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Architects bring value to housing design, especially in tough economic times

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by Stuart Howard, Fraic

Architects have always brought value to the design of housing, and in these tough times that value is even more obvious.
The Roar live-work project was a 2008 recipient of the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture.
The Roar live-work project was a 2008 recipient of the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture.

RAIC’s Regional Director for British Columbia

While Canada may not be affected as severely as other countries, we definitely are in a recession, and this recession will have a long-term effect on housing and housing choices.

The first and most noticeable effect to date has been the access to credit. Construction, whether it is small or large scale, requires borrowed money to proceed. Due to the tightening of the money supply internationally, access to construction loans has anecdotally almost disappeared, certainly as it applies to multi-family residential projects.

What is the immediate impact? Certainly, there has been a reassessment of all residential projects, and of course a number have been postponed or cancelled, the speculator-driven home building has stopped, and all projects that may proceed are being reassessed, re-bid or rethought.

The rethinking of residential construction is not a short-term blip that disappears and everything returns to normal after a short period of time. What has happened with this downturn is change; change that will alter how we view housing immediately and in the future. Some of the changes and impacts that are starting to become noticeable. For instance, we are seeing the disappearance of ‘McMansions,’ i.e., very large, quickly constructed suburban homes.

The average size of a new home is decreasing from the lofty heights attained in recent years. Why? Cost certainly, but a re-evaluation of home size based on needs versus wants has also taken place and it is lowering expectations of area and numbers of rooms. Gone are the days when unnecessary square footage is added to a home ‘just in case,’ for resale value or for the imagined next owner.

The effect of this mind shift will be the active pursuit of value over cost; how can we get the best value in this new smaller size? Efficient design will be more important as surplus space is unsustainable and unaffordable. Good design has value, value in efficient space planning, value in material durability and appropriate selection, value in sustainable design that will reduce operating costs over time, value in effective site and urban design that takes all possible advantage of the context of housing.

Energy-efficient homes well designed with sustainable materials will be desired by most future home buyers. This is not just an option, but it may very well become a requirement. This demand for sustainability will add value to housing today even in a down market. Those people looking to buy will expect and demand energy efficiency and sustainable features the same way they expect and demand safe streets, solid foundations and closet space.

According to Green Works realty in Washington State, environmentally certified homes sell in 18 percent less time and for 28 to 37 per cent higher value per square foot. This data shows that sustainable design has more value and that green homes command a higher return on investment.

A positive impact this recession will be that some of the sustainable features that didn’t make economic sense in the past will become more affordable, as market conditions drive down prices of elements to a point where long-term value exceeds short-term costs, and the ‘buy back’ period decreases.

Another positive aspect will be the retrofitting of existing housing stock to make it more energy efficient and consequently reduce its carbon impact on the planet. The embodied energy of all the existing housing stock is tremendous and taking advantage of that — in effect recycling the energy it took to build the home in the first place — with a lower energy-consumption-efficient design will mean more value for less cost than replacement housing.

Architects have been long-time efficient-design proponents. They bring efficient-design expertise to housing, and they are committed as a profession to the reduction of the construction industry’s carbon footprint and to sustainable design through such initiatives as the 2030 Challenge, LEED certified housing, Slow Home, alternative energy sources and knowledgeable site planning. Architects have always brought value to the design of housing, and in these tough times that value is even more obvious.

If you are considering hiring an architect or curious about the value of green building, there are many resources and contacts available on the websites of the Architecture Institute of BC (www.aibc.ca) and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (www.raic.org).

Stuart Howard is the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Regional Director for British Columbia. He is a practicing architect in Vancouver.

– RCD Digital Media

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