Towering drawbacks

Richards & Davie, Vancouver

Prof. Patrick Condon, senior researcher with the Design Centre for Sustainability at UBC, reports back on the tower and podium form’s suitability for Vancouver neighbourhoods and quartiers (full article here):

First, if you follow [towers & suburban sprawl] approach you end up with two cities. A city of gleaming glass towers spread like beads on the string of the Skytrain line, disconnected with the surrounding areas they overshadow. 

Second, it sentences neighbourhoods between stations to a future of slowly aging residents, gradually shrinking populations, more empty classrooms, restricted access for young families, fewer commercial services, and an increased dependence on the car to get around.

Third, while it is true that high-rises, when combined in large numbers, create GHG-efficient districts, the buildings themselves are not as efficient as mid-rise buildings. While it is possible to build a very energy-efficient high-rise and indeed possible to build one that even produces energy, that type of building is not the norm in our city. High-rise buildings are subject to the effects of too much sun and too much wind on their all-glass skins. And all-glass skins are, despite many improvements to the technology, inherently inefficient. Glass is simply not very good at keeping excessive heat out, or desirable heat in. Our high-rises, according to BC Hydro data, use almost twice as much energy per square metre as mid-rise structures.

Fourth, we worried that while high-rises are an attractive option now, how will they age? Vancouver is full of examples where single family homes have been adapted to house two or three or four families, with dormers added here and garage suites there, and basement suites inserted. But try as we may, we couldn’t think of an example where a high-rise had been adapted to a different circumstance. It seems a high-rise is forever.

Fifth, high-rise buildings built largely of steel and concrete are less sustainable than low rise and mid-rise buildings built largely of wood; steel and concrete produce a lot of GHG. Wood traps it. Concrete is 10 times more GHG-intensive than wood.

Sixth and last, our guest lecturers made us painfully aware that people living in single family homes do not appreciate high-rises as neighbours. Politically, it is a nonstarter. So the prospect of supplying the tens of thousands of housing units that our young families and elderly need in high-rise structures seemed naive at best.

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