A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver (and Montreal and Toronto)

Sure wish I had found this coolio little book BEFORE I got to Vancouver; I would have saved myself a lot of time in assembling architectural walking tours of the city. Douglas & McIntyre also produce Toronto and Montreal editions which I have added to my Christmas wish list (http://www.dmpibooks.com/book/a-guidebook-to-contemporary-architecture-in-vancouver).

As much as I love to just wander and randomly discover a city, I had my six-year-old in tow and knew I’d have to be clever in the use of my time. This book focuses on the development between Expo 86 (I worked at the BCTV pavillion) and the 2010 Olympics, and the projects are organized by neighbourhoods and surrounding municipalities. The commentary provides not only detail on the building/project itself but places it in context of what is happening in the surrounding community. While I fantasized about visiting (most) every building in the book on some crazy twenty-four hour whirlwind tour, my reality was eight sites, nasty late fall weather, and a hunger to see more.

And, if you have small children and still crave a cultural experience, self-guided architectural tours are an excellent (and usually free) experience that can satisfy everyone. Always applying discretion and rudimentary manners of course, kids can run and climb stairs and touch architectural elements inside, then do the exact same thing outside with the landscape design (zen gardens exempted). Concrete, wood and stone are, after all, meant to last and if the Little Sweeties are absorbing the principles of design through osmosis and you’re feeding your soul simultaneously then all the better. With four children eighteen months apart I would have lost my sanity without access to the museums and beautiful public buildings around Ottawa.

Birds of a Feather

 On the evening of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the twin columns of light projected as a memorial over the World Trade Center site became a source of mystery.  Illuminated in the beams were thousands of small white objects, sparkling and spiralling, unlike anything seen on other nights. Some viewers wondered if they were scraps of paper or plastic caught in updrafts from the spotlights’ heat. From beneath, it was at times like gazing into a snowstorm. It was hard not to think of souls.

Those unidentified objects have now been identified as birds, pulled from their migratory path and bedazzled by the light in a perfect, poignant storm of avian disorientation.1

I recently returned from two weeks in Vancouver, my hometown. I grew up in the suburbs but lived in different neighbourhoods around the city for nearly ten years before moving to Ottawa. It is fair to say that I knew the city and its surrounds well. I’ve been back numerous times since but finally had the chance to explore the Concord Pacific lands, Coal Harbour and the downtown East Side in more detail. Of course I’ve been following the post-Expo and pre-Olympic flurry of work online but I was still overwhelmed by the scope of that infill development in a way that was unexpected.

On several occasions I couldn’t tell where I was. I was crowded by columns of brand-spanking new shiny highrises, I couldn’t see the water and the mountains were blocked from view. I had lost all the geographical markers I counted on for my orientation. The buildings were dazzling and the area an excellent example of New Urbanism but clearly the man-made had trumped the nature-made. As I emerged at the shoreline of False Creek, even the contours of the land had been altered to dovetail with the planned aesthetic.

I experienced much the same feeling in the suburban areas around Cloverdale and Langley. Semi-detached houses and a mind-boggling volume of retail utterly fill to the brim what was recently true countryside full of working farms and equestrian centres. Without looking at the street numbers and house addresses I couldn’t identify where I was on stretches of road that I had driven hundreds if not thousands of times before. And Ottawa is not immune to this problem.

When I first moved to the city I had trouble orienting myself because of the general flatness of the terrain and the oddities caused by the lay of the canal. The pervasive construction of tract housing further erased identifying points and lines. I took a “short cut” through Barrhaven and ended up driving around and around, unable to find my way out, a difficulty compounded by the lack of a numerical grid. Each street looked identical and I began to feel strangely sweaty and panicked. I had to pull over and ask a lone pedestrian for directions.

Just before 5 a.m. on Sept. 12, the lights were turned off and on for the final time, said John Rowden, citizen science director at the Audubon Society’s New York City chapter. In the next hour, birds gathered again.  “As soon as they could get any visual horizon, they could use that as a cue and navigate their way out,” he said. With dawn the birds departed.

Both Vancouver and Ottawa are relatively small cities on a worldwide scale and growing more slowly than their Asian and African counterparts. Are these feelings of disorientation amplified for residents of the fastest growing cities in the world? Or are these residents so new that they lack the nostalgia of knowing what was? With globalism are we all better off being more flexible and less attached to specific physical locations? And is geography, and its companion history, an old-fashioned notion? As I stood among the urban strangeness I felt the same uneasy mix of vague dissatisfaction, envy and peevish excitement that I get when I spend too much time inside a shopping mall.

Maybe I just need to stuff those feelings down, ditch my archaic intuition, and leverage the GPS function on my smartphone more often. How 21st century of me.

  1. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/tribute-in-light-birds/ 

Crazy Like the Wind

I think that everyone develops their personal and unique bit of oddness as time progresses. Choosing something that meets my current interests, I’ve decided that I will be the nutty woman who runs around her house obsessively checking for drafts.

I spring out of my chair in the middle of conversations asking whether someone opened a door. I walk bent over around the perimeter of rooms, hand hovering over the baseboards. I develop Tourette’s at the mention of the previous owner/contractor and dream of football-sized holes in the sheathing discreetly hidden behind the fibreglass pink. I hoard half-price cans of expanding foam and produce them at inopportune moments. Soon I will conduct blower door tests at decreasing intervals and jealously compare the ACH data at parties and social events with believers and unbelievers alike. And finally I will form a club with the motto “Under three ‘cause energy ain’t free” when my obsession with air leakage eventually trumps family, personal hygiene and the general will to live.

In the meantime I am whittling down the double-digit air changes and imagining my day of triumph which should, by current calculations, arrive sometime late Spring. On that glorious day when I have caulked my final crack and foamed my last fracture, I will run through my house naked on a windy day with nary a goosebump to be seen. No doubt crazy will be hot on my heels.

Chills and (almost) Thrills

I’ve learned through experience that snow can be expected in Ottawa from Halloween on. Only a dusting landed here in the Banana Belt but it was enough to remind me that we were now in the zone and bad weather would become less of a possibility, and more of a probability, with each passing day. The kids pulled on long johns under their costumes and I mentally ran through the logistics of completing the final face of the house the next morning. By the close of Monday, Old Gal would have her own winter woollens in place, awaiting her lovely new dress and accessories.

Hydro disconnected promptly at 8:00am before I had time to throw the second pot of espresso on the stove. No big deal. I lit the side burner on the barbeque, but when I returned with the cafetiere, flames were shooting equally from the bottom as the top. Needless to say off went the burner and closed went the tank. There would be no caffe lattes for the crew today. I made a mental note to alert Husband that his ManCooker was malfunctioning.

Nick and Cory hopped on the ladders to strip the remaining face. Trevor, our electrician, went to work removing the electrical mast and installing an upgraded meter. Everyone knew they had a full and busy day ahead in order to complete the work for an end-of-day Hydro reconnect. My supporting roles would include The Lovely Assistant, clean-up crew, clock-watcher, building supply runner and Supervisor-Who-Asks-Annoying-and-Useless Questions. I felt discombobulated to be so unusually hands-off. I went off to rake up the leaves, clean out the shed and just let everything else work itself out to a successful conclusion.

The Hydro crew returned mid-afternoon to check on our progress. It was clear we were not even close to being ready for that reconnect. So our paperwork was transferred to “the trouble crew”, to be completed on the late shift. Nick and Cory wrapped up about five and headed home while Trevor hunkered down to finish before the pitch blackness descended. We broke for a candlelit dinner of KFC in a chilly house that was dropping by degrees. Trevor finally headed home and Husband prowled the house by flashlight to dig out a bottle of port and a couple of glasses.
I carried the candles upstairs and took to my bed with wooly socks, fleece robe wrapped over full clothes and a toque, looking vaguely like Ebenezer Scrooge. I was waiting for the ghost of house heating future and a glass of liquid warmth to descend upon me.

The port arrived about the same time as HydroOne. I sipped alone while Husband pulled back on his coat and boots. Although I couldn’t see them through my Typar-covered window, I could hear the linemen managing the reconnect by the light of their headlamps. I pulled the duvet up to my nose and waited for the inevitable sound of the house snapping back to life.

Too bad the crew arrived so soon.

Old Gal Gets Naked

Stripping on the main street of any village is usually frowned upon except, perhaps, in the most liberal enclaves. In our little microcosm of the world at large, structural nakedness – the disappearance of siding and the appearance of paint swatches – can set gums a flappin’ and opinions a flyin’. It’s good for at least a month’s worth of neighbourly chitter-chatter.

“Have you decided on a colour scheme?” is the most popular renovation question by far. I painted large swatches of two sample colours on the front of the house at the beginning of the summer. Some people politely asked if they may proffer their opinion. Most people just blurted it out. One person was clearly not pleased by either selection, wondering aloud why I didn’t just paint it in red and yellow flowers. Another told me they had spent a good deal of time considering potential colour schemes for my house, which evolved into a delightful discussion. I exchanged opinions with several folks on colour theory. And those were only the people I actually talked to. Clearly everyone had an opinion and, interestingly, there was a fifty-fifty split between the two choices. I had, early on, threatened to build a little donation box with a sign that read:

OPINIONS – I know you have one so put your money where your mouth is.
$1 for positive comments/votes. $2 for nasty or negative comments. All proceeds to charity. Thank-you.

I think it would have been hilarious. Husband thought it smacked of confrontation. I reminded Husband that I bring the colour commentary to our relationship. He urged me not to forget the yang. Time passed, the opportunity was lost, and I swear I saw Husband flash a big V when he thought I wasn’t looking.

As we live in one of the oldest villages on the Rideau the protection of heritage is a common underlying concern. So other popular questions came as no surprise: Are you keeping the original windows? How are you stripping the siding? What kind of paint are you using? Many conversations ran along similar themes.

I was heartened by chats I had with a few people about the energy retrofit focus of the project. They were folks who either understood, or were curious about, the necessity for a marriage between heritage principles and energy conservation due to the changing relationship between our society and the environment. But that discussion merits a separate blog entry (or six).

So, ladies and gentlemen and the generally habicurious, here are my answers to your most pressing questions as presented from the Royal ‘We’ point of view:

WE ARE KEEPING THE ORIGINAL WINDOWS – Of all the retrofit decisions this one was the most contentious. Husband wanted new: operable, no storms, more energy efficient, done. I leaned towards keeping the old, with occasional vacillation: made from old growth timber, arguably more durable, can be repaired, can have new storms made, cheaper to keep ‘em, original to the house, less waste for the dumpster. And now that the trim is removed I am pleased to say they are in good to very good condition. Not bad for a hundred and ten years old. I read many arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ and the case for new was not definitive, particularly if you factor in payback. We are ordering a few new windows for the openings that previous owners added or changed and I am still wrapping my brain around how to build out all the windows due to the addition of two inches of PIC insulation and strapping. In the end the financial argument was of key strategic importance in dealing with Husband’s objections. Only time (and more blower door tests) will tell if this was the right decision.

WE ARE NOT STRIPPING THE SIDING, WE ARE REMOVING IT COMPLETELY – I really hemmed and hawed about wrapping, insulation, strapping and siding over the original clapboard. I wanted to limit the amount of garbage heading to the landfill and also felt that the existing clapboard would provide an additional nailing surface. I literally woke up one morning and knew I had to remove all the old clapboard. This allowed me to check all the board sheathing, look for rot, vacuum out the crevices, replace any punky wood, discover an old door opening (!), better understand some old window openings, insulate some cavities in the masonry infill, improve the nailing surfaces near the bottom of the house and conduct some minor masonry repairs. This will also enable me to install the Typar with care, wrapping right over the window openings, sealing the bottom and top, while working on an entirely flat plane. I’m glad I made this decision but now need to empty the chock-a-block dumpster and refill it once again. Interestingly, had the clapboard, which was still in good condition, been applied correctly (with one nail instead of two), the pieces could have been carefully removed and reused on another project. Yet another case for proper material installation.


WE HAVE NOT YET FINALIZED THE EXTERIOR COLOUR PALETTE – Yes, winter is fast approaching, yes the siding requires three weeks lead time and, and, and. I am not being coy when I say I haven’t finalized the colour scheme yet but I can say it will encompass the two colours you see above. I love colour and I designed the gardens with a purply hydrangea blue in mind. The paint colour, to me, is akin to adding the fancy dress once all the undergarments have been sorted out and I’m still up to my armpits in long johns. I’m giving myself one more week to decide, to put on my big girl panties, to bite the bullet, to invent another metaphor, to place the order, and to move on.

Ooh. The pressure.

110 Years of Dirt

At 3pm yesterday Husband declared it was time to remove the layers of kitchen ceiling in preparation for the installation of the new tin ceiling. Old house renovations are like Gordian knots: you pull one thread and it looses all kinds of other tasks that are interrelated and sometimes unexpected and almost always mean more work.

Case in point. Although a multitude of more pressing jobs trump the installation of the tin ceiling, we have an almost-full dumpster sitting in the lane. One of our overall strategies is to get as much junk and old materials out of the house so that we don’t have to keep renting a dumpster every time we work on a job. So out came a non-load-bearing (closet) wall in the master bedroom, and a major clean-out of the top and bottom of the carriage house, basement, and unfinished attic space ensued. Just a wafer-thin bit of room in the dumpster remained for the old kitchen ceiling.

We started in the bright afternoon sunlight, tearing off the multitude of layers and do-it yourself fixes that have occurred over the years. The first layer of drywall came off okay; we worked from the exposed hole in the centre of the room where we discovered a leak from the upstairs bathroom a few weeks ago. Out came the pot lights and the pendants with no issues. As we began stripping a very thin veneer of t&g pine, the dirt showers began. I rushed to install some 6 mil on the doorway to the pantry and to the dining room, but it was akin to closing the barn door with the cows already out. The sunlight streaming through the windows revealed the powdery cover on the floors and everything in between. Crikey. This would mean washing every dish in the floor-to-ceiling open shelving in the dining room and dusting/mopping every surface in the family room, not to mention vacuuming up the stairs. This would never happen in a client’s project; I wonder why we put up with our own foolishness with our own?

As the original board sheathing was worked free of the floor joists one hundred and ten years of dirt, insulation, old bathroom tiles, pipe bits and other various debris cascaded onto the kitchen floor. Rolling clouds of dust floated out the open door. But we were both surprised by the lack of mouse poop, considering we are a popular autumn B&B for the rodent set.

As darkness fell it became obvious we needed a Plan B. It had to be 6:00pm, the family was unfed and we still had a few hours of work to complete. With only two of the four kids at home, I walked down the street to my neighbour’s and asked for a big favour: would she take my kids and feed them dinner and keep any eye on them for the next few hours? (She said yes). I grabbed the portable electric light from the workshop and hung it off the key rack, wiped a dusty knife across my pants and we devoured hunks of fresh olive bread spread with wild boar pate, washing it down with cold cider. Another sexy Saturday night in the Rapids.

Husband continued whacking away at the ceiling as I wheeled loads of debris to the dumpster. We switched positions as I shop vac’d every nook and cranny in the ceiling joists and picked out the last of the plaster at the wall intersections. Just before nine I recovered the kids and sent them off packing to bed. By ten the tarps were gone, the kitchen was vacuumed and I was physically spent. The follow-on cleaning would have to wait, probably for several days.

“I didn’t think it would take that long,” commented Husband as we slowly climbed the dusty stairs. I was reminded of the first commandment of project management: estimate a project, then double the time and double the cost and you have a pretty good picture of what you are in for.
And next time, I would add, remember to start early.

Zen Zapped by Hydro One

There’s nothing like waking up to perfect blue sky and plenty of sunshine, strapping on the toolbelt and heading outside to find my zen. A little hammering, a little head-scratching and soon a big fat smile on my face reflected the pleasure of working on the energy retrofit of our Old Gal.
Husband showed up about an hour into my contentment, bearing news from Hydro One. Since I don’t fancy electrocution, we need to schedule a disconnect/connect of service in order to work within ten feet of their connection point on the front face of the house. There’s plenty of work to complete the front face (and all other sides), to get old materials off and to install the housewrap, insulation, strapping and new pine siding and trim. And then there is the complexity of the old and new window work to come.

What did I want first, he offered, the good news or the bad news? I felt my big fat smile slide right off my face.

According to our electrical contractor, Hydro One offers customers one complimentary disconnect/connect per calendar year. That means that they, in conjunction with your own electrical contractor and at your own cost (@$300), will disconnect your electrical service and reconnect it when you tell them to do so. You can ask them for a reconnect later that day, a week later or three months on. It really depends on what your tolerance is for no power to your house and how long it takes to defrost that side of beef in your freezer. With a family of six, power required to run our well pump, septic system, UV water treatment system and furnace, two people that work from home, and the aforementioned beef, our tolerance is one working day.

If I bring two guys in to work with me, assuming an early morning disconnect, we could reasonably strip the face of the house, remove the storms, pull off all the trim boards, replace/repair any punky sheathing boards, prep the surface for house wrap, flash and seal everything, wrap the face, install the board insulation, strap the face, install a stand-off post for the electrical mast, and have the reconnect done at the end of the day. All is good, so far, and I certainly don’t begrudge my electrician his fees.

But good quickly turns bad. I am not installing the siding and the rebuilt/refinished windows until the Spring for reasons of weather, schedule and budget. If Hydro One performs another disconnect/connect in the Spring, it will cost me $1,000 in addition to my electrical contractor’s fees. Option B, at $1,200 (plus own contractor fees), offers a ‘temporary wrap’ of the connecting point so that becomes safe to work around and therefore does not require a disconnect/connect.

Choice (anti-Zen) expletives followed by immature foot-stamping on my part, mistakenly understood to be directed at innocent messenger.
Either way, if we require two disconnects within one calendar year, we could be forking over nearly fifteen hundred bucks. Ironically, this will more than wipe out any savings from decreased energy bills that we might realize from the energy retrofit in at least the first two years. And because Hydro One is a monopoly we really have no choice.

Wouldn’t it make sense to waive all fees for residential energy retrofit projects? Couldn’t common sense prevail on a case-by-case basis, particularly when we’ve never called Hydro One in thirteen years of home ownership?

On that cliffhanger, this beautiful Thanksgiving long weekend comes to a close and I am tired. The irritating e-mails and follow-up phone calls can wait ‘till the morning and my frustration has drained through the keyboard to the page. My shoulder muscles relax as the lightness of sleep descends. I smile as my zen, in spite of myself, so quietly returns.

Shop Class 101: Kindergarten Redux

I remember clearly my very first shop project in Advanced Housing at Algonquin College. We were tasked with building a preacher’s block and it was a pass/fail assignment. Sawing, planing, chisel work, and sanding were all to be accomplished without the aid of power anything. After several classes my block looked unmistakably sad. It was irregularly shaped and the many gaps were crammed with a mixture of glue and sawdust in a shabby attempt to make them appear more wood-like. I smelled a pity pass. I felt frustrated, sweaty and a bit panicked. What the hell, I wondered, had I gotten myself into?

But I took that preacher’s block home and called my four kids over. “Look”, I said. “This is my first project and I think it was the worst one in my class.” It reminded me of the ashtray I made for my mother in kindergarten and I suddenly felt a lot of empathy for the eight little hands around me whose growing skills don’t always match their vision. “But I’m learning something new and it will take time, patience and a lot of practice to get good at it. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but big people can’t do everything.”

I admit I’m still a little light on the patience thing but it has been an incredible rush to watch my skills improve as I repeatedly tried and messed up and tried yet again. Now I’m just that much quicker and, most importantly, can brainstorm the workarounds when things don’t go according to plan. I keep my wonky preacher’s block in plain view to remind me of the beauty of being in the game, of putting myself out there and the pure pleasure and freedom found in the act of learning. An invaluable bit of knowledge, I’d say, for a classic Type A who always expects her skills to match her vision.

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