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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Arch-i-text: The home development system is broken and should be fixed
Columnist Brian Marshall says we need more green spaces, not less. He argues that if we can preserve at least a part of this pine forest as a "wild space" and "green lung" park, NOTL will be better for it.

On March 18, I attended the virtual open house regarding Konik Estates’ phase two application for development of lands by Grey Forest Homes Ltd.

During this meeting, a question was raised with the applicant’s representative, William Heikoop of Upper Canada Consultants, regarding whether or not the new development would contain a park.

Heikoop responded as such: “At this time, the town has indicated to us that they do not want more parkland in this application. Rather, they would take what is called ‘cash in lieu’ of that parkland.

He continued, “So, the requirement under the Planning Act is that we either give five percent of the developable land (as parkland) or the value of that land gratuitously to the town. In this instance, it’s been indicated to us that they prefer the cash in lieu option and that money could go to upgrade or improve other parks throughout the town.”

“But,” Heikoop concluded, “that’s something from the developer and we basically cut a cheque and it’s at the town’s discretion how they use that money.”

I have criticized this cash in lieu option several times in past Arch-i-text columns.

At a time when many countries and forward-thinking corporations are working to develop practices that would increase both physically and mentally healthy, sustainable and environmentally-responsible housing options, here in Ontario, we double down on policies like this one that fly in the face of this international movement.

Moreover, these types of policies perpetuate the issues the current development model has created.

Here are some sad facts – relative to the current state of affairs – to think about.

Multiple studies referenced by Reinier de Graaf in his book, “Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession,” have conclusively shown that during the last century, the lifespan of buildings (from construction to demolition) has been reduced to half of the established historic norm.

Moreover, this reduction in building lifespan has been reliably projected to continue its downward spiral.

The international professional services firm, KPMG, did a deep dive into the development and construction sector, looking at the years between 2012 and 2015 in its “Climbing the curve” report.

The document states that this sector had the lowest productivity of any industry studied, with only 31 per cent of projects coming in within 10 per cent of original budget and only one in four projects being completed within 10 percent of their original deadlines.

So, we have the industry producing buildings with a foreshortened lifespan which are, in 75 percent of the cases, completed on a longer timeline and at a notably higher cost.

There is also a human cost to our current development model.

In 2018, the Cigna Group – a U.S. based insurance and healthcare corporation – conducted a national survey of 20,000 respondents.

Nearly half of these individuals reported that they sometimes or always feel lonely and socially isolated.

Similar studies in other countries around the world have substantiated these findings. 

The effects of this social isolation are increased health and mental health risks.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University, states, “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.”

A 2019 study led by Kassandra Alcaraz, a public health researcher with the American Cancer Society, analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from every cause for every race. Her findings were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2019.

She found that among Black participants, social isolation doubled the risk of early death, while it increased the risk among white participants by 60 to 84 percentage points.

Past Arch-i-text columns have visited the research that identifies both vertical and horizontal suburbia as contributing to social isolation, which I will not reiterate.

However, many studies have clearly indicated healthy social interaction that promotes community – and reduces social isolation – is dependent on the existence of three situational aspects within the built environment.

My “real world” interpretation and application of the academic research may be boiled down to this:

First, the neighbourhood must possess easy access to sidewalks and pathways that encourages street-level foot traffic.

Second, pedestrians must be safe and comfortable as they walk through engaging streetscapes that stimulate intellectual receptivity.

Third, the pathways must encompass communal areas (e.g. parks) where community members may gather in a neutral common space.

A built environment that encompasses these things create proximity between people, opportunities for repeated unplanned encounters with others and provide safe comfortable environs that encourages person-to-person interaction — all of which maintain community and reduce social isolation.

Unfortunately, our new developments simply do not typically enfold these vital necessities. Nor can the dwellings constructed be considered sustainable and environmentally responsible.

In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2019 “International Energy Outlook,” it’s reported that buildings account for 40 percent of total global carbon dioxide emissions.

A life cycle assessment is the systematic analysis of the potential environmental impacts of products or services during their entire life cycle.

For a standard-built 1,980 square-foot home, or a 184 square-metre masonry bungalow, the life cycle assessment comes in at 11.1 kgCO2eq/m2 a year, equal to 555 kgCO2eq/m2 over a 50-year lifespan.

When one considers the vast numbers of housing units being constructed every year, you can see where this leads.

Taken as a whole, even this small sampling of the facts suggests that a fundamental rethink of the building and development industry is in order.

Thankfully, there are projects around the world doing just that.

Take, for example, the Living Places initiative in Copenhagen, a collaboration between the Velux Group, an international manufacturer of building components, EFFEKT Architects and Artelia Group, a multidisciplinary engineering and project management company.

This initiative stepped completely away from the silo-based management of the construction industry and adopted a transformative partnership methodology.

In short, experts from each “silo” were drawn together in a single group to exchange knowledge, leverage each other’s competencies and openly share ideas to develop the project concept.

This collaboration continues through the design and prototyping stages leading to more innovative and effective solutions.

To quote from page seven of the project’s case study: “This process not only results in the completion of assignments but also in the transformation of industry culture and norms.”

It continued: “Sharing knowledge is vital in this context because it drives innovation and improvement, breaking down silos and fostering a culture of collaboration and exchange of ideas.”

“This, in turn,” it concluded, “enhances individual professional growth, keeps the industry current with new developments, and makes industries more adaptable to change, ensuring sustainability and long-term success.”

The project developed a basic design which can be utilized in more than 20 different configurations — from single detached through multi-unit complexes and retirement housing.

It embraces the healthy community criteria, considers the requirements of both people and planet, offers the opportunity to reconnect with the ecosystems that sustain us, have a life cycle assessment of just a third of standard built bungalow, but can be completed at the same cost as that bungalow.

If you’re interested, you can virtually visit the demonstration site on Youtube, in a video called “Get the learnings from Living Places.”

To return to the original point, we need more parks, not fewer.

Perhaps the town and Grey Forest might consider saving half an acre or so of the mature pine forest they propose to cut down as an urban park and eco-lung for the community.    

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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