All About Affordability, Part 3 (City Conversations No One Else is Having #6, Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles, including this 2021 series “City Conversations No One Else is Having.” This one is Part 3 of his “All About Affordability” series, featuring his affordability triage analysis.

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“I think I have the beginnings of some solutions.” I smiled at my son as we ate our Granville Island breakfast before our regular bike ride. “But I had to turn things on their head a bit.”

He looked puzzled. “Okay, I’ll bite, how did you invert what we talked about last ride?”

“I’m glad you challenged me to explain how to implement my six Ideas to tackle affordability,” I continued. “In terms of “bang for the buck,” it was immediately clear to me that I had the simplest ideas, what folks like to call the “low hanging fruit,” at the bottom of my list, when they really should be at the top.” I turned my notebook so it faced him, with the table that’s at the top of this post. “After our ride, I’ll explain why it’s more logical to start with Build easier than Build higher.

He gave me one of those Whatever, Dad looks and pushed off on his bike.

I used my bike time to organize my thoughts. I was more than a little intimidated—not so much by my son, although his Millennial generation is a tough sell for any idea from us Baby Boomers. I was unsure because lots of folks much brighter than I have been looking for their single solution to affordability—and I know many of those solutions have some value.

By proposing a suite of a half dozen Ideas with a hierarchy of value, most-to-least effective, I was opening myself to arguments about order of effectiveness, about what’s possible, about “Who are you to say…” Perhaps most challenging, I was taking on a social media communications paradigm that thinks in Tweets, at most bullet points, all competing as the Idea where at least six are the reality.

As is our habit, when we completed our circuit and returned to Granville Island, my son went off in search of a snack for us with the comforting certainty that I would pay, even when his looks suspiciously like a full lunch. Sure enough, he returned laden with coffees for both, a scone for me and…much more for him. I tapped on the first Idea in my table to get his attention. Knowing who’d paid, he at least appeared to pay attention.

Idea #1—Build Easier

“Some years ago,” I began, “the newly-elected mayor of Baltimore sat down with all the city department heads and directed: “Halve all permit fees and approval times within 60 days!” Once it was clear non-compliance would be at the cost of their jobs, everyone buckled down and miraculously, the goal was achieved, even bettered in some departments. Something that radical is needed in Vancouver.”

“How did they achieve it?” my son asked between bites. “And that’s the US—could the same thing occur here?”

“I don’t actually know the details from Baltimore,” I admitted. “But what’s needed here is a good old fashioned step-by-step review of every step in every process involved in the design and construction of buildings in the city. I participated in such a review during the early days of the post-Expo ’86 Concord Pacific project. The city hired and directed (but the applicant paid for) external consultants to interview all city staff involved in design and construction, as well as representatives of project designers and builders. They developed flow charts describing the complicated processes for this big project, which produced some startling observations.” My son’s interest level had risen a bit—he was pausing a bit longer between bites.

“My favourite was the single senior staff member (name and department withheld to protect the guilty) who insisted they needed to be personally present at about 80% of all planning and design meetings and presentations…but were only available for ½ day per week. The resulting project schedule stretched to four years. There were many less dramatic logjams that the city manager’s office of the day dismantled. In the end, the overall plan for the 80-hectare (204-acre) site, with parks, schools, community centre, walkways, marinas and residential and commercial development, was presented to the public in many community workshops that produced changes to the planning. It was all approved in 18 months from a bare land start.”

“So how does that help us today?” my son asked. I sensed he had a feeling for the answer.

“There are currently at least four distinct city departments involved in most design and construction projects, five when city-owned land is involved, like False Creek South. Whether you are planning a minor renovation or addition, a neighbourhood-scaled project or a mega project, that’s way too many.” He nodded agreement so I kept going.

“City Council needs to direct staff to do something like what occurred for False Creek North. Every step in every process for every type of permission to design or construct every type of renovation, addition or new project needs to be diagrammed, together with a rationale for why each step exists and its overall relationship to residents’ needs.” He nodded. “Then every step that is unnecessary or duplicated needs to be eliminated—every project needs to have the same “4 years to 18 months” analysis that False Creek North enjoyed.”

“Surely that’s happened before? Could things really be improved?”

“As a matter of fact, I participated in a community/industry attempt to improve city processes from 1998 through 2000. It was called the Community/Industry Advisory Panel for the Rezoning, Permitting and Inspection Pilot Process.” I waited for him to take the bait.

“So what improvements came from that,” he asked innocently.

“For the eighteen months I participated,” I answered, “consisting of a ½ day of face-to-face discussion every second week, every single idea that our joint community/industry panel proposed was rejected by city staff.”

“How come?” he asked.

I responded. “The responses varied, but were generally “We can’t make changes to unionized processes,” or even more obliquely, “Staff have determined that won’t work.” To finish, I added: “I resigned after eighteen months, having achieved nothing. Other community/industry representatives followed soon after, and the whole panel dissolved, having achieved nothing.” He paused, taking this in, then continued.

“But aren’t many of the checks, steps and balances in the existing city processes designed to prevent folks from inadvertently or deliberately renovating, adding or building new buildings that break the zoning rules, or worse, building code safety requirements?” I was pleased at the question—he had been listening to my periodic diatribes.

“Some years before you were born, the city was selected to host Expo ’86. The Chief Building Inspector, Roger Hébert, who had suffered a recent budget cut, told City Council that his department could not manage the burst of construction expected leading up to the exposition. He was empowered by Council to find a solution.” I paused for a bite of scone, noticed my son was still paying attention.

“Roger approached the architectural and engineering professions for assistance. Out of this was quickly born the Certified Professional (CP) Program, which allowed qualified CPs to do much of the code review that had previously been performed by city staff. As a result, everything at Expo ‘86 was properly reviewed and built to a tight schedule.”

“I remember you told me you were a CP—but how specifically would that help now?” My son is good at zeroing in on the essence.

“Well, I answered, “if the process analysis I suggested shows (as I expect it will) that many of the delays and costs in permitting arise from city staff checking things professionals have already checked, then the city could simply eliminate that work, making the professional architects and engineers who created the designs in the first place responsible for compliance.”

My son is sometimes very perceptive—this was one of these times. “But these professionals work for the clients making the applications and profiting from the development, certainly in the case of anything larger than a triplex. How do you prevent a client from pressuring a professional to do something outside of the zoning bylaw or building code?”

I was ready for this. “Some years ago there was a rash of projects where the structural engineer had made basic errors in earthquake design. Out of that mess came a program whereby every structural design in BC other than the most simple is checked by an independent structural engineer—a qualified engineer from a different firm. And there are periodic, random checks on both engineers by the professional association. I’m not aware of any issues being discovered by those checks—of course, if there are, they’re dealt with by the designers before permits are granted.”

“So how would this work for, say, the type of low-rise residential building atop ground level commercial that you’ve previously told me takes way too long for the city to review and approve?”

“Another great question,” I continued. “The professional associations could establish a special designation for professionals who’ve proven their knowledge of the zoning as well as building codes—or they could just identify that professional registration means each individual is expected to have that knowledge, as most do. It would be a separate discussion as to whether a second, independent professional was required to confirm an application met zoning bylaws, design guidelines, all that good but complicated stuff.”

“All good,” he responded, “but errors happen—you’ve told me enough about those from your CP work. What happens to folks who screw up?”

“Well,” I answered after a moment’s reflection, “one of the reasons architecture and engineering are self-governing professions is that we are required at all times to protect the public interest—that means both zoning bylaws and building codes. Those who “screw up” are sued, sometimes lose their license to practice. And since that license is essential to making a living, that system works pretty well.”

He grunted understanding. “Do you really think this will make design and construction easier? And how will that improve affordability?”

“City staff talk in terms of years to approve even simpler projects—everybody I know has their own horror story. Even in a low interest rate environment, time is money. Material and labour costs usually escalate way faster than interest rates. The provincial government panel I mentioned on our last bike ride estimates the cost of replacing your older rental studio includes at least $100,000 in time-related permitting costs—more for larger homes and larger projects. If you could buy a new version of your studio for $100,000 less, would you consider that more affordable?”

“Dad,” he responded while rolling his eyes, “I already told you just to send me the $100,000 and I’ll stay where I am.” We both smiled. I replied, “You mentioned your building is being sold. We know it’s not too far from a proposed SkyTrain station, so will probably be up for redevelopment in a couple years.” At this, he looked sad. “When that time comes, if the replacement is $100,000 cheaper, is that not more affordable?” He nodded but continued to look downcast.

He signaled the end of our discussion, “This is really interesting but is taking way too long—how about we continue with your second idea, Build for Locals, when we have our next ride?” He was already mounting his bike—I got the hint.

“Same time, same place?” He nodded, took off at twice my pace.

Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election.

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