Category Archives: Rural Design

From the Office to the Barn

It was cold and a bit muddy, but it was the most fun we have had at the office all year, okay maybe not exactly “at” the office. JMA closed up shop for a day last week and headed to the International Plowing Match 2012 in Roseville. Our team volunteered our time and muscles to assist the Mennonite Disaster Service in a demonstration of an “old fashion” barn raising, which took place over the course of the Plowing Match within the antique section of the event. The barn was brought in from Paris Ontario for the demonstration and was assembled and disassembled at the event before being transported to it’s final resting place at a private residence in Collingwood.

Our day started out with a very appropriate tractor ride from the parking area to the event grounds, once we where able to find the barn raising site we grabbed our hardhats and waited for instruction among the other volunteers (about 40 in total). Most of us being first time barn raisers listened carefully as we where explained the process. Come 10am it was show time and people begin to gather in the bleachers to watch our efforts. It started with most of us lifting the first positioned frame by hand as high as our arms would let us, yelling “Yo-He” which means hold on “Yo” and lift on “He” (trust me, you do not what to mix that up). A few people pulled on ropes on the opposite side, guided the frame as the rest of us lifted it.

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Once our arms couldn’t push the frame any higher assigned people put the pikes (long piece of timber with a spike in one end) in place, butting them up against the frame.  Once the pikes where set everyone moved out from holding the frame and helped either on the ropes or on pushing the pikes moving the frame up to its vertical position. Once the frame was up and resting on the prepared foundations, the ropes where tied off and nails where hammered into the legs of the frame where they met the foundation.

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This process was continued for the second and third frames, then support beams where raisin by ropes, these beams secured the frames together and where fixed in place with pegs and braces. Over the course of the day we rose 3 frames including their supports, but our work stopped there, since this demonstration was to be completed over the week, we had to leave the rest of other volunteers to complete in the days to come.

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JMA had a great day learning the traditional way to raise a barn. I only wish we could have been there the rest of the week to help finished what we started.

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The Subsidy Cascade

Let’s play a game.

I’ll write about municipal taxes and utility fees, and you try to stay awake. Yes, It’s that season again, in which a tale of two certainties, Death and Taxes, should be revised to Death by Thinking about Taxes, Followed by Taxes. Notwithstanding, we will now add our contribution to the subject by writing about writing about taxes. Insane, I know.

If ever a column risked banishment to the bottom of the bird cage, I think this is it.

So, dear reader, why can’t this architect and designer resist dragging the pond for the putrid evidence of tax rate imbalances, development charge cross-subsidies, and the evils of postage stamp pricing that we will shortly discuss? Well, maybe three reasons.

First and foremost, we’ve somehow got to maintain the communities we’ve built, and to hand them over to our children in a fiscal and physical shape that’s actually affordable and sustainable. The evidence is fairly clear that for decades we’ve not been doing this, and the reckoning is nigh. Understanding how we fund our municipal costs, and the actual price of the services we so take for granted, is critical to the public discussion of decisions we face for the future of our communities.

Second, it seems that planning and environment departments at every level haven’t been paying attention to what the finance departments are doing, and vice versa. In a classic case of silo thinking, the planners and environmentalists have been busy promoting and regulating compact, sustainable communities that we can afford, while our system of revenue and expenditure continues to subsidize urban sprawl that we cannot. This has got to stop. A critical first step is to get the conversation and the evidence out into the open, and out of the hands of the experts.

The last and most important reason to talk about these issues is to link them to our responsibilities as citizens. Not as taxpayers. Citizens. A healthy discussion of the common good involves some fundamental principles that are sorely lacking when we make everyday choices. Where subsidies are hidden from us, or where others foot the bill for lifestyle preferences, we make poorer decisions.

Pamela Blais, an urban planner and principal of Toronto-based Metropole Consulting, has recently published a book detailing the many ways we encourage sprawl through cross-subsidy and the mis-pricing of taxes and services, Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl. Blais’ work is based on a simple truth often overlooked: that our communities are shaped not by policy, but by the repetition of a few key location and density decisions made by developers, builders, homeowners, business owners, employees, families and institutions every day. “These decisions are shaped in no small way by prices – both absolute price levels and the relative prices of different types of development in different locations – and of different modes of transport.” Plans don’t make urban form. Everyday choices do.

When the true costs of our decisions are clearly reflected in the prices we pay for housing, transport, and utilities, we make informed decisions and finance our own preferences. Blais chronicles the many ways that taxes and fees work against this principle, and more seriously the ways that inefficient choices are subsidized by efficient ones.

Chief among the culprits for Ms Blais is the concept of Average Cost Pricing, which might also be called Feet in Oven, Head in Icebox Pricing. For example, public finance departments take large swaths of cost (like the cost of new infrastructure to support community growth) and divide these costs by the number of new residential units and amount of non-residential floor space that is anticipated in this growth. This creates an average development charge of many thousands of dollars that is assessed against each new unit, regardless of where that unit is located and how that unit affects costs! Although the total amount of required funding is thereby collected, this approach means the creation of a unit at the periphery of our communities, in a sprawling suburb, with its heavy cost burden on density-sensitive service networks, is not only given a price break, but actually subsidized by the pricing of units built in compact urban form and central locations. Buyers, unaware of these factors buried in pricing, are given a discount in the first case, and a penalty in the second.

Much is made of “free market choice” by advocates of laisse-faire planning approaches, but with cross-subsidies like the example above the market is anything but free. Blais sides with most economists in arguing for marginal cost, rather than average cost pricing. This determines the public cost of growth and network upgrades as the actual cost of adding more units both at the periphery and also within the existing network, as well as the effect of density on the cost of services. In each case the appropriate price is charged.

Municipalities are starting to tailor development charges to reflect these large differences in development costs imposed by growth, but the little done to date looks more at where growth is located, rather than equally critical factors of density and mix of use.

Once initial housing and business choices are made, using the assistance of cross-subsidies that reinforce inefficiency, the situation gets rapidly worse.

Perverse Cities does an admirable job of setting out the myriad of ways that the initial subsidy is reinforced, through our tax and utility bills. At each step the application of Average Cost Pricing subsidizes the operating and maintenance costs associated with sprawl, using dollars collected from people who have made more sustainable choices. Blais uses a term coined by others to describe this system: “Postage Stamp Pricing”. The postal system is a classic network distribution system, with highly variable costs to deliver letters along a far-flung street of 60 foot wide single family lots rather than by standing in an apartment or office mailroom stuffing slots. The cost of the first is many times that of the second, yet the price of a stamp is equal for letters to both locations and densities. Repeated not once or twice, but millions of times a day across all our service systems, the subsidy for inefficient growth is enormous.

But can we establish efficiency in our low density ex-urbs? A common well, perhaps? In snow plowing? Road repair? Sewers? No. Can we ignore all the vehicle kilometers generated by new subdivisions, retail strip malls and fast-food restaurants, and simply ask downtown condominium owners to pay the average operating cost of these networks through their property tax and utility bills? Yet we do. Each day we pay bills, and each spring we debate property taxes, with little thought to the massive transfer of money from efficient and sustainable areas of our communities to those areas that create very high costs, from areas where the transit system covers its costs through revenue to areas hopelessly subsidized.

The effect of subsidized location, building, and transportation decisions made again and again and again is played out in a cascade of network services, billings and taxes, all reinforcing last-century’s utopian dream: the sprawl that we know is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

For Pamela Blais there are clear solutions to price distortions that require changes in how development charges, property tax, and utility bills are calculated. The solutions involve data that in many cases is already collected. She advocates that subsidies should be identified, debated, and consciously applied, rather than hidden. Only then will our choices begin to tackle the sprawl that is as rampant as ever, and the future civic costs that leave our children in an economic and environmental straightjacket.

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.

Working with Waterfront

Brantford has approved a Waterfront Master Plan. Hopefully it’s a strategic plan more than a master plan. Master plans envision futures that never appear. First phases of master plans do get pursued, however, so let’s hope the first phases are strategic and beneficial, and provide flexibility for inevitable change.

Brantford’s Waterfront Master Plan

The goals (from the Report introduction):

“The Grand River and its tributaries are the lifeblood and a defining image of the City of Brantford. The Grand River valley has a great diversity of natural features and is enriched with an extraordinary historic legacy, evident of the aboriginal and european cultures that have settled this land for over 11,000 years. The Waterfront Master Plan will respect and reinforce this legacy and will define bold new directions that build on the tremendous successes of the City and its partners, who together have established 70 km of trails and hundreds of acres of public space.

  • The waterfront Master Plan will set forth a framework to protect the Grand River and its tributaries as a fundamental public resource for the residents of Brantford.
  • Natural features will be protected and enhanced and the cultural heritage will be interpreted so that all can understand and appreciate this area’s rich history.
  • The trails will be easily identified and accessed, and the network will become a widely recognized destination.
  • A diversity of places to access the water will be offered, providing for a variety of educational, recreational and leisurely activities that celebrate the Grand River and that will engage residents and visitors alike.
  • Appropriate development on adjacent lands will recognize the significance of these locations; be rooted in best practices in city building; strive for design excellence; and contribute positively to the waterfront and Brantford’s image.

And finally, the Waterfront Master Plan will inspire all residents to embrace this vision for sustainability and become stewards of this vital environment.”

Are all communities along the Grand working as hard to build upon this central and defining feature of our region?

Kitchener is working on a park master plan, available here but I’m not sure that the Grand River is properly viewed in the context of a parks plan. The river itself is obviously more central to Brantford and Galt, as the Speed is to Guelph, but the Grand River has the potential to unite us as a significant region in Southern Ontario.

Farm

Oh    how     we     love    to    divide our Communities!

Work, Play, and Living

the compartments of our modern day.

Work is further divided into its performance, its management, and its capital. To this capital, in the view of some, accrues all the risk and therefore all the rewards. For others, the performance of Work is value added rather than a wage-time equation, and that value should be rewarded. In the face of economic calamity, we now wonder whether managers have managed anything except their own self-interest, in a world where the virtues of self-interest are everywhere lauded.

We’ve been busy parsing Play as well, so that the family’s rush from one activity to the next often seems more like Work in another form. Concepts of leisure and play as an unstructured and open-ended creative activity have been pre-empted by organized sport and rules.

And Living? We’ve divided that into styles. “Lifestyle” is an image of ourselves, separate from Work and Play, a treadmill of consumption powered by marketing. Pursuit of image takes all our gains from the world of Work and turns them into brief moments of self-respect won through a purchase, only to be lost as the treadmill moves on.

Our cities have evolved so that each of these three compartments of existence has its rightful place:

  • the business district and industrial zone for Work;
  • the park and the “natural” landscape for Play;
  • the suburb for Living.

As an integrated design for improving the quality of life for the many, we might argue that is has served us well. We might, but only if we ignore its “externalities” (to borrow from those dismal scientists, the economists).

To illustrate the inherent problems with division as a prescription for progress, consider the following. Two economists are walking down a road, one more experienced than the other. They come upon a pile left by a horse, and the more experienced offers the junior $10,000 to eat it. After careful cost-benefit analysis of this opportunity, the junior agrees. The transaction is completed, and they set off again. Further along, another pile of manure is encountered. In a spirit of equality the junior then offers the same bargain to his companion, who comes to the same conclusion with a reciprocal result. Onward they go. After some time, however, the junior economist gives voice to his suspicion that they are not really better off for having the same money but having both eaten a pile of horseshit. “Well, that may be true”, said the more experienced, “but you overlook the fact that we’ve just been involved in $20,000 worth of trade.”

I introduce this unsavoury story as a segue to three ideas.

One is that our present world situation obviously involves experts, phantom trade and large amounts of excrement, lacking only a fan to complete the picture.

Second is that as a result of this turmoil our design for living is to undergo a radical transformation. It involves dealing with the by-products of decades of wasteful consumption, whether our monied and middle classes find it palatable or not.

Third is that rather than swallowing the offerings of expertise applied to each individual transaction and compartment of our lives, each pile we encounter, we might benefit from a more holistic, and arguably more sophisticated, approach practiced in that literal “externality” to our cities: our surrounding agricultural landscape.

Oh those hicks! What has the farmer to teach us!? Well, perhaps quite a lot.

First and foremost is that we are part of a larger system: of climate and land, of production and sustainable input. Sophisticated and sustainable farming practices may divide the fields among pasture and crop, apportion herds between milk and meat production, and make use of sophisticated technologies, but the farmer always views the land and his family’s living as a sustainable system. The system must incorporate, rather than ignore, its by-products, and actually deal with the externalities of weather and market. Careful husbandry involves longterm solutions and continuous adaptation through dedication to the efficiency of the system rather than a middleman content to maximise only a part of it.

Expertise and innovation can be applied to aspects of the operation, but is judged in the context of the whole. Farming is not about the divisions among work, management, and capital, but their integration. The family farm is a functioning enterprise where Work, Play, and Living cannot begin to properly describe what is at stake. The farmer’s connection to his land, his animals, and his family is pastoral in the best sense of the word: neither romantic nor idealised, but based on a deep understanding and care, an enormous amount of work for the benefit of others.

Can you design the farm and farm life? Krista Duynisveld, in her recently defended Masters Thesis in Architecture, has grappled with this question. For her, the seed of the answer lies in the nature of design itself: “energy, community, land stewardship, ecology and environment, architecture, mechanisation, economics and agribusiness, urban sprawl, aging farm population, and consumerism are the issues that design must work within and develop solutions for.”

It is clear that design can play a role in our environment and our communities, but not in the way that we have designed our buildings, our cities, and our suburban life to date.

Perhaps our efforts  should be directed toward a new and more sustainable design for living, and perhaps, just perhaps, a greater appreciation for the sophisticated and integrated design that hard and enduring work upon the land can accomplish.

Urban, Rural, Natural. Questions, Questions

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As citizens we are often labelled into distinct categories, “tagged” if you like: by income, by municipality, by political affiliation, and in a myriad of other ways, depending upon the context. Lands, places, and communities throughout the Grand River watershed of Canada (the geography that situates this blog) are similarly and often categorised, as distinctly

rural,    urban,    or     natural.

Despite their frequent usage in discussions and decision-making, and our seeming need to force everything into these categories, they are quite artificial. They are neat boxes that perpetuate myths about the separateness of the systems upon which our lives and our environment depend. They emphasize distinctions, rather than relations.

Part of our work in setting up this blog has involved office discussions that have challenged us with the question of how to foster discussion of connections and relations, rather than division, among urban, rural, and natural, or whether we should seek another paradigm. This post is a series of questions, but these questions form an important part of the conversation we want to have:

How do we foster connections and integrated thinking about community?”

Dilemmas

These terms, Urban, Rural, Natural, are they part of the dilemma we face, or can they contribute to solutions?

As architects we’re steeped in the hubris of urban design, and how the urban realm is for the designer to shape. But we’ve started talking about the corollaries in the natural and rural. Rural Design? Natural Design? As a culture, we’re equally steeped in the idea that nature has its own design, and we use science to understand it, but cannot affect it, except by dominating it or destroying it. The rural lies somewhere between these two poles? Perhaps in the eyes of urbanites, but from the rural view perhaps not.

How do we discuss an integrated systems approach to the design of our watershed where “design” is pretty much all in the urban realm? Perhaps design should be kept there, unless it can bring better solutions than it has in our cities?

With the artificial divisions of urban, rural and natural come political territories of authority that make integrated decision-making very difficult indeed. Is the Grand River Conservation Authority the only steward of the natural? Are the urban municipalities the masters of the urban, and as such, do the rural municipalities control the rural?

But don’t the natural, urban,and rural intermingle, flow through, and profoundly affect each other? Are our present political and professional divisions part of the problem?

We think they might be.

Does the urban citizen come to the rural and nature for recreation only? Does the rural citizen understand the balance between community and watershed better? How do they both view the natural? Is any part of our watershed truly untouched by human hand at this point? Is the natural simply a series of disconnected pockets?

Is the Grand River an urban element in Paris, Brantford, and Galt, but a rural one in Caledonia and a natural one elsewhere? Surely the river is one thing, and not solely defined by its context.

Questions questions.

We’d like to get your help with this.