CBC Toronto - Photo By Timothy Neesam

Throw-away buildings:

A developer's change of heart

David House (CBC)

It is not an easy moment – this. Standing on the site of David House's recent building project and listening to the veteran developer explain why this is a building he would not put up again.

The all-glass commercial tower in Toronto's downtown core (we've agreed not to use the actual address for liability reasons) is immaculately detailed, reflecting the surrounding sky with a pearlized gloss – a beautifully executed glass box.

Spectacular as the building is, it no longer meets David's own standards for building performance.

House says buildings that he would like to point to with pride for the rest of his life "are at one level intrinsically flawed. They're not designed to last. They're not designed to perform. They're more or less designed to look good."

Some critics say the building industry, not only in Ontario but globally, has been caught in a trap of building style over substance with some industry insiders predicting that glass buildings will someday be viewed as an historical phenomenon.
(Glass buildings are set to become 'pariahs' - bdonline.co.uk External Site)

Will buildings like the famous 40-storey glass skyscraper known as "The Gherkin," in London, England, become undesirable?
(CP Photo/ Max Nash)

An industry in denial?

The Greater Toronto Area, in particular, with 278,000 condominium units, has seen its skyline transformed by condo towers - a building boom dominated by glass window-walls. Glass window-wall construction, along with its more expensive commercial counterpart, curtain-wall construction, has overtaken the traditional construction methods, using "punched-window" walls, with windows set into insulated walls.

House says the industry has been in denial about the poor performance of glass-walled buildings. House has reinvented himself as a socially-responsible developer with his colleagues at EarthDevelopment External Site.

"We believed the logic from our design team and our consultants," says House, "that this glass wall will perform as well as all the old 'bad' punched-window walls. And you want to believe that because it's really quick to build (glass walls), and if it performed it would be a cool solution."

When House uses the word, 'perform', he's referring to a building's durability, energy efficiency, how easy it is to maintain, how comfortable to live in.

Glass lasts a long time, it's relatively cheap and walls made of nothing but glass and a metal frame to hold it in place yield a spectacular view. Where glass doesn't perform is when it comes to long-term maintenance and insulation.

In the construction chain, it is the developers - people like House - who take the biggest financial risk. Assembling land, financing the project, hiring designers, builders, finding a tenant - or in the case of a condo, hundreds of owners.

Glass walls ease those risks in many ways. Glass isn't as heavy as brick or stone, which reduces installation costs.

"No wonder the industry loves glass walls," says House. "They're easily installed. They're mobile. It's convenient. So the construction industry gives you a better price. The design community loves it, because it's glass. You can get all kinds of light – it's cool. The owners of the building – don't get it."

This building at the Toronto Brick Works provides energy efficiency that will pay off
now and in the future. (Photo: Tom Arban)

Save now, pay later

What they don't get, says David, is that no one involved in putting up a glass condo high-rise will be around to pay the utility bills or to fix the building once the maintenance problems develop. David isn't throwing stones at people who build glass boxes. He knows better than most the pressure to deliver affordable condo units to buyers who are more interested in the view than about building performance, and aren't willing to pay a premium for a well-insulated wall.

But there are signs that the pressure to build performance into our buildings is growing. Ontario's building code will change this January (2012), requiring all high-rise buildings to be 25 per cent more energy efficient than the Model National Energy Code, a voluntary standard for buildings that will become the mandatory minimum in Ontario.

Meanwhile, House says his clients are also changing, as they put performance ahead of the "iconic" look of another glass tower. Recent projects, like the redevelopment of the Toronto Brick Works External Site, deliver a level of energy efficiency that House once didn't even think was possible – developments to be proud of for the rest of his life.

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