City hall must act quickly to save Vancouver heritage homes
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, December 2, 2016
Home at 4255 West 12th in Vancouver is yet another heritage home in the city that will soon be torn down.
The City of Vancouver is finally considering options to create incentives for character house retention. After years of character and heritage houses being rampantly demolished and replaced by ugly new monster houses, it is way overdue for changes to address this issue.
The original heritage and character housing stock is made of high-quality Douglas fir and cedar that was built with skilled craftsmanship. These are being replaced by glue-based composite materials that do not stand up over time. The traditional wood-frame buildings like we have are similar to those in Europe that can last hundreds of years if properly maintained, rather than new construction that has a life cycle of about 30 years, sometimes even less. Over time, new materials are more susceptible to structural failure and mold than the older stock.
Sustainability should require adaptive reuse of these character houses rather than demolition and putting them in the dump or grinding them up to burn as wood biofuel.
In addition to environmental sustainability and protecting neighbourhood character, the older housing stock is also more affordable than new construction on a square-foot basis. So more needs to be done with what we have.
However, this requires a rebalancing to ensure that the economics work to encourage retention and that unintended consequences are avoided. Both changes to zoning and building bylaws, as well as how they are administered, are needed to make this work. Currently there is a systemic city hall bias towards demolition and new construction that has to change if these fine buildings are to be retained and upgraded for current uses.
The intention is to change zoning to give economic incentives that favour retention of character houses in certain RS zone areas where there are larger concentrations of pre-1940s houses. But some also think that houses built during the 1940s deserve consideration as well since many neighbourhoods were built out at that time and into the 1950s. Most of these are solid and liveable homes.
Options include allowing increased additions to floor space, additional units within the main house and bigger infills. Also under consideration is allowing these units to be either for family or rental or separate strata ownership as incentives for retention only. Incentives may need to vary by neighbourhood depending on their established character and requirements to maintain liveability. But the result should be that it is to the benefit of the retention option.
As well as adding more incentives for retention of character houses, also under consideration is reducing the size of new houses that had been substantially increased in 2009, contributing to their excessive bulk and lack of design guidelines.
Design guidelines are so important for both renovations and new construction. Quality of design and materials that have an appropriate fit are essential to neighbourhood character, and it was a mistake to reduce them in 2009. The design guidelines in the RT 3, 6, 7 and 8 zonings designed to preserve the character of homes in given neighbourhoods have proven to be effective and they can inform what goes forward here.
Although these proposals are headed in the right direction, much work is still required. The incentives also require systemic changes to the building and development bylaws and how they are administered.
Currently, there are many horror stories of owners even trying to do small renovations. For example, a couple who barely scraped together enough to buy a character house for their family has been in the city hall system trying to get permits for a minor interior renovation for 16 months and are still waiting for a permit to be issued. They were forced into getting separate development and building permits and to date have had 21 different staff in multiple departments involved and counting. The owners have had to use up all their renovation money on holding costs, permits, fees, and consultants, so are forced even further into debt.
Some equivalencies and relaxations have been made to the bylaws, but not nearly enough. Increased code requirements for “green” initiatives are not giving adequate weight to the environmental benefits of the embodied energy saved through retention. Many code requirements are still based on new building standards that don’t work with the older stock.
So larger renovations, additions or conversions to multiple strata units result in demolishing most of the existing building and replacing them to meet new code requirements rather than providing more appropriate equivalencies. This needs to change in order to retain more of the original structure, finishes and character-defining features.
The current secondary-suite program will need to be expanded to cover more than one unit if incentives of more units are used for retention. Remarkably, the city still shuts down unauthorized secondary suites rather than helping owners to provide additional rentals and mortgage helpers.
Overall, city hall needs to become more user friendly for owners trying to maintain and upgrade their property. Streamlining renovations rather than new construction should be the priority. One of the current proposals is to have a streamlined renovation permit process that goes through a dedicated team of staff who are specially trained for renovating character houses and conversion. Renovation applications currently go through too many hands and take way too long.
Making these changes will take time and interim measures may be required. But steps must be taken to stop the current destruction of Vancouver.
For example, solid, beautiful, heritage-listed houses are continuing to be demolished. In Point Grey there is a beautiful large 1914 heritage house at 4255 West 12th Ave. proposed for demolition in favour of another monster house. Neighbours like Clare Cullen have been trying to encourage retention of this house since it is one of three in a row that remain.
Every day more of Vancouver is being lost. Time is of the essence.
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.
Print edition Vancouver Sun, Saturday, December 3, 2016