Monthly Archives: January 2011

Meet me At Starbucks

My goal as an Architect has always been to serve my clients and my community with good design. It has been exciting and challenging at the same time. My most difficult challenge is finding those people who want or need good design, but don’t know where to start. My hope that by offering to “meet you at Starbucks” (or Timmies if you prefer!) I can help bring answers to any of your questions, provide you with some free advice, or have a conversation about good design.

The Architecture industry is surrounded by mystery and misconception, but we want to change that.  It is true that architects are only involved in 5% of building construction that occurs around us because people don’t realize that they can benefit from an architect’s services.

Architects don’t just design the fancy buildings that catch your eye. Architects are trained to solve any problem you put in front of them, from the smallest piece of furniture, to a house addition, to zoning changes, to the local community centre.  We know that we can bring, to any design problem, creativity and problem solving to give you exactly what you need and want.

We are trained to think of every possible solution and give you the one that best serves your needs, wants, desires, budget, for now and for your future. We hope that we can design a space, room, building, garden, or deck that will make you feel good everytime you enter it.

Now, some of you might think, Architect’s just cost extra money and design things that are too expensive for my budget.  Your priorities are our priorities, so if budget is a priority we maximize the value of your budget. We also ensure that you get a good contractor and quality work from your budget. With proper planning we can actually save you money, more than the costs for our services. We can reduce your energy costs, reduce your long-term maintenance costs, get the highest quality for your resources, increase productivity, and reduce wasted square footage.

We at John MacDonald Architect believe that architecture is a team sport and we need you to play.  We are designing something truly custom just for you.  In order to do that we need your input.  We want your project to be a valuable long-term investment, with strong personal associations.

Already know a builder? That’s great! We would love to work with them to come up with a solution.  Two minds are greater than one they say and even better if one has the construction know-how and the other with a design know-how.

Think your project is too small to need an architect? No such thing. We design a service to suit your needs and your project. We want good design services to be available to everyone because a small project may loom very large to those who live with it everyday. Whether you need a more productive kitchen for your life style, a more generous entryway, a more organized storage system, more flexible offices, property selection assistance, a building inspection, or some colour advice, we can design a service to help you.

We want to bring architecture and good design to everyone who might have a question, to everyone who thought that an architect was too much for them. No question is too small for a cup of coffee, so name a time and a place and we’ll see where it leads…

Guest Blogger- Krista Hulshof M.Arch.

A New Year of Tax Fraud


Municipalities will be ringing in the New Year by ringing the cash registers, once again collecting their revenue from one slice of citizens, and using it to subsidize another. Their New Year’s resolution should be to stop this fraudulent practice, and bring tax fairness to forms of urban development that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

This practice was highlighted at a recent conference held in Toronto, called “Retrofitting and Planning Sustainable Suburbs”. Although the conference was short on answers, a presentation by Peter Katz (Director of Smart Growth for Sarasota Florida) on long-term fiscal stability for communities was most revealing. In it, Katz compared tax revenue to urban density, with surprising results.

Both our regional and local governments generate their revenue, and incur their expenses, across a specific geography. A local comparison of three different properties in this landscape shows the subsidy from higher density to lower.

The three properties?

1) A 14 storey Downtown Kitchener condo (66 units, .7 acre including its associated street area, located on a street corner used by many of us)

2) a 7 storey historic and well-kept rental property (36 units, .5 acre including its street area, 90 feet of frontage along a street used by many of us)

3) a typical suburban home (1 unit, .12 acre, 45 feet of frontage, along a street used by only its inhabitants)

The typical suburban property is valued at about $200,000, and generates $2,250 of revenue for City and Region (ie., provincial education taxes excluded).The condo property carries $9.9 million of assessment on the municipal rolls, and generates $110,000.The rental building is valued at $2.55 million, but by virtue of its more than double tax rate relative to condo and single family home assessment, that $2.5 million generates $55,000 of revenue for the City and Region.

By comparing the revenue to the area of property and street necessitated by each, we can begin to see the enormous disparity, and the size of the suburban subsidy. The suburban home sends about $14,000 per acre to City Hall. Astonishingly, the condo sends $160,000 per acre even when the corner streets are used in the calculation. That’s more than 10 times the revenue of suburban development. The rental units cough up $115,000 per acre, taken in large part from citizens with little or no savings or net worth.

Multiply these numbers over and over, and you get the picture. Katz, in his presentation of numbers for his community, shows a similar effect on the commercial side. Strip malls and local suburban malls, with their massive parking and wasteful use of adjoining streets, generate about the same tax revenue per acre for Sarasota as suburban residences. No more.

What do our local condo owner or renters get for their tax bill? Garbage and recycling pickup, like the suburban homeowner? No. They pay extra for that, on top of their tax bill. Given that about 50% of municipal expenses are dependent on response times and density (25% of Kitchener’s costs are related to fire coverage alone over its network of streets), the tax bill could be seen as a fraud perpetrated upon sustainable development by suburban voters. Worse, the 36 unit rental property requires snow plowing, police drive-by, asphalt repairs and replacement, for only 90 feet of street. Its equivalent in the suburbs, on a dollar for dollar revenue basis, requires 1200 feet. Worse, that thirteen times length of infrastructure, paid for with utility rates common to all electricity, water and gas users, is maintained by all users equally. In addition to that subsidy, the renters must maintain their private pipes common to the units within the building, through their rent.

We’ve known for a long time that municipal property taxes transfer money from those without the means to pay to suburban voters with net worth, and the Ontario Government has directed municipalities years ago to end this practice. This directive has for the most part been ignored. Now, to grind salt into the wound, let’s add the subsidy: from sustainable, walkable, transit-friendly existing or new development to unsustainable existing and the suburbs-to-come, paid year after year. Properties generating $100,000 or more per acre are paying for municipal services for other areas of the city that incur the costs, yet generate only about $14,000 per acre. In business terms, it makes no sense whatsoever.

And what is the attitude of suburban voters to this largesse? On transit investment to support densification, or quality downtown urban infrastructure? Don’t do it. On taxes? We need relief. On municipal services? We don’t get our fair share. On change to allow density and a greater variety of uses? Don’t touch us!

Given that “Smart Growth” apparently means 40% residential development within built-up areas, and 60% outside it, and given that commercial and employment development can go where it wishes to chew more farmland, our municipal leadership will continue to massively subsidize low density development with capital and operating dollars, while talking a good game.

For this New Year, let’s resolve to end this fraud. It’s not enough to promote sustainable development. We’ve got to stop penalizing it.

Commuting for the Common Good

Downtown London has the John Labatt Centre (the “jail”, I think it’s known as), and Hamilton its Copps Coliseum. Sundry dreams of replacing Kitchener’s Aud, and inevitably the subject of a location for it, contain the seeds of a dilemma: build on the outskirts where land is cheap, in a sea of surface parking, or struggle with a central site that brings citizens and event visitors alike to the heart of the community.

Guelph’s solution to the issue was pure serendipity. Commission a study of various locations for a replacement to Memorial Gardens, throw in the combination of failed mall, the vision of an overreaching developer, City guarantees, a dash of reality, and “voila”, the City owns a perfectly viable sports, small convention and entertainment complex in the heart of the community (with a few twists and turns!)

Waterloo has, admittedly, its centrally-located Recreation Complex, but the decision regarding Rim Park took another approach than reinforcing the vibrancy of the Waterloo core. Let’s not dwell on the twists and turns of that project, set down in reams of court documents and electoral ballots. Let’s just look at the location decision.

Years ago a Waterloo taxpayer riding the transit system to its last stop tried to hijack the bus, to actually get the driver to take him far enough out of the City to see what he was paying for, Rim Park. No kidding! I read it in the paper! No transit route actually went there at the time, and Mayor Woolstencroft was overheard to say that transit wasn’t an item that got much priority in the location decision. It got me thinking. With speedskating season upon us, and our family once again making the long trek to Rim Park three times a week, it’s reminded me again that the decisions we make in the pursuit of the cheap, “greenfield” solution never seem to include the long term costs.

Let’s take Rim Park as an example. Bear with the math for a minute.

Voodoo Math 101

Forgetting the outdoor fields, we’ll concentrate on the four ice surfaces, two basketball courts and three soccer fields. Maybe 6 hours of activities each day, say 250 days a year? An average of 20 people using the surface each hour. Give or take, (and at least in an overly optimistic business plan, if not in reality) that’s 270,000 car trips to Rim Park each year. Over the life of the facility (hopefully 50 years, given a few repairs and renewals) that’s 13.5 million trips.

Voodoo Math 102

Rim Park is a 7.5 km drive from the centre of Waterloo at King and Erb. Using incredibly silly assumptions about how easy it is to get around in this Region, and gross generalizations about who is using Rim Park’s facilities, let’s consider the commute we’ve set up with that location decision.

If the facility is used by Waterloo residents only, and it sits about 7 km from centre, in the far upper corner of Waterloo, AND users are equally dispersed across the City, AND nobody carpools, AND we don’t make too many mistakes with all this, then I figure the average commute to Rim Park for each user is about 8 kilometres. The same calculation for a location in the centre of the City is 4 kilometres. So the “difference” we can assign to the location decision is 4 km. Commutes go there and back, so 8 kilometres in total!

Voodoo Economics (with apologies to Mr. Reagan)

Assuming the minivan with the hockey bag in it gets 10 km to the litre, and the litre of gas is $1 CDN, and we drive the extra 100 million kilometers involved with the choice of Rim Park’s location (13.5 million times the eight kilometre “commute difference”), then we’ve spent $10 million dollars on gas alone.

Could we have picked up a site in the core of Waterloo for $10 million more than that cornfield cost? Likely.

Would that central site hold its value if Rim Park and the Recreation Centre created a powerhouse of leisure, conference and event possibilities for Waterloo’s core? Absolutely.

Would children be able to get to those ice pads and ball courts using public transit, helping to create ridership and cut our subsidies for 50 years to come? You bet.

Would all those hockey teams have to jump in the car during all those tournaments to visit the same ersatz roadhouses they visited two weeks ago in Mississauga, or would they sample some uniqueness and authenticity within Waterloo’s core (large LCBO excepted)? I suspect the latter.

Had I been asked to contribute a few dollars a year to buy a valuable site for Rim Park, rather than a few more dollars a year to drive to a cheap one, I’d hope that I’d choose some exciting possibilities for the heart of my community, and save a few bucks. Not that I was asked, mind you. I live in Kitchener.

Oh, I see. My turn next. Hopefully any decision about a new Aud for Kitchener will keep the commuting costs in mind. The lure of cheap land to park the very cars needed to get there is a no-win proposition.

Locating our high schools using the same logic might help with that school bus bill we pay each year. Teenagers taking anything other than public transit to get to high school makes no sense at all, and yet our school boards’ choice of high school locations is driven by the same lure of cheap land involved in the Rim Park decision. The dislocation between the transit system and our high schools is no laughing matter. It costs us big time.

Let’s locate our major institutions for a larger efficiency. Our forefathers knew better. The taxes, the gasoline purchases, and the cost to our environment all come out of one pocketbook.

Public Interest and the Architect

I’ve just been reading the 2011 Ontario Association of Architects “Profiles 2011” Membership Guide. In it there’s an article entitled Why You Should Use an Architect for Your Project. Although interesting, and informative, and mostly on target in the mind of this particular architect, I couldn’t help but wonder how a broader audience receives its message.

The article basically takes the point of view that a professional can help you make informed and important decisions about your project, with your best interests in mind. So far so good. It also points out that your project can benefit from the architect’s perspective on how the project can contribute to the quality of our communities and public interest.

That’s what got me thinking about two items: assistance, and public benefit.

How believable is it, in a world of salesmanship and shilling, that someone would actually get in your corner and help you with your project FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW AND FROM YOUR BEST INTEREST? Especially if that professional had a public duty as well?

  • The best customer assistance is the assistance that helps you buy: to suit your need, your budget, and your aspirations.
  • The worst customer assistance is the salesmanship that sells: to suit the salesman’s bottom line and his need to move inventory, to fit you to his already designed product.

In our fast-paced world of demand creation (by watching TV I’ve discovered I have diseases that I thought were just normality, and needs I never knew I had!) who really believes that a professional can work in your best interest, and take your point of view? Isn’t everyone working from their own self-interest? How can I trust someone helping me to buy my project?

And when we introduce the idea of a public duty or a public benefit to your project, are we undermining the idea that we’re really in your corner? How can the idea of public interest be important to you, undertaking a private project?

The lawyer doesn’t need to take the public interest into account. Only yours. The lawyer works in an adversarial system where if mine says black your lawyer will say white. That’s advocacy, and the judge understands it.

The doctor works as a professional to assist you with your health. Full stop. Not to balance your health with the public good. As a bonus, the doctor usually sends her bill to someone else, not you.

Why then should the architect, involved in so little of our community’s construction (less than 5% of building activity by some estimates), need to take public benefit into account when serving a client, unless the client is actually a public entity itself? We seem to be rather alone in this thinking, although we cling to the notion that what gets built by private interest inevitably creates the public realm, so it should contribute to that realm as well.

A project contains thousands of decisions, most of which are interrelated and have ramifications on each other and the usefulness of the finished product. Designing a building is a bit like crafting the visible part of the iceberg. That 10% above the waterline represents the decisions. The 90% below the waterline is the real project cost and the real ramifications of those decisions. Architects, and I count myself among them, firmly believe that by paying careful attention to those decisions, that initial “above-the-water” investment and consideration, the full project will come together in a way that supports your goals, and to your benefit.

It’s not enough, however, for just the architect to believe it. Both client and designer must work together to understand and achieve a great design. In a world where almost all our decisions are not about creating, but about choosing from the shelf (this model of car over that, this model of house over that), it’s tough to undertake a process of decisions that leads to your own unique design. Why not buy it off the shelf?

And tougher still to believe that a professional architect, designer, or engineer is really in your corner, working for both your and our best interest.

Believe it! Stay a bit skeptical, but give it a chance!

The Intersection of Smart and Growth

Do we judge the quality of our community by the length of its streets, or the number of its intersections? Before saying “Both, of course”, or “Neither”, let’s look closer.

Can a street without intersections even be a community? Hmm.

Perhaps not, because a street without intersections has no PLACES, no ORIGIN. We call streets without places highways, parkways, or thruways because they are on the way to places, rather than being places themselves. So a street cannot become a place without an intersection of some kind:

  • of street with address,
  • of street with another street,
  • of neighbour with neighbour.

If we accept that a community is a place, then it follows that the origin of community is the intersection, not the street.

Having led you this far down the path, how shall we then proceed to measure the quality of these, our “communities of intersection”?

Let’s start with Quantitative Analysis. Always convincing, that idea of counting things. Plays well in the council chamber, too. Soooo, the community with the most intersections is the best community? Most intersections per square kilometer? Per citizen? How shall we go about this?

Now oddly enough, (and thanks for playing along so far) there is measurement of exactly this sort going on in the halls of academia. It turns out that “intersection density” is a key measurement of the walkability and indeed the quality of our communities! Interested readers might googlestroll “intersection density”, and spend some time wandering among the results.

In essence, it seems that the dismal background to planning decisions is catching on to some streetsmart research that goes like this: more street intersections in a given area increase connectivity for pedestrians, and make for more choice. The length of blocks is shortened, making a variety of routes and destinations easier to attain with the same effort. All of this creates more pedestrians! It leads to more foot traffic and better opportunities for business offerings and incidents to serve those walkers, more fun for everyone as the crowds come out; slower, calmer car traffic navigating more intersections on the pedestrians’ terms; more neighbours meeting each other; better satisfaction with our cities; less energy use, more safety, small business opportunity; and on and on.

Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero, urban planning academics at the University of Utah and U.C. Berkeley respectively, conducted a meta-analysis (read: “a review of the available studies”) and published “Travel and the Built Environment” this past summer, in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Of the many measures of built environment, they found that increased “intersection density” has the largest effect on creating walkable communities. More than population density, or distance to a store or to a transit stop, or jobs within one mile.

Now if you’re still along for the stroll here, I want you to fire up the computer once again, and do a little analysis of your own. Looking down from the omniscient heights of GoogleMap, how does your neighbourhood look in terms of intersections? Like Venice Italy, at 1,500 intersections per square mile? Like downtown Los Angeles, at 150? Or the suburbs of Irving California, and some of our own, at 15? Ewing and Cervero cite these examples in their study. (Here’s a graphic courtesy of PedShed and the Study). What happens when a community has 100 times more intersections than our own? We get on a plane and visit it! (I know, I know, European example, so it’s useless, but bear with me).

The vast majority of our communities, constructed by the “live here, play there, work somewhere else” planning-slash-land-development-profits braintrust, have nothing like the density of intersection required to make walking anywhere a practical choice. Consider that a corner store in one of our suburbs (even were it tolerated, which it is not) serves a few people, with each following the serpentine maze of the street to reach it. That’s a corner store that’s out of business. The same store, in a neighbourhood of intersections, can be reached by many times more people in the same walking distance, because they can get at it through choices of route and the use of intersections.

Try it! Use GoogleMaps to zero in on a 1970’s suburb (you can tell it by its winding maze of streets that guard its central cul-de-sac as though it were a prize worth stealing) and mentally place a corner store somewhere in it. Now look at the neighbourhood walks that must be made to get at it. Hopeless.

Now pan over to a pre-1950’s rectilinear neighbourhood. You can tell that one because the streets are named “street”, the blocks are shorter, and are usually named after trees (Oak, Chestnut, Walnut, etc). Stick a mental pin in one intersection (your corner store) and look again at how many people can walk to it. I think you’ll find that many times more people are within walking distance, since they can quickly attain that destination.

What has all this to do with our future, you ask? Well, quite a lot, actually. Let’s not forget that here in Canada, under our Ontario provincial Government’s so-called “Smart Growth” plan, 40% of residential growth will happen within built-up areas. Sounds good? Well, put another way, 150% more residential growth will happen outside of our present urban footprint than within.

Not so good.

In fact, it’s terrible. In addition, employment can continue to locate itself at the periphery. It’s not subject to the 40% rule. Take a drive around Northfield and University in Waterloo, for instance, and you’ll see the future. And I mean drive. It’s practically the only way you can get there.

We’re in for a lot more car-oriented growth. In fact more than half again as much as the “smart” kind. It will require more roadwidth, more expressway, more parking lots and asphalt landscaping, and endless more tax subsidy. The planners and politicians would have you believe that big changes are coming, that we will return to building urban form that pays for itself through the taxes it generates.

As they distract us with the “Smart Growth” bouquet in the right hand, the left will be behind the back, accepting the usual cash and planning applications that come from plowing the farmland under. The Ontario Municipal Board (our province’s appeal board for planning decisions) will continue to reinforce business as usual.

All of this while our population ages. All of our children, and more of our seniors, will find themselves without car keys, and unable to move through the landscape they will be subsidizing. If we were truly an intelligent community, we’d be trying to figure out how to create more intersections, not less, and we wouldn’t be settling for a future with more suburban sprawl than growth of any other kind.