Co-operative, eh?

by Jen Kenefick, VIA Architecture

I decided that I would write a little blog about co-operative housing mainly as a fact finding exercise because it is a type of housing and way of living that I know little about.

From what I can gather, co-ops are quite prevalent here in Canada and in Northern Europe and they do exist in Ireland (where I’m from), although they are not particularly common there. When I asked my housemates (also Irish) what they thought about co-ops, they didn’t know what I was talking about. Another Irish friend asked if it had something to do with social housing.

One of the main problems I had in understanding the concept of co-operatives is where they differ from social housing. Are all co-operatives government assisted to some degree? Are all the residents in receipt of government help of some kind? Why would someone choose to live in a co-op if one could afford to buy privately? Another big one was if you don’t actually own the property, when it comes to selling up, how do you make a return or profit on your investment? After all, owning your home yields potentially the biggest source of investment return you can get.

While my initial thought was that co-op was just another term for social housing, after some reading, I now know that not to be the case. There seems to be many different types of co-op housing, not-for-profit, market rate etc. Many require a small amount of investment from a member initially, which you get back should you move out and for which you pay a reduced rent (usually based on your income). Some require you to buy in at a % of the market value, after which if you decide to leave, you receive back the same % at the current market value, hence a return on your investment.

I wonder if it is fair to say that most co-ops receive government help financially, at least for the initial building stage? If not, who pays for the actual building costs, if members only pay a deposit for example? I understand that co-ops built here in the last 20-30 years were government funded and many came with a condition of mixed income residents. I do understand that you do not have to be in need of financial help to live in a co-op, but the attributes of some (small deposit, subsidised rent etc) might lead one to think otherwise.

I get that people live in co-ops out of choice, not out of necessity, which seems to be the major difference between co-ops and social housing. Living in a co-operative can bring a sense of community and belonging to the residents, as everyone has a say in how their community is managed.
If co-operative housing is partly about a way of living and about community (as well as affordable accommodation), a housing project that springs to mind that maybe takes that concept a step further in terms of a way of living is the BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development) in London. It is a sustainable live/work community where the residents enjoy a high quality of life, while working together to reduce their environmental impact. The community comprises 50% housing for sale, 25% key worker shared ownership and 25% social housing for rent. While the project was privately funded, its residents choose to live in that environment and work together to sustain that way of life.

After my ‘extensive’ research into the subject and the very informative series of articles in the Tyee, I feel I definitely have a much better understanding and appreciation for the co-op housing model. I won’t attempt to understand all the different types and rules that go with them and I still find it hard to grasp the idea that if you sell up, in some situations you will not make a profit on your investment. Perhaps this comes from growing up in Celtic Tiger Ireland!

Friday Feature: Charlene

Who are you and what do you do?
Charlene Kovacs and I'm an Architect.

What made you decide to go into your field?
I knew since I was 15 after taking an aptitude test in Junior High School when architecture came out as the 2nd career choice. Criminology came out ahead of architecture, but I didn't really know what that was. I've always loved to draw/doodle/rearrange spaces, etc. so it was all good from there.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
My dad was a Mechanical Engineer, so it naturally fit -- although he is way more black and white than I am.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Christine Macy, who was a sessional tutorial instructor at UBC. She had a very refreshingly current approach to architecture, which was exactly what I needed at that time.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
At first I didn't want to put in all those years, but once I started, it was actually fun, especially all of the friendships I made along the way.

What inspires you?
Seeing the built form completed and watching the faces of the people who occupy the spaces.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
When I went through, I needed an undergraduate degree - mine was in fine arts. After that, it was three years at architecture school with an additional semester in Barcelona, which was the best, naturally.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
Success is defined in many ways. But if you are asking what kind of people make the best business out of architecture, then I would say very patient, but firm business minded people. If it's purely about the art form, well then it's all about the uninhibited imagination and pure determination to make it happen. Bonus if someone possesses both.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
You can't be good at everything, so surround yourself with great people who compliment your strengths.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Architecture is always evolving, so yes, for sure there is room for enthusiasts.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
Architecture is not just a profession, it's a way of life, so make sure you have balance along the way. You only get better as you age.

Tacoma's Brewery District

Back in March, our resident Urban Planner, Kate Howe, wrote a great blog post that gave an overview of Tacoma's Brewery District. She talked about some of the background of Tacoma and includes brief information on the study that we recently completed for them.

The Brewery District Development Concept Study aims to provide an actionable framework to transform this downtown Tacoma warehouse district into a sustainable neighborhood based on the adaptive re-use of historic buildings, local creative production, and a population mix of students, artists, and local workforce. This will be achieved via a series of progressive interventions, from the temporary and small scale to larger scaled public/private redevelopments. Implementation strategies are focused on both placemaking + activated uses.

One result of the study, completed in April 2010, includes the introduction of spaceworks tacoma. A joint initiative with the City of Tacoma, Shunpike, and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, spaceworks is "designed to activate empty storefronts in downtown Tacoma with art and creative enterprise."

Once property owners offer up their empty retail locations, Shunpike works with participants to "transform them into dynamic points of interest with creative energy and artistic enterprise." An article in The News Tribune says that property owners are hoping that businesses that use the temporary space will potentially turn into full-fledged businesses.

In addition to spaceworks, there has also been lively interest in the Study’s two identified catalyst opportunity projects which were identified as follows:
  • A 1905 City Shops and Stables (24,000 SQFT) and Municipal Storehouse Complex (27,000 SQFT) for adaptive re-use to a public market, vending stalls, brewery and mixed residential and creative uses. The future uses have been selected to help to create a nodal supplement to the UWT campus just to the north of the neighborhood and re-establish the real estate market. New street designs complement the BNSF Prairie Line rail conversion to a multi-purpose trail connecting the Brewery District to the waterfront. 
  • A 5-acre parcel of city-owned, underutilized land adjacent to the University of Washington is envisioned to develop in a public/private partnership with ancillary student support services and housing. Several development concept studies of Catalyst Site B tested amenities and future connections for a minimum baseline residential capacity of 528 residential units and 100,000 SF of retail space up to 1,200 units and 100,000 SQFT of commercial space.
Here are some more renderings that are a result of the study:

For more up-to-date information on the spaceworks tacoma program, check out their blog here.

Friday Feature: Wolf

Who are you and what do you do?
Wolf Saar. I’ve been an architect for about a quarter century and am the new Director of Practice for VIA Seattle. I’m also on the City of Seattle’s Design Review Board for Capitol Hill, the neighborhood that I live in together with my wife Leilani, an interior designer, and 3 teenage kids. I recently joined the Board at AIA Seattle as Treasurer and have served on the Professional Advisory Board of my alma mater, the School of Architecture and Construction Management at Washington State University, for over 10 years. I’m born in Argentina, grew up in BC and went to college and eventually settled here in Washington.

What made you decide to go into your field?
I originally had a passion for drawing cars and considered going into automotive design but, after my dad leased office space in his building in downtown Cranbrook, BC to an architectural firm, I saw that I could pursue my love of drawing and design in an area that probably had wider opportunity and more depth. Thus, my passion for architecture began to grow but I still doodle car designs when in meetings and have an interesting collection of die cast toy cars at home.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
They embraced it. My mother, an artist and former art teacher, loved the drawing side and my dad was constantly looking for opportunities to expose me to things architectural. Not an easy feat as, by the time I was in high school and getting serious about career choices, we were living in Creston, BC. The grain elevators weren’t exactly the best inspiration!

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Dave Scott pops to mind. As my senior year design professor at WSU he taught me a lot about passion and the profession and showed me how to think like an architect. But, I have to say the most influential figure for me has been my mentor and friend, Roger Williams, who typifies the “total immersion” approach to architecture and design.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
After my first year in college, I struggled with whether I should go through the remaining 4 years of education or go back home and find a more immediate opportunity to start to make a life for myself. I decided to take a year off and worked as the advertising designer for our local newspaper in Creston and then for thelocal brewery. After a year of working and seeing my friends who worked at the brewery or the sawmill do it all year round, I happily returned to WSU, totally re-energized! To this day, I haven’t lost my taste for Kokanee beer though.

What inspires you?
My inspiration comes primarily through travel and collaboration.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
Typically, the educational goal is a professional degree such as a Masters of Architecture (M. Arch) which is a 6 year track; some schools still offer a 5 year Bachelor of Architecture (B. Arch) program but this is becoming increasingly rare. Schools are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB).

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
Many attributes are applicable to architecture as a field. I tend to focus more on the ability to juggle many skills and the architect’s role as orchestrator of design, regulation and construction.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
Things happen for a reason.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Architecture has been greatly impacted by the economic situation so, currently, there is a huge group of architects without work in the field.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
My advice to someone considering a career in architecture is twofold: 1. Follow your passion—if this is what you were born to do, by all means, pursue it. 2. An education in architecture is a great foundation for all sorts of pursuits and can lead to careers in related and seemingly unrelated fields, primarily because it involves taking a holistic approach and combines diverse skills and disciplines.

Jarrett Walker: Branding Transit, from soap to transportation

by Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant for VIA Architecture

Last Friday, we here in the VIA Vancouver office were very fortunate to welcome Jarrett Walker. Some of you may know him from his blog, others may know him as a transit consultant, or here in Vancouver, you may know him from the work he has done for TransLink or the great presentation he recently gave at SFU to a sold out crowd of 240 people.

However you may know him, you know that he has extensive transit experience (20 years) and has worked all over the world. With his first degree being in theatre art, as he says on his blog, “he is probably the only person with peer-reviewed publications in both the Journal of Transport Geography and Shakespeare Quarterly.” He also holds a PhD from Stanford University and grew up in Portland.

His presentation began by discussing branding, maps and signage. Specifically, he referred to ways of differentiating transit lines through the use of colours and the different types of information that can be displayed on transit maps. He referred to a few maps he had seen or had consulted on, suggesting that there is no real need to have a map that differentiates by transit type. For example a map should show both bus and SkyTrain routes.

To take this even further, Berlin's public transportation map outlines routes without showing whether they consist of buses or trams or both. In many European cities, the trams are supposed to be indistinguishable from buses, they have the same branding and upholstery to create a cohesiveness among transit types. This, as Jarrett pointed out, assumes that the average public transportation user is looking to reach a destination rather then being specific to a specific type of transit. “Are they a tram rider or just someone who wants to get to where they are going?” Jarrett asked.

I believe that in the ideal world, no one would care which form of transit they were taking if all were equally as fast, efficient, scenic or clean (depending on what a commuter’s criteria may be). However, as this is not the case, I think that people still want to know what transit type they are taking.

In Vancouver for example, I know there is even a distinction between the Canada Line and older SkyTrain lines. The new Canada Line is often seen as bright, shiny and new. Also because the trains are slightly different dimensions with a different layout, it feels like there is more room and things like bikes and baby carriages can be easily placed out of the way so that they are not barriers to people coming on or off the trains. Furthermore, taking a bus and dealing with traffic versus taking the faster ALRT (Advanced Light Rapid Transit) alternative is a definite factor for commuters.

I agree that ideally all forms of transit should be efficient enough that no differentiation is needed but in the meantime, I think that showing complete routes on maps (which include multiple types of transit) is important, but so is differentiating between the different modes one will be using.

As for places using colour codes to differentiate between bus lines, Jarrett referred to Seoul as one of the best places for this. He suggested that colours can convey quite a lot of information to a user that makes the user's experience much less stressful. For example, it could be used to show the frequency of a bus or the number of stops and speed of the bus. The colour codes can answer a number of questions, including whether or not someone should wait at the stop they are at. Does the bus come frequently or infrequently? Does the bus stop at every stop or is it an express? Similarly does the bus take a long time or short time to arrive at the destination?

Rather than using numbers on the front that people need to memorize and are easily forgettable, it is much easier to say take the blue express line rather then saying take the 312 or the 414. It is also much easier to find a bright blue bus stop or bus sign then going to every bus stop on a street and looking for a specific bus number.

One of the reasons Jarrett thinks that transit branding and advertising are often poorly done is that the transit agency's marketing departments don’t understand how to market transit but only how to market general products (or as Jarrett joked, “they can sell soap”). He thinks that as transit is an integral part of our infrastructure, one of the things that defines it is that it is a necessity, a public service that must be provided and is often taken for granted. He argued that this means that it cannot be marketed like any other product.

Although I agree that this is the case for the current users, who understand that transit is integral and use the service already, I think that for non users it would be fine to assume it can be marketed like any other product by following the AIDA model, a typical basic marketing strategy. Raise Awareness, create Interest, increase Demand and cause Action.

Of course people may be at different stages of the model. Those who already know about the product may be at the stage where we should be creating interest. Not that one can describe the service as you would describe a bar of soap, it’s not going to moisturize or clean you, but you can still market the benefits to people, as you would any other product. You would find out what some of non users apprehensions are and show how you have addressed those.

Transit is reliable, it’s quick, it’s safe etc. Although my disclaimer for having said all this is that although I have been at VIA for a year and have some experience with transit, my background is more of a general business and marketing background, I have more experience selling “soap” then “transit.”

Another problem that he pointed out is that there are 3 messages that are all fighting to be conveyed on the bus. In order of priority there is
  1. the identity of the government funding agency in charge 
  2. the identity of contracting operator and 
  3. the usefulness of the service to the customer. 
The last is often the most important but also the one that has the least priority so it often goes unnoticed.

Another issue is that buses receive so much revenue from advertising (either in transit stations, SkyTrain or subway stations or on the outside of buses or trams) that to push for them to advertise their own services or minimize advertisements to better display important signs for wayfinding is often difficult. Rather then being seen as a benefit or cheap self advertising it is seen as lost revenue.

All in all, it was a presentation that sparked some great questions and debate between Jarrett and our staff here at VIA. We hope to see Jarrett again next time he is out this way.

And remember, next time your skin is feeling dry simply grab for the nearest transit and hop on for the ride of your life.

Monday News Roundup

China to build ginormous buses that cars can drive under 

Daycare centre at SFU meets the living building challenge, it produces more energy then it consumes (Price Tags)

Smart city governments grow produce for the people (Grist)
The new attitude at forward-thinking city halls seems to be, in a tough economy, why expend precious resources growing ornamental plants, when you can grow edible ones?

How to turn a payphone into a library (GOOD)
Have an old phone booth in your neighborhood sitting empty? Fill it with books!

Urban farms breaking through concrete (Grist)

The beautiful game brings dignity to the streets (Kaid Benefield @ NRDC)
Street soccer is played in one fashion or another at least informally all over the world.  But, in this case, SSUSA “utilizes the power of soccer to turn the lives of homeless for the better,” says the organization in a press release.

TriMet’s Dirty Words Twitter Haiku Contest (TriMet)
We invited you to write haiku based on each dirty word TriMet is trying to eliminate from our civic vocabulary.

Cities are for People: The limits of localism(World Changing)

Friday Feature: Richard L

Who are you and what do you do?
I’m an intern architect working with VIA Architecture.

What made you decide to go into your field?
Good question…was it Lego? Maybe but too cliché
Was it Howard Roarke? Nah, too much ego.
Then what was it? Okay since you really want to know…Mike Brady and the fact that he worked from home in a low rancher…

What did your family think of your chosen field?
They were alright with it. They would have preferred a profession that was easier to pronounce when it came to telling their friends what field their son was in.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
A professor who said in a critique, “Show me, don’t tell me or I will smite you.”

What inspires you?
1. Art
2. Community. Relating with other people who share your interests, belief systems, can be amazing. To feel that you are part of something that matters no matter how small. It encourages you to make your contributions mean something. You become more creative in the process and perhaps in the end be a better person.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
Elementary school, Secondary school, post secondary school, travel, life experiences

What is the best advice you were ever given?
A professor who said (in reference to keeping things simple) "You can’t put 10 pounds of crap into a 5 pound bag."

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
Look at it as an opportunity to make the world a good place to live for everyone. Start with baby steps like in your own neighbourhood and community.

Social Sustainability From a Transit Perspective

by Catherine Calvert, VIA Architecture

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Public Transportation Association’s annual conference on Sustainability in New York City. I came away with a clear appreciation of how challenging these times are for transit agencies, particularly in the United States.

The ability to survive the economic downturn has moved very much to the forefront of many agencies’ agendas, and sustainability has had a tendency to fall into the “would be nice to have” category of considerations. As Jay Walder, Chair of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Agency expressed, “we like the concept of sustainability much more when our economy is robust”. And yet, treating sustainability as if it were at odds with financial responsibility is clearly short-sighted.

Sustainability has been described variously as being a three-legged stool that relies interdependently on the “three E’s” (Environment, Equity, Economy) or the “three P’s” (People, Planet, Prosperity). In applying these ideas to public transit systems, it’s often difficult to connect the concepts with the reality of a public agency, particularly in the realm of Social Sustainability (the “Equity” or “Prosperity” aspect). However I particularly enjoyed Mr. Walder’s description of public transit sustainability as a trifecta -- Customer Service, Environmental Benefit, and Bottom Line.

What works well here is that transit agencies are already focused on customer service as a core mission, so equating this with Social Sustainability is an easy conceptual link to make. The other thing I like about this occurred to me once I’d looked up the word “trifecta” – not being a horse racing fan, I was unfamiliar with its exact meaning of winning by picking the first, second and third finishers simultaneously (1). What a great idea – sustainability can only be “won” by addressing all three aspects at the same time.

In North America the most common ways to include Social Sustainability in a transit agency’s operation is to focus on these issues:
  • Mobility – a connected network that allows users to move around a city using a combination of public transportation and non-motorized means of travel;
  • Accessibility – the removal of physical barriers in order to provide access to people with a variety of abilities;
  • Personal Safety – design using principles of CPTED, enabling the physical environment to discourage crime and undesirable behaviors;
  • Security – ability to resist criminal acts by screening technology, presence of security personnel, and physical design;
  • Community investment – the integration of public art into the urban environment, creating alliances with local business, and using station area design to support and reflect neighborhood values.

At the conference we learned that in Europe there is additional focus on education. Maybe we forget sometimes that children aren’t born knowing how to ride a transit system, or that older people have a hard time with evolving schedules and service changes. In Leipzig the LVB transit agency has a specific program that trains 11-15 year olds not only on the logistics of riding transit, but also on how to create a “better transit climate” through responsible behavior and ridership. This agency also provides outreach programs to senior citizens in order to ensure that their needs continue to be met as their own abilities change.

Additional ways to consider the Social Sustainability aspects of transit include the opportunities to connect transit agency activities with broader social concerns. Transit often suffers from the “last quarter-mile” problem, which refers to the distance that a person must travel in order to get to the nearest transit stop. For a variety of reasons, and despite how efficient the transit system might be, this last quarter-mile is often an insurmountable barrier to ridership. This may be due to problems such as missing sidewalks or hostile pedestrian environments, the absence of weather protection at bus stops, or areas which are threatening to personal safety. Brussels-based UITP – the International Agency of Public Transport -- is looking at links between public health concerns like obesity and this absence of transit connectivity. If every trip started with a walk, how much healthier would we be?

Finally, there is opportunity for transit to directly support its communities by sponsoring the work of local charities and non-profit groups. Since 2003 the Dublin Bus Community Support Programme (2) has provided grants to any group that is located within its service network, funded by proceeds from long-term unclaimed change receipts.

Clearly there is much opportunity to expand our understanding of public transit’s role in the social life of our cities, and the ways in which transit can directly and indirectly support our health and values. One of the most interesting things I learned at the conference was that for the first time ever, the percentage of 16 to 19-year olds who are driving is on the decline. The reason – it’s hard to text while you’re behind the wheel. Maybe an oblique way to encourage transit ridership, but an interesting social trend nonetheless.

Image from

Monday News Roundup

Blueprints for a Better ‘Burb (NYTimes)
That the Murphys, the couple recently arrested for spying for the Russians from Montclair, N.J., were described by a flabbergasted neighbor as “suburbia personified” is telling, an observation that perfectly sums up our collective notion that the suburbs are chock full of white, middle-class families, both nuclear and normal.

But that prevailing vision contradicts the reality of suburbia today.

Another Step Toward Green Design (Forbes)
With help from star architect William McDonough, a ''green products'' institute is born.

Small Shoots, Big Shades: Beautiful Tropical Bamboo Home (dornob)
A climate-specific design for Costa Rica by an architect for his mother, this is a unique dream home that combines local building traditions, modern techniques and an extreme sensitivity to connecting the interior with the wild and wonderful outdoors around the house.

The G-List - the top green buildings since 1980. Why so different from Vanity Fair's "most important works of architecture since 1980"?

Frank Lloyd Wright the Villain? (The Overhead Wire)
The author talks about his belief that Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Ford were the greatest villains of the 20th century in their encouraged suburban development taking us away from the beneficial village community and pushing us to rely too heavily on automobiles and suburban development.

Saving Seattle’s trees one bird at a time(SeattlePI)
Seattle City Light contractors cut back trees to create clearance for power lines on the edge of Kiwanis Ravine on Thursday July 29, 2010 in Magnolia. The City of Seattle hopes to preserve the city's tree canopy and preserving the nearby colony of great blue heron are part of the plan. No heron were nesting in the trees cut by the workers.

The future of cities and transportation (GOOD Magazine)
Bus rapid transit systems and "complete streets" are great. But to design urban transportation systems that are truly sustainable, we have to think much further ahead.

LA pushing to become nation’s mass transit leader (Associated Press)
The region famous for jilting the street car to take up a love affair with the automobile is trying to rekindle its long ago romance with commuter rail.

The Mark of a Great City Is in How It Treats Its Ordinary Spaces, Not Its Special Ones (Urbanophile)
But leave the tourist district behind and check out the average street, the average building, the average design. Too often you will find that those are of another order altogether. It’s as if there are two separate cities. One place is the city of special events and tourists, existing inside a cordon sanitaire (whose boundaries are marked with gateways perhaps?) indicating its unique status. The other place is the city as it is actually lived in and experienced in everyday life. This latter city, that is to say, the vast majority of the city, is too often neglected. The gulf between the special and the ordinary proclaims the hollowness of these places.

Superfront (UrbanOmnibus)
SUPERFRONT is a venue for architectural experimentation. Three and a half years ago, Mitch McEwen — a curator, urban designer and unlicensed architect — walked by a dilapidated storefront in Bed-Stuy in the shadow of the elevated LIRR tracks, and went about applying her passion and energy into transforming it into a gallery and project space devoted to “promoting architecture for an interdisciplinary world.