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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Sustainability and Tradition

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This was the second Hank Dittmar lecture I attended this week – this one at the SFU downtown campus. He subtitled this one

Architecture and Urbanism as if the future mattered

More than half the people on the planet now live in cities. The challenge now is now to make a resource efficient lifestyle. He gave the example of a slum in Sierra Leone on the sea shore. As the sea level rises this will be at great risk, but people settle there because its is a place where economic opportunity lies. the problem is that these slums do not even have the provision of the most basic services because the residents have no tenure.

The trust’s focus is on sustainability because as the Stern report pointed there will be severe economic dislocation if we don’t act, there are economic opportunities if we do act but it won’t just need market measures: it also requires government intervention. Special attention needs to be paid to transport provision and land use regulation.

He reiterated much of what he had said int he first lecture and also cited Poundbury. This is an “urban extension” of Dorchester, an existing community. 5,000 homes will be added as both mixed use, mixed income neighbourhoods each 800m centre to edge. Employment is being provided by a breakfast cereal factory where only issue is lorry traffic. “You don’t need to zone to keep these uses away”. There is also a chocolate factory, electronics companies, offices as well as mixed types of houses

Rose Town Kingston Jamaica

The major problem in this area is the dominance of gang violence, so the first thing to do was to try to create a civil society – the Rosetown Benevolent Society. Once this had been established a design charette was held.  In Kingston the government had built 4 storey apartment blocks but only 40% are occupied, and 40% of those pay rent. It is clear that this housing stock is not appropriate to the local climate or lifestyle. There is a lot of older, abandoned housing stock that could be brought back. There are some solid vernacular buildings. The residents of the area were especially taken by the notion that houses could be fixed up, and that the solution being proposed was not clearance and replacement. The trust is now teaching local people how to rehabilitate houses by acquiring skills in roofing, carpentry and so on.  An abandoned church has been turned into library, and local clay pits revived to encourage local craft potters. This is very much a bootstrap approach with finance from the Prince plus local contributions. Architects Duany Plater Zyberk have  now been replaced by a local, Ann Hodges

Green Building

In green urbanism, the building is only part of it. It is also necessary to understand that they are not “just building houses for hobbits”. They need a commercially viable proposition but at the same time are not interested in building a “tower in the park with green bling.”

At the BRE Innovation Park several companies are showcasing air tight houses made out of pre-engineered components. Britain aims to have zero carbon houses by 2016. EcoVernacular is the term used to describe the type of house that the Trust is now pursuing. This is in response to the current designs of solar passive houses which are very high tech with critical (but vulnerable) vapour barrier membranes and the need for mechanical ventilation. [Please note that the link I have provided is not one that Mr Dittmar showed, but was simply the first one in a Google search which happens to demonstrate the idea quite well.]

The Trust is now looking at solid wall masonry buildings using aerated clay blocks and lime hemp. They wanted solutions that were simple, natural and buildable as well as human to maintain and manage. Many green buildings require a high level of technical competence to maintain and if that is lost, for example by staff turnover, much of the early efficiency and comfort can be quickly lost.

BRE is also now building one demonstration house of straw bale. For all three types of house indoor air quality and marketability are proving superior to sealed unit houses.

Architectural principles

  • building for the long term
  • adaptable and flexible
  • fit the place
  • build beautifully
  • build in context

Purpose of a building is to frame a street, not to be iconic

Totnes Guildhall

Totnes Guildhall photo by Devon Perspectives

It was built on the site of a former Benedictine Priory dating from 1088 as a Guildhall and school, then converted into a Magistrate’s Court in 1624, in which capacity it continued until as recently as 1974. It also housed the town gaol, in which prisoners were held until 1887. The building is still in use for Town Council meetings and various civic ceremonies. Some of the foundations and walls date back to the time of the Priory. The wall facing the camera is adorned with overlapping slates, a technique known as slate-hanging, a characteristic of South Devon towns that is used widely in Totnes. source

A building that has lasted over 800 years, and had many different uses but is still in good condition is a good example of a sustainable building. It is something that a community will lavish care on, and with some attention to insulation and new windows will last at least another couple of hundred years more. All the materials used are local, and thus low cost. No architect was employed in its construction, yet it uses a classical theme for its columns.


Q   Could you explain your repudiation of anything modern? Was the last 80 years of architectural practice all wrong?

Q   I think we have moved into a plural time, and some people do contextual modernism. We are often told we should not be allowed to practice. Ideas about machines and humans have been shown to be wrong. Modern is not what we do, and some core ideas will have to cast aside, for example the  curtain wall. A lot of modern architecture was generated out of issues that no longer hold true. Our major critique is the vituperative nature of the debate in the UK

Q    But Vancouver does not have a vernacular: it’s all modernism

A     Which is partly why I came here. You have an urbanism that is modern. The tower with a podium does create a street but has become a rather standardised product. The Olympic village is mid rise with courtyards. I am a typological thinker and an urban designer,  not an architect

Q   Have you looked at Strathcona?

A   “I have not had time.” However he did talk about Walthamstow as an example of how to densify an existing neighborhood. They are also looking at older houses and energy performance and have found that older houses (100 to 150 years old) performed better than newer (50 year old) housing stock.

Q    What you have seen here and what are your impressions

A    He had spent some time looking at development around public transport and the degree to which work is needed around SkyTrain stations. The elevated stations that don’t integrate into neighborhoods – it seems the builders did  not understand their role as an activator in an area. A lot of work has to be done. For example while there is a lot of commercial vitality, the quality of design is not good and the urban realm not inviting.

Vancouver needs transit intensification: these commercial streets are very wide and there is plenty of space for streetcars or the “next generation of  trolleybuses” (which he did not know we had before he cam here). “You might have enough condos with floor to ceiling windows.” But compared to any place else in North America your dense city centre is much better.

Q   South East False Creek is proving to be quite disappointing and is much less than its original vision. What can we do better in later phases?

A    “I wasn’t here for the original vision but I think that the public realm, drainage and landscaping are all done well. I don’t have a problem with the scale either: 5 to 6 stories is appropriate to the waterfront site, and has to be that size to be viable. I did notice that shading has been done very carefully but no one thought of just making the windows smaller. A greater ratio of wall to void would be a simpler and neater solution.”

Q  What could we learn from San Francisco

A   SF has a major focus on having tall buildings contained in a core area, to preserve the views of the Bay from residential neighbourhoods. They have very good modelling programs for shade, light and view

The Muni metro system is excellent. As well as grade separate tracks into the downtown there are streetcars on shared rights of way plus BART and trolleybuses. “This renders car ownership an inconvenience”.

Parking limits. San Francisco now uses parking maximums not parking minimums. Controlling parking is essential to protecting pedestrians.

Q In Poundbury, how do people get to work, and do they live close to work?

A  It is an extension of Dorchester and there is a town centre in the new town but it does not have big grocery store to avoid taking trade from the existing centre. In the UK the presumption is against development. There was a big fight over the local desire for a business park instead of mixed use. Poundbury is an employnment area for all of Dorchester: about 15% of employees live in Pounbury because the employers in these new premisies moved in their existing businesses. It is on a bus route.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2008 at 11:47 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I love this ‘building for the long term’, where in BC we can’t even seem to build leak proof condominiums as they tend to rot out after only 5 years. A good example is in Ladner, where the same leaky condo affliction has now hit one project 3 times!

    Malcolm J.

    November 7, 2008 at 7:59 am

  2. The leaky condo business is due to the use of standards designed to work in the cold dry midwest. CMHC has been busy trying to dodge their responsibility for iposing standards that they knew would not work here. Oddly enough, Canadian construction techniques exported to the UK in the 1970s had exactly the same results, but the designers blamed unskilled construction workers for the debacle. And leaky condos are just the tip of the iceberg – because strata councils are ogranised and get publicity. Many single family homes leak too – as do commercial timber frame buildings, schools and others.

    But secondly we do not expect buildings to last. Design here is for buildings that may stay up for 40 years at most – and often less. We use construction techniques that are cheap and fast, and materials that are low cost. Without constant maintenance and repair they will collapse quite quickly.

    Stephen Rees

    November 7, 2008 at 10:19 am

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