Editorial: We need new facade concepts to support urban densification

Building facades need to change for urban environments.
Patrick Flannery
October 10, 2017
By
Canadian author Margaret Atwood has been in the news lately over her opposition to a modest three-storey high-rise development proposed in her posh Annex neighbourhood in Toronto. It’s a leafy suburb that is one of the few remaining areas in the city with big houses, big yards and relatively convenient access to the downtown core.
The papers love the story because of the whiff of hypocrisy. Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale) is a noted liberal and environmental activist who we would presume is a proponent of urban densification. But when those densely packed masses are looking down into her multi-million-dollar back yard...not so much.

It’s easy to chuckle over the prospect of Canadian royalty like Atwood looking out her kitchen window and seeing a guy like me doing Tai Chi in his Speedo on his balcony (Have you seen the Home Hardware commercial? Cracks me up every time).  But I can muster up some sympathy because some substantial money is at stake here. Houses in her part of the Annex go for anywhere from $3 to $6 million. Having bought your little chunk of paradise, a high-rise getting plunked down next door could strip hundreds of thousands or millions off the value of your asset in one stroke.  Even for people who can afford it, this seems a harsh fate.  Yet conflicts of this kind will only become more common as cities struggle to balance their mandate to stop sprawl with the rights of existing homeowners.

Maybe there is something our industry can do to help. Judging from the aesthetics of the condos flying up along the Gardiner, I wonder if we are putting enough thought into how our new buildings look and how they integrate with the existing built environment. Would someone like Atwood complain if the new building was attractive and architecturally interesting? Well, probably, but maybe less. After all, she does live close to Casa Loma, which is quite a bit more than three stories high but could hardly be deemed an eyesore.

Short of building faux-medieval castles, perhaps there is an opportunity for more creative and attractive facades using custom-made curtainwall, windows and window wall solutions. Maybe the harsh straight lines and glinting metal of standard high-rise construction can give way to something more muted and homey that works on a suburban boulevard. It would seem the opportunity is there for anyone who wants to try, as multi-family residential projects continue to surge in all metropolitan areas.  

If you are experimenting with new window wall designs, you’ll want to check out our cover story in this issue by the good men of Morrisson Hershfield, George Torok and Yvon Chiasson. Last issue, they told us how window wall has changed over the years and what the codes and standards are calling for now. This issue, they’re telling us how to go beyond the codes and achieve results that will meet the approval of even an angry novelist. •

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