for retention shouldn't only be limited to pre-40s 'character' homes.

Options include allowing increased additions to floor space, additional units within the main house and bigger infills. Also under consideration is allowing these units to be either for family or rental or separate strata ownership as incentives for retention only. Incentives may need to vary by neighbourhood depending on their established character and requirements to maintain liveability. But the result should be that it is to the benefit of the retention option.

We absolutely need to bring more housing options into our 1 & 2 family zones. Ideally we would allow duplexes and strata infill in all RS 'single family' zones, and allow lane houses in all RT duplex zones. At a minimum, however, any housing options or incentives that are granted for character retention should also be granted for the retention of non-character affordable housing, or for new climate friendly homes that meet standards like Passive House or Net-Zero.

Saying that 'character' alone is deserving of these incentives is to imply that the aesthetic preferences of some community members should be valued higher than all other city priorities.

As well as adding more incentives for retention of character houses, also under consideration is reducing the size of new houses that had been substantially increased in 2009, contributing to their excessive bulk and lack of design guidelines.

In 2009 the city allowed partial basements to become full basements. There was no impact on the massing of homes 'above grade'. The idea that the size of new houses 'had been substantially increased' is simply not true. 

What did happen is that a silly and unenforceable rule regarding partial basements was removed, and - in it's place - it became easier to put in proper basement suites.  At the same time, the addition of laneway houses in 2009 allowed for even more housing options to land on a single site.

Design guidelines are so important for both renovations and new construction. Quality of design and materials that have an appropriate fit are essential to neighbourhood character, and it was a mistake to reduce them in 2009. The design guidelines in the RT 3, 6, 7 and 8 zonings designed to preserve the character of homes in given neighbourhoods have proven to be effective and they can inform what goes forward here.

Design guidelines don't lead to better buildings, they lead to a 'locking in' and repetition of the same design strategies over and over while leaving little room for innovation or diversity.  Some people don't like modern homes, but that doesn't mean that the city should be enforcing stylistic choices on individuals. Even without guidelines many people will choose to build something more familiar or traditional, but even if there are stylistic outliers, they won't 'ruin' a neighbourhood. 

In 2009 there were many who claimed laneway houses would ruin their neighbourhoods. The same is often said for modern homes, or duplexes, or multiple conversions, or anything that is an affront to the status acceded to 'single family' housing.  

Our neighbourhoods aren't that fragile. Change happens incrementally, and incremental development won't ruin a neighbourhood any more than they'll be 'ruined' by the withering of population through increasing un-affordability.

Although these proposals are headed in the right direction, much work is still required. The incentives also require systemic changes to the building and development bylaws and how they are administered.
Currently, there are many horror stories of owners even trying to do small renovations. For example, a couple who barely scraped together enough to buy a character house for their family has been in the city hall system trying to get permits for a minor interior renovation for 16 months and are still waiting for a permit to be issued. They were forced into getting separate development and building permits and to date have had 21 different staff in multiple departments involved and counting. The owners have had to use up all their renovation money on holding costs, permits, fees, and consultants, so are forced even further into debt.
Some equivalencies and relaxations have been made to the bylaws, but not nearly enough. Increased code requirements for “green” initiatives are not giving adequate weight to the environmental benefits of the embodied energy saved through retention. Many code requirements are still based on new building standards that don’t work with the older stock.

Yes, there are absolutely too many barriers and delays associated with building a single family home in Vancouver. On this we agree.

Adding character constraints, and guidelines - however - will only make this problem worse.  An RT site with character restrictions and guidelines typically takes 3x as long to maneuver through the bureaucracy as an outright RS site without those guidelines.

So larger renovations, additions or conversions to multiple strata units result in demolishing most of the existing building and replacing them to meet new code requirements rather than providing more appropriate equivalencies. This needs to change in order to retain more of the original structure, finishes and character-defining features.

Yes, many pre-1940s buildings need to be gutted and lifted so that the foundation and structure can be rebuilt, and so that the walls can be insulated appropriately.  For this reason the argument that older buildings are greener - because there is less 'embodied energy' in the materials (compared to new construction) often is simply untrue.  Most deep retrofits send almost as much waste to the landfill as a new build, and have almost the same embodied energy.

If a building is of such low physical quality that it needs to be almost entirely rebuilt, then we need to recognize that we're simply encouraging a very superficial version of fascadism; we're not focusing on true preservation or commemoration, we're simply rebuilding but with 3x the permitting delays and additional cost.  

Heritage Vancouver's Javier Campos calls this form of superficial reconstruction 'crap taxidermy'.  
We can do better.

The current secondary-suite program will need to be expanded to cover more than one unit if incentives of more units are used for retention. Remarkably, the city still shuts down unauthorized secondary suites rather than helping owners to provide additional rentals and mortgage helpers.

Absolutely. We should allow additional suites.

Overall, city hall needs to become more user friendly for owners trying to maintain and upgrade their property. Streamlining renovations rather than new construction should be the priority. One of the current proposals is to have a streamlined renovation permit process that goes through a dedicated team of staff who are specially trained for renovating character houses and conversion. Renovation applications currently go through too many hands and take way too long.
Making these changes will take time and interim measures may be required. But steps must be taken to stop the current destruction of Vancouver.
For example, solid, beautiful, heritage-listed houses are continuing to be demolished. In Point Grey there is a beautiful large 1914 heritage house at 4255 West 12th Ave. proposed for demolition in favour of another monster house. Neighbours like Clare Cullen have been trying to encourage retention of this house since it is one of three in a row that remain. Every day more of Vancouver is being lost. Time is of the essence.

We should absolutely identify the truly remarkable, exemplary, commemorative, or physically robust examples of older homes.  Where there are clusters of homes these too should be identified - and potentially preserved - through the Heritage Registry.  Let's make the Heritage Registry robust, and not limit our focus to some arbitrary age like 'pre-1940' or try to enforce character through zoning.

Retention through zoning simply layers more rules and checklists on to a city that is already struggling with the burden of it's current rules and checklists. We need a less forced approach.

Let's remove barriers and add incentives, but let's make them accessible incentives that also address affordability, the threat of climate change, and the need for more housing options.  Above all, let's have a real conversation about the future of our 1 & 2 family zones.


Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Properties Department and for BC Housing.

Bryn Davidson  (B.Eng. M.Arch LEED-AP) is co-owner and principal designer at Lanefab Design/Build. His team crafts energy efficient custom homes for both existing and aspiring residents of Vancouver.