Opinion: We’ve saved character homes before
Vancouver could improve policies to reduce demolitions of character buildings
By Elizabeth Murphy, Special to The Vancouver Sun May 24, 2014
The City of Vancouver has approved a demolition permit for the Legg House, an 1899 mansion, in the West End at 1245 Harwood Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, Vancouver Sun
Demolitions of heritage character houses are undermining the city of Vancouver’s green initiatives, affordability objectives, and neighbourhood character.
There were more than 1,000 demolition permits issued in 2013, most of them for single-family homes. Each demolition sends more than 50 tonnes of waste to landfills and results in a more affordable home being replaced by a very expensive, much larger house, which is frequently left vacant.
The loss of these solid livable homes, affordable secondary suites and mature landscaping is dramatically transforming the character of entire neighbourhoods.
The city claims there is not much it can do, but that is not the case. The city’s own zoning bylaws and building codes are largely responsible for the current rate of demolitions. This is under the city’s control.
Although demolitions in Vancouver have been a problem for several decades, recent changes have worsened the situation. Under EcoDensity approved by the Non-Partisan Association council in 2007 and implemented by the Vision council in 2009, there have been a number of zoning and policy changes that have resulted in demolitions increasing dramatically.
Contrary to Vancouver Heritage Commission recommendations, laneway housing was approved for new house development outright rather than as an incentive to retain existing character homes. Then further, the city added increases in height and density to the zoning. In essence, this has created a bonus to demolish.
Trish French, a retired senior planner with the city of Vancouver, wrote the 1994 zoning bylaw that has preserved the character houses of Kitsilano’s RT-7 and RT-8 districts (RT signifies a two-family dwelling district). It has stood the test of time and shows there are proven ways that retention of character buildings can be achieved.
Development of these zoning bylaws involved plenty of technical work detailing various types of houses and used economic analysis to ensure the end result would be fair for all stakeholders. It also involved a detailed survey given to every household to gauge support for a proposed zoning. This has proven to be successful and the economic balance has resulted in a house retention policy fair to existing owners. Property values in the Kitsilano neighbourhood areas that encourage character house retention have remained the same as in the areas that do not. A reasonable balance was achieved.
However, French noted on a recent blog posting, “Has anyone at the City contacted me about how the zoning was developed, and how it functions, to ask about pros, cons, pitfalls, how-tos? Nope. History does not exist for the current Council and senior management.”
Equally concerning is the possibility the City will just present its solution without first gathering community input. This requires very careful consideration to prevent even more demolitions than if we did nothing. Most of the affected areas have CityPlan community vision processes through which this could be implemented.
All that is needed is a fine tuning of the existing zoning, with an emphasis on retaining — and improving through renovation — solid character houses. Benefits should stop being given for demolition and large expensive new-builds that do not fit the character of the area. This requires the lightest touch, not a sledge hammer. For example, the kinds of changes contemplated by the mayor’s task force on housing that include an outright element of strata titling to the RS (one-family district) zones of the city, would increase demolition, not help prevent it.
This should be an economically neutral shift which may not be possible if strata is added to the equation. The RT-7 and RT-8 zoning allow strata because they were established in response to the existing zoning at the time of RT4 and RT5 that already allowed strata but were resulting in too many demolitions.
All RS zones currently allow three non-strata units: the main house, a secondary suite and a laneway house, thereby encouraging family use and/or rentals. The economics are unique between the zones and RS needs to be approached differently to retain the fundamental nature and character that supports rentals.
It would likely be enough to use laneway houses mostly as an incentive for retention of the original houses rather than new development, along with some tweaks in how floor area is calculated. Relaxation of building codes is likely all that is needed. This does not need to wait until the redo of the Heritage Inventory is complete. The city, with input from the community, can begin to analyze these options right now.
Currently, the imminent demolition of the Heritage A Legg residence, a grand arts-and-crafts mansion and one of the last three left in the West End, could have been prevented if the city had implemented the existing tower separation design guidelines. Only the zoned six-storey height and density would have applied.
Instead of protecting the heritage house and a large rare tulip tree, the city has approved the demolition of the house, keeping the tree, and putting up a 17-storey tower. This was not a house vs. tree decision. The city had the ability to keep both if it had implemented the zoning design guidelines. Whatever residual density was left could have been transferred to another site.
One last-ditch option is to move the house off site, but finding someone who can take this large building onto another site and work within the developer’s time frame is highly unlikely at this point.
Another cause of the excessive numbers of demolitions are building codes which are biased toward new construction and work against retention and renovation. Recent changes to the building codes will make that worse.
Although these character buildings are solidly built with high quality craftsmanship and materials, and although they are highly adaptable, their building technology is not properly factored into the building code. The systemic bias toward new construction makes bringing these buildings up to code more expensive than should be necessary. General equivalencies should be automatically applied without having to reinvent the wheel every time an issue arises, which it inevitably does.
For instance, if a character house is moved even a few inches from its original location, it automatically triggers a full code upgrade of the house. Whereas, if a house is moved outside the city to a small community such as an island, it can be placed on a new foundation and reconnected without triggering any of the costly upgrades required here. So, it is less expensive to move it far away outside of the city than only a few blocks.
A recent example chronicled in The Sun are the code upgrades triggered by the moving of the twin Tudor-style homes known as the Two Dorothies that were moved two blocks in Kerrisdale.
One of the most onerous requirements is rain screening. I have renovated many buildings of this vintage, including a 1913 heritage home for which I received a City of Vancouver Heritage award in 2007. Never once have I rain-screened these heritage buildings and yet I have added insulation to exterior walls without any condensation or related issues.
These buildings have stood for about 100 years without problems; to take off the entire outside siding, trims, windows and doors to add a rain screen with an air space is unnecessary. Most were built with shiplap sheathing that has a gap between boards, rather than plywood/chipboard used in new construction. Further, the buildings were often strapped with cedar lath. These naturally breathe, even once insulated, so the outside wall should not be replaced with a rain screen. This should be the accepted practice for character homes without having to jump through so many regulatory hoops.
I recently heard of one couple ordered by the city to add 2x6s to all of their 2×4 exterior walls to accomodate increased insulation. This was going to cause so many problems that they decided to demolish their much-loved solid character home and build new.
The priority of a truly green, affordable city should be to restore and reuse original homes, not promote demolition as currently policies do.
Those who are interested in these beautiful buildings being retained and restored on site, can gather at the Legg residence, 1241 Harwood Street, at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 25.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing & properties department and for BC Housing.
An onerous requirement of adding rain screening may be ordered for the recently relocated twin Tudor style homes, the Two Dorothies.
Photograph by: Wayne Leidenfrost, PNG