Cross Laminated Timber and ‘the Timber Age’

Cross laminated timber, for some reason, has always been the most popular topic on this blog. The most read article on the blog in 2016 (and ditto for every other year I’ve been writing) was about this unique building material that seems to be challenging pre-existing notions about what can be built with wood. 

Some readers are apparently well versed and seem to be seeking out information about this product, but for those who aren’t as familiar, cross laminated timber is a wood product that is engineered to create panels that are much thicker and stronger than typical ply wood. These panels can be insulated and use to build walls and even structural elements in buildings. Wood in general is considered an excellent building material from a sustainability point of view because of its low embodied energy, renewability, and the fact that forests absorb carbon. 

So what’s being built these days, using cross laminated timber? The answer is all kinds of buildings including some of the greenest buildings being built today. Some examples can be found here, in this Dezeen article about the ‘age of timber’.

Density Can Be Done Well

Issues in North American cities today include housing affordability, unpredictable energy costs, climate change, aging population, public health, placelessness, and identity. There are answers and they are part of city building. This is the main message of Brent Toderian’s presentation today at the Canadian Institute of Planners. 

Doctors and health practitioners are starting to speak loudly about the importance of walkable and dense neighbourhoods to public health. Sprawl has real economic cost too. Even conservative analysts now admit that sprawl costs more in terms of delivering services like sanitation to municipalities.
Cities and suburbs are changing, not because of ideology but because of better math. 
Simple innovations will save our cities, like wheeled suitcases and wheeled shopping bags. This much more so than driverless cars.
Demographics are pointing toward more urban living for families and for millennials. The narrative that families don’t want to live in urban situations is simply not true, if the appropriate services are provided. 

Vision, will, and skill are the basics that cities need in order to innovate around providing increased density. Vancouver is proving in scores of ways, that density makes good cities. Calgary, though, too is making a lot of the right decisions. 

Medellin and Bogota have good transit and increased attention on urban mobility, public space, and social equity. But the key urban problem in all these cities is sprawl. The key problem with sprawl is automobile dependence. If you can’t get anywhere except by car, you live in sprawl. 

Brent is working with aging malls to retrofit dense urban living on these properties. 
“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” – Lewis Mumford, 1955

Vancouver and all the other ‘cool’ cities are tearing down freeways to restore neighbourhoods. Toronto had the opportunity but failed recently [with the Gardiner Expressway].

Vancouver has changed the prioritization of modes; it designs for pedestrians first, bicycles second, transit third, moving goods fourth, and cars last. If you design a city for cars it works for no one. If you design a street for people, it works for everyone, including cars. 

Density done well includes consistently high quality of design both in terms of landscape and architecture. Vertical sprawl is car reliant neighbourhoods with taller buildings. This is not urbanism. Great design creates value (see photo). 

Brent Toderian talking about how great design creates value in cities.

Density done well requires a diversity of amenities. These should be requirements for good development. Density done well requires innovative green development. Vancouver’s South False Creek with its district energy plant is a great example. 

Neighbourhoods change. This is a reality. We need housing types that fill in the gap between single family and mid-rise development. 
We need to get from NIMBY to QUIMBY – QUality In My BackYard.
Brent closed by saying that making it real takes vision, will, skill, and follow though!

In The Q & A, one of best questions was about adding requirements for three bedroom units in developments. The person asking indicated they didn’t have a legal basis to make this a requirement, yet it’s broadly known that families would be more likely to move into the city if there were larger units available. Brent responded by talking about how when proponents request zoning changes, Cities can absolutely set requirements that are backed up by facts.

Toderian UrbanWorks


What Is A Smart City?

The city of the very near future will be a place where citizens are both content users and providers. It will be a place where street lights and fire hydrants and transit systems communicate back and forth with smart phones. It will be a place where decision making is shaped by all kinds of streaming data from traffic conditions to weather to pedestrian movements. It will be a much more sustainable city because of innovations in technology.

One of the best presentations I attended at last week’s OAA conference was the “Toronto: Smart and Connected” tour led by Waterfront Toronto’s Kristina Verner, Bill MacGowan of Cisco,  and Joy Henderson of Cityzeen. Together they introduced the architects in attendance to the mind expanding ways in which Toronto’s waterfront is developing.

Kristina Verner compares the scale of Waterfront Toronto with other similar developments. Photo by the author.

Kristina talked about the role of Waterfront Toronto in these developments. They currently require what she called LEED Gold ‘plus’, for new buildings, bringing their requirement close to Platimum. Their new CEO, William Fleissig is an architect from California and has experience leading cutting edge  sustainable developments. Watch this space for innovations in the sustainability realm. 

Waterfront Toronto housing has 1 gbs upload and download speeds to ensure that residents can be both content users and providers.
The Toronto lakefront has become an innovation corridor stretching from the Central Waterfront to Pinewood Studios
Public space is key to the new waterfront and 24 new parks have been created. 
Queens Quay has been updated to feature a new bike lane, dedicated streetcar lanes, and granite paving. Surprisingly, it works better today than when it was four lanes. 
So far, $1.26 Bn investment has generated new private sector development valued at $9.6 Bn.

The smart city is literally under development at Cisco’s  new Innovation Centre on Toronto’s waterfront. Bill MacGowan showed us some of the high tech ideas they’re working on including smart fire hydrants, remote charging for devices, smart lighting that is controlled by a smart phone. 

Cisco’s Bill MaGowan talks about intelligent infrastructure.

Design is Disruptive

Good design is often about doing things in a completely different way than they’ve been done before. And when you’ve innovated and found a better way you really can’t go on doing things the way they’ve always been done. In this way, design is disruptive to the status quo. CBC and Matt Galloway have created a new series about brilliant Canadian designers and their work, called Disrupting Design, and I’m very pleased that a project I worked on, Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, is featured in episode 3. 

I think you’ll agree that the series is very well done, and makes a compelling case for design innovation. In episode 3, Greg Colucci and Marian Walsh talk about the patient centred design innovations that took place at Bridgepoint and how they have improved patient outcomes.

As is often the case with hospital architecture, the design team for Bridgepoint was extensive including multiple firms; KPMB, Stantec, Diamond Schmitt, and HDR made up the architectural team. The project has recieved many accolades for design excellence including from the American Institute of Architects, the Ontario Association of Architects, and others. 

The video is available here. Bridgepoint segment begins around minute 8.

 Images are stills from the CBC tv series Disrupting Design.  


Accent on Urban Illumination

What do people imagine when they think about Quebec City? How about other cities? I’m not basing this on anything scientific but I feel like Qubec has become, among many other things, a night City. That provincial capital has been working on and advertising their ‘night scape’ for many years and I think the result is that night time in that city has been imprinted into people’s consciousness as a great and wonderful thing. They’ve built on their image as a place tourists want to visit very successfully with this initiative.

Here in Ottawa inspired by Quebec and other cities, we’ve begun work on a similar project, and I’m very pleased that my colleague Miriam MacNeil, and I, together with Véronique Koulouris, of the Commisssion de la Capitale Nationale de Québec have had our proposal accepted to present work on these capital enhancing lighting projects. The working title of our presentation is “l’urbanisme lumière comme util de mise en valeur d’une capitale”, or “illumination planning as a tool for adding value to a capital” and it will be featured at the Accent on Planning Conference in Quebec City this summer, July 5-8.

I hope some readers will be there. Would be great to have some personal feedback.

Quebec City by night. Photo by Roman Marutov on 500px. 

Two Competing Visions For LeBreton

The last two days have seen a fever pitch of interest in the future of LeBreton Flats. The two consortia competing to develop this 55 acre site in the core of Ottawa’s Capital revealed their proposals at the Canadian War Museum yesterday and the day before. DCSLS‘ proposal and that of Rendezvous LeBreton, the two teams vying to build at LeBreton differ in interesting ways, but they both propose exciting new ideas for this part of Ottawa.

The public came out in droves to see the proposals and news coverage was extensive.  

Two artist’s illustrations, below, show competing visions for the future of LeBreton Flats.


Urbanism Online

The way we consume information about our cities is changing and so too is the way we are getting involved with local urban issues. This was an important theme of an event last week hosted at the NCC’s urbanism lab. I don’t usually blog about work, but this event was particularly good I thought. 

Speakers included Jillian Glover, Robert Smythe, Brandon Donnelly, and Marc-André Carognan and these four successful bloggers did a great job of representing the changing landscape of how we tackle urban issues in Canada today. Jillian is a Vancouverite known for her involvement in issues affecting urban families in Vancouver through her blog This City Life. Robert is an Ottawan and a fan of modernism and heritage architecture; themes of his blog Urbsite. Brandon Donnelly is the author of Architect This City and writes about urban issues in his local Toronto most notably, the Laneway Project and the fate of the Gardiner Expressway. Quebec architect Marc-André Carignan writes about architecture and urban design in La Belle Province. 

I learned a lot from these bloggers and I plan to implement some of the concepts they talked about in their own experiences with blogging about urban issues. Some ideas were directly linked to improving your readership; don’t be afraid to pitch sites like Guardian UK’s cities site about featuring your blog. Get social media accounts for your blog.

Other pointers had to do with being more focussed about what you’re writing about, like simplifying your site’s vision statement. Jillian has had a lot of success with more personalized blog posts that address issues she and her family face.  

  Ottawa yesterday evening. Photo by the author.


Giving Young Canadian Architects A Leg Up

I’ve long thought that Canada was a good candidate country to build a strong ‘brand identity’ around its young architects and urban designers. We have that northern cachet like Scandinavian countries do and we have a relatively high achieving design culture already. We just don’t market ourselves as well as say, the Dutch. 

A friend shared an article that highlights how this is all changing thanks to an organization called Twenty and Change, and an exhibit staged recently in Toronto, and continuing until February 6. 

Apparently this has been going on for four years and is responsible for raising awareness about up and coming Canadian design practices like Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture.

Many other countries actively support their design and architecture cultures, but Canada does not. I’ve had several conversations recently with people about why this is and how to build a better design culture in Canada. We don’t have a national design or building museum, for example, as do many other countries. We do have the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, but somehow the national conversation on design and building seems lacking today. Would love to hear reader’s thoughts on this.

Some of the work on exhibit at 20 + C. Photos from the Globe and Mail.   
Work by Architecture Microclimat.

A project by Woodford Sheppard.

How To Build Canadian Cities Back Up

I’m working on a white paper about fixing Canadian cities. The last ten years have left them shabby and investments have been sorely lacking. With a new government in place that has signalled an interest in infrastructure, it may be a good time to rethink some of our policies. So far I’m thinking that the outline might look something like this:

  • Invest 
  • Build Infrastructure – bridges, more rail, and housing that addresses the broad demographics that Canada boasts
  • Focus on making Canadian cities great; figure out what makes each particular city uniqueand figure out how to build on that
  • Focus on transportation types besides the automobile
  • Put our money where our mouth is on design excellence. 
  • Consider enhanced protections for our built heritage
  • Consult the public especially on the big moves
  • Build consensus 
  • Do real sustainability that meets high international standards
  • Learn from Quebec City; one of the most visited cities in Canada that has set a high standard for caring for and building on what they have

This is a start. Feedback welcome.

Image is a photo of Toronto by Klaus Lang on 500px.


Should Cities Require LEED Certification?

I put this question to Larry Beasley and Jonathon Barnett, authors of a new book called Eco Design for Cities and Suburbs, following an event at the NCC recently. Their answer was interesting and, based on their combined decades of experience with urban planning. 

Vancouver’s successes with sustainable development have provided material for this blog and were no doubt shaped by Larry in his role as chief planner for that city. His and Barnette’s perspective were interesting though.

They pointed out the difficulty with a city requiring a proprietary certification. Basically the result is a public entity tying themself to a standard which is non-governmental and not accountable to the public in the same way. Larry outlined Vancouver’s approach which was to require high performance buildings, and simultaneously modify their building code to have built in a high standard of environmental performance. 

While LEED is broadly required by agencies, states, counties, and cities in the US and Canada, including Vancouver, its application remains controversial and lobbying against use of this standard is nothing new.

Would love to hear readers’ perspectives on this.

Image: Vancouver BC, by Eric Witsoe on 500px