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Fenestration Forum: December 2013

Cut corners kill condos


December 9, 2013
By Brian Burton

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For the fourth time in four years, the federal government has revised
regulations covering mortgages for new homes and condominiums.

For the fourth time in four years, the federal government has revised regulations covering mortgages for new homes and condominiums. The changes, announced in July, cut the maximum amortization period from 30 years to 25, which is down from 40 years in 2006. Through these along with several other modifications, Finance Minister James Flaherty appeared to be attempting to limit the nation’s “borrowing binge.” It certainly didn’t take long to impact the marketplace. One month later, condominium sales in Toronto dropped to 50 per cent of their historical levels.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to have to wait and see what happens as it is difficult to predict how markets will react over the long term.

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I suspect these changes impact prospective purchasers who struggle to come up with the necessary down payment. Recent reports show that the demand for one-bedroom rental condominiums increased by 30 per cent in September. When young people looking for their first place can’t make the down payment, they turn to the rental market. This increase in rental demand has also happened because construction of new rental apartments has dropped dramatically in most Canadian cities over the past 15 years. If condominium sales drop and no rental apartments are built, it’s almost certain to lead to loss of construction jobs and contribute to a general economic downturn. The same downward trend in condo construction is occurring in U.S. cities like Boston, Orlando and Chicago. This means there may be more complex factors than just these recent mortgage changes affecting the market.

If we look at where residential highrise construction came from, we may find a clue as to where it is going. After the First World War, in an attempt to address the growing slums in the city of Paris, architect Charles-édouard Jeanneret was commissioned to explore ways to house the growing number of people moving to limited space in Paris. This movement to the city was primarily the result of the devastation caused by the war and rapid industrialization, both of which brought workers into urban areas at an explosive rate. Jeanneret believed modernist architecture could provide solutions that could raise the quality of life as demonstrated in his famous quote, “Space, light and order – these are the things that people need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” The designs he created come reasonably close to what we now consider a multi-unit highrise. His book The City of Tomorrow and its Planning described a “Radiant City” composed mainly of skyscrapers within huge parks. Residents were to be housed at 1,200 inhabitants per acre, with 95 per cent of the ground remaining open park space while the skyscrapers occupied only five per cent of the site. An essential part of this plan was groups of 60-storey skyscrapers set within large park-like spaces. At the centre was a huge transportation hub with depots for buses and trains.

Jeanneret’s ideas were hugely influential, but how many urban highrises do you know of that are surrounded by acres of parkland or served by extensive public transportation hubs? I suspect that by cutting corners on these key elements of Jeanneret’s design, we have ended up with urban spaces no one wants to live in.

Partly because of our climate and our expectations of newly built construction, we spend as much per capita as just about any nation in the world, ranking right up there with the Norway, Sweden, Germany and Australia. There’s no doubt that new homes, whether they be freestanding, lowrise, townhouses or condominiums, are viewed as expensive. The lead time to complete construction can be considerable. If you consider land acquisition, permits, planning and design, and add all of these stages together, the actual construction time of a new condo complex can exceed four years. Given all these factors, we can’t afford to embrace second-rate architecture, civic planning or building engineering.


Brian Burton is a business development consultant and is serving on the Personnel Committee for the CSA’s Certification Program for Fenestration Installation Technicians. His current interests include adaptive reuse of buildings, overcladding technologies, maintenance of the building envelope and the rapidly growing use of computers in construction. You can contact him at brianburton@live.ca or visit his new website at http://burtons-pen.com


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