Good architecture is a vital element of education

Thirty-five years ago it was decided by those who established school design policy that students were at school to learn, and that they must not be distracted. This decision led to what seems now a rather bizarre directive: That schools were henceforth to be built with no windows. The decision was made in the belief that windowless schools would improve education, reduce operating costs, protect against vandalism, and save money.

Several schools were built without windows, but it was quickly discovered that they did not work.  Learning performance fell and absenteeism increased.  Within three to four years the practice was discontinued, and windows were installed in many of the formerly windowless buildings.

From the 1940s through the 1970s there was strong support for innovative school construction and high quality design.  It was understood that a well-designed environment served everyone well.  Learning was improved, and good architecture and planning demonstrated that Manitoba was committed to quality at all levels. A number of schools are still in use from this era. Many of these buildings remain important works of Manitoba architecture and, more important, many remain excellent environments for teaching and learning.

At the provincial level, the commitment to architectural excellence in educational buildings has declined, and public funding policy has tended for the past three decades to focus more on budget management than on education and design excellence.  It is not clear why this change in emphasis occurred, though “lower cost at any cost” seems to have been a mantra of government for a number of years.

In Manitoba, public school construction is administered by the Manitoba Public  Schools Finance Board (PSFB), which in turn operates under the direction of the provincial government. It is the PSFB’s duty to assure that construction budgets are adequate for new educational construction in the province.  When money is scarce, there are two ways to assure that budgets and costs match:  One of these is to reduce the quantity of building that is built; and the other is to reduce the quality of the buildings that are built.  The PSFB uses both of these tools to satisfy its budget management duty.

Many school districts, and their architects, have tried to build schools that are more than the minimal boxes encouraged by the PSFB.  The PSFB budget allocations are often inadequate for anything but those minimal boxes.  Both the ambitious school districts and the budget-conscious PSFB have been frustrated with the process and the results.

In 2004 the PSFB introduced a series of precise standards for the construction of school buildings in Manitoba. These standards are somewhat unusual in that they have been established as the maximum that is to be built.  Even if a building exceeding these standards could be constructed within its assigned budget, the PSFB will not permit designs which violate their standards to receive PSFB funding.

If this policy has grown from a political directive, the politicians who issued the directive should think about the message poor quality in our public environment sends.  If, on the other hand, the low standards evolved because the PSFB wants to please its political masters, perhaps the politicians should signal to the PSFB that the new standards, which actively discourage innovation and the values of well-designed environments, are a mistake.

The Isbister School, Winnipeg School Division’s Adult Education Centre, occupies a prominent downtown site between Colony, Vaughn and Webb Place. The original four-square school sat on its landscaped grounds in a way similar to many county courthouses found south of the border, and this rather stately arrangement has always been an inherent part of the building’s character and quality.

The school was in a decrepit state for 30 years – surrounded by parking lots, chain link and barbed-wire fences, and aging trailer classrooms. The building and grounds have recently been renovated, a new addition has been constructed, and new landscaping has been installed.  Viewed from the east (from Vaughn Street), the Isbister School still presents itself as a stately courthouse in a park. On the Colony side, however, the character of the building has become quite different. The new addition is adamantly not four-square; it stands in an asymmetrical relationship with the original building, and the courthouse-in-the-park is no longer easily recognizable from the west.

There was some critical comment about the new addition when it was first completed, and I suspect that this arose from the new building’s non-historic character and asymmetrical relationship with the original structure.  The design was approved through an extensive process of heritage review, and though there may have been other ways to integrate the old and new buildings, the new design did pass the litmus test of extensive and collegial review.

The addition was designed by Penner Prinz Architects.  It is a handsome structure, and represents a commitment by Winnipeg School Division to the downtown and to quality architecture.  In order to support this foray into quality design, the school division had to ignore the PSFB’s minimalist policies, and overcome its own recent tradition of minimal building.  This is risky ground for them, and they should be congratulated for their conviction, and for their ability to carry it through.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, August 20, 2006

Abraham Lincoln conducted a successful legal practice for 25 years before he was elected President.  His legal studies were limited to self-selected readings, and there were no regulations to be satisfied before he could call him-self a lawyer.  Two hundred years ago barbers and medical doctors were one and the same, their principal technical expertise that of bleeding patients.

Over the last 100 years things have changed. Our culture has become increasingly complex and inter-dependent. Problems have occurred because of inconsistent professional qualifications.  And it has been recognized that allowing anyone to call him or herself a doctor-lawyer-engineer-accountant-or-architect poses a risk to public health and welfare.

In response to this concern, governments in all industrialized countries have established legislation controlling participation in any of the five classic professions.  The aim of the legislation is to assure a reliable and consistent level of education, training and experience for all those who purport to practice one of the professions.

In Manitoba, formal acts of the legislature regulate the professions of medicine, law, engineering, accounting and architecture.  These acts restrict the provision of clearly defined professional activities, and those who are not qualified and duly licensed are not permitted to perform these specified services.

A key legal precept underpinning these various acts is that ability or knowledge is not the same as authorization to practice; the inmate of Stony Mountain who knows more law than the lawyer is not permitted to practice law; authorization to practice flows only from satisfying specified and repeatable criteria.
The Architects Act of 1914 states that all buildings having an area over 400-square meters require the services of an architect to provide “planning or supervision for others of the erection, enlargement, or alteration of buildings.”

The act also requires architectural services for buildings of any size that accommodate assembly and institutional occupancies – classifications which include restaurants, community halls and churches.  There are some exceptions – rural agricultural buildings, private single-family residences and grain elevators do not require professional architectural services.

Over the past 20 years, a number of buildings have been completed in Manitoba without the services of an Architect in contravention of the Architects Act.  The courts have determined that this practice is illegal (Pestrak vs.Denoon, 2000; and Manitoba Association of Architects vs. City of Winnnpeg, 2005).

The more recent decision has imposed a permanent injunction on the City of Winnipeg from issuing any further permits for construction which contravene the Architects Act.

The legal framework and restricted scope status of the profession of architecture is similar throughout North America. Though there have been challenges to enforcement of acts in many of the provinces of Canada, and in many of the states of the United States, the resolution in every case has been recognition and enforcement of the architect acts as they are written.

Manitoba is the only major jurisdiction to lag behind this consistent direction in legal and administrative process, and the recent decision from Court of Queen’s Bench has done no more than clarify correct interpretation and bring Manitoba into harmony with the rest of North American law and practice.

There are a number of issues which surround the current debate.  Though each deserves its own full discussion, the limitations of space dictate that the following arguments be presented simply as points of information and comment:

Architects are subject to an international accreditation scheme which demands six to eight years of university education, three years of specified practice, nine nationally administered (three to six hour long) examinations, and an ongoing program of continuing education.

The problem which has been corrected by the recent court decision was one of governments misinterpreting their own laws.  The fact that engineers have been illegally practicing architecture has simply been the most visible result of a bureaucratic error.

Architects are trained tested and certified to provide their services for the design and construction of buildings.  Engineers are trained tested and certified to provide their services for the design and construction of the systems of buildings; most often these are structural, electrical and mechanical systems. These are different curricula and different standards of competence, and are not immediately transferable simply because  one (in this case engineers) can read and interpret the Building Code.

There has been a lot of discussion about cost imposed by the recent court decision.  If there are costs, they are short-term costs to solve a temporary problem resulting from a governmental error.  As soon as this bottleneck is resolved, no cost increase should result from following the same laws that govern the rest of North America.

In 1979 there was a similar court case in British Columbia.  The judge in that case noted that, no matter what overlaps may occur and be contested, the fact that there are two separate acts, one for engineers, and one for architects, makes it clear that the intent of the legislature was that there be two separate and distinct professions.

As clearly noted in that decision, the effect of the proposed exemption clause will be to allow engineers to practice architecture.  Allowing engineers to practice architecture would be inconsistent with legislative intent, inconsistent with international precedent, and a violation of the public interest.

 Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, October 1, 2005

One hundred years ago, Winnipeg’s economy was booming, and land costs here were equal to those in Chicago. 

This period of big-time prosperity was relatively short-lived.  As a result of a number of factors, including the opening of the Panama Canal and the skittishness of investors following the Winnipeg General Strike, Winnipeg’s economy declined.  And downtown land values declined as well.

For the past 30 to 40 years, downtown land values have stood at approximately $25 per square foot.  This value has reflected the long-term investment and construction potential of the land, and it has been remarkably stable for several decades.

In the past two to three years, however, downtown land value has risen rapidly.  The value of vacant land between Portage and Broadway avenues, and between the Legislature and Main Street, has risen to $50 per square foot.  This doubling of land value might be perceived as an extension of the boom in residential real estate value, and proof that Winnipeg’s downtown is thriving.

However, Winnipeg’s downtown is not thriving.  There has been little new private-sector, market-driven construction.  The Hydro Building is the quid pro quo for the purchase of Winnipeg Hydro, and the MTS Centre was a highly subsidized attempt to solve the embarrassment of the Eatons Building. Developers tell me that there is virtually no demand for new office space in Winnipeg.

If new construction is not driving the increase in land values, what is?  It is being driven by the nemesis of our downtown: surface parking.  Monthly rates for surface parking have risen dramatically over the past five years, and it is now common to pay $120 to $130 per month for a surface parking space. This monthly charge for daytime parking, coupled with charges for evening and weekend parking, supports a purchase price of $50 per square foot for vacant urban land.

With this formula for land valuation, maybe everything is OK – the market is determining value, and supply and demand are in a nice neat balance.

But everything is not OK.

Rents for commercial space are established on the basis of what the market will bear.  If a project costs too much to build, and if market rents do not pay the costs of development and reasonable profit, projects do not proceed. The main “hard” costs for a project are for land and construction.   Within this framework, land costs are a set percentage of project development costs.  Higher land costs must be dealt with by building larger buildings to keep the percentage of project costs assigned to land acquisition in balance.  In private-sector development, higher land costs demand either higher rents or taller buildings.

At $25 to $35 per square foot, land costs constitute an appropriate proportion of project development costs for a five-or-six storey building.  Land costs of $50 per square foot demand a 10- to- 12-storey building. Although the Winnipeg market may be able to support smaller projects, the city does not have adequate demand to warrant a very large number of 10 to 12 storey buildings.

So private-sector downtown development sits at a standstill , or at a state very close to a standstill.  The price of land is simply too high for the construction of buildings appropriate to Winnipeg’s market.

Easier

Development is easier outside of downtown, where taxes and land costs are lower, and this is where the majority of our private-sector construction is occurring.  This development on the city’s outskirts is cheaper in microcosm, but creates an expensive burden for the taxpayer.

New ex-urban buildings require new municipal services, while existing downtown services remain untapped.  Surface parking generates much lower tax revenues than even modest-scale buildings. And the economic and tax spin-offs from a diverse, developed downtown remain a day dream.

The negative economic impact of surface parking lots should be recognized in our municipal tax structure.  Downtown surface parking lots should be assessed taxes that reflect their true cost to the public purse and to Winnipeg’s economy.

This taxation would make surface parking less attractive to investors, and it would likely result in a re-alignment of land values to reflect real development potential (in the short term, land value would probably go down). This would in turn make real downtown development viable.

Just in case this is read as a diatribe against parking of any sort, it should be understood that an aggressive tax policy targeting surface parking would encourage construction of multi-storey parking structures, which are a viable investment at current monthly rates.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, May 15, 2005

The demise of the new transit system took a lot of people by surprise; our new mayor threw us a lemon; but here we are.

The mayor has stated that $7 million of the moneys originally slated for the transit corridor will not be dedicated to improvements to the city’s transit system.

This is a paltry sum compared to the original tri-level government commitment, but it is still real money.

Which got me thinking about possible ways to make lemonade.

Winnipeg grew up around and along its original ox-cart routes.  These routes roughly parallel the banks of our rivers, and 200 years later remain our primary arteries for movement and commerce.  (For those who do not know of these routes, look at a map of Winnipeg, and trace the lines of Portage Avenue, Main Street, Henderson Highway, St. Mary’s Road and Pembina Highway.)

These arteries – and a few others which link our city together – are the funnels for nearly all movement around the city; and these funnels provide access to the networks of streets between the arteries.

Mass transit

Those who lived in or visited cities with effective mass transit know that where there is really good bus and subway service it is used by all strata of the population, and is the preferred way to move around the city.

The defining characteristics of successful systems is that service is remarkably frequent at nearly any time of day or night.  Wait times of five to seven minutes are the norm, and it is this frequency which allows users to simply show up at the bus stop or the subway station with confidence that a bus or train will soon be there.

Winnipeg Transit has a commitment to provide service within a reasonable walking distance of any home in the city.

With the thousands of miles of streets in Winnipeg, this commitment to provide local access results in hundreds of thousands of bus-miles driven every year through lower-density suburbs.

Winnipeg Transit estimates that nearly 50 per cent of its bus-miles are through these areas.  Even with this commitment to broadly-based service, wait times between buses in these area are often between 45 and 90 minutes during the periods of best service.

It has been estimated by Winnipeg Transit that if service to the capillaries – or smaller residential streets – were discontinued, and if all of those bus-miles were assigned to the city’s main arteries, transit could provide five to seven minute wait times for bus users along those arteries for 14-16 hours per day.

The impact on ease-of-use and rider-ship would be immense, and within its current budgets, our transit system could easily provide a level of service comparable to that found in other great cities of the world.

So what about all of the people in the lower-density areas?  Would they be left high and dry?

Dr. Barry Prentice, director of the Transport Institute of the University of Manitoba, has an appealing answer to this concern.

Dr. Prentice argues that private enterprise has the ability to serve the low-density routes.

Routes

Private business could obtain licences wither for specified routes or zones of the city, and could provide service on a relatively frequent basis in smaller buses, holding 8-12 passengers.

These jitney succeeded in many markets around the world.  Many of these markets have economic and development patterns similar to those found in Winnipeg.  There in no reason to believe that this solution would not work here.

Jitney routes could connect to (heated!) transit stations on the arteries and provide an integrated, high-quality service throughout Winnipeg.

This proposition in not far-out, and is eminently doable.

The city could use the $7 million slated for transit improvement to realize a first phase of this system.  The cost and risk would be modest, and the benefits of success could be significant.

One of the nice things about detours is that they can prove more rewarding than the original direction – and the lemonade could be better than what we planned before.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, October 23, 2004

Sprawl brings more stress to transportation and services infrastructures

Winnipeg city council is about to debate its support for the development of the Waverly West project at the south end of Winnipeg.

The site is owned in part by the Province of Manitoba, and sits west of Waverly Street, between the Perimeter Highway and Bishop Grandin.   A significant percentage of the land is outside the urban development limit defined by Plan Winnipeg.  With expert opinion coming both for and against the project, it is difficult for the public to know whether the development is a good idea or a poor one.

In the early 1970s the province embarked on a program of landbanking, a tool borrowed from the U.K.  The theory of government landbanking was that if the government owned large enough parcels of suburban lands it could sell them at rates lower than those charged by private developers.  This could be done in large enough blocks to counterbalance the high prices charged by private business – and brake a precipitous rise in market-driven pricing.

With Winnipeg’s slow growth, this explosion in development and prices never occurred, and the government abandoned its landbanking policies many years ago.  But it did not abandon all of the lands they had acquired.

Parcels

Two years ago the then minister of family services and housing assistance to middle-income Manitobans.  All three of these parcels lie well outside of Winnipeg’s downtown. Waverly West contains one of these original landbanking parcels.

Some members of Winnipeg’s planning and architectural community were disturbed by this unilateral provincial initiative, and cited the following concerns: This provincial government support for suburban development is not matched by comparable support for central city development – and it runs counter to the tri-level government accord recognizing the priority of Winnipeg’s core areas.  A number of publicly funded studies demonstrate that the true costs of perimeter suburban development far outweigh economic benefits. And sprawl brings additional stress to transportation and services infrastructure.

The sponsors of the Waverly West development held a workshop for the local planning, engineering and design community to help define the direction of development.  This workshop was attended by local professionals, whose efforts focused on making the best of what was coming, and incorporating the latest in urban development theory.

Several months ago, the Free Press published a story about a transportation expert who argued that sprawl is a good thing.  The gentleman was quoted as saying that since Sao Paulo and Mexico City are sprawling, Winnipeg should also sprawl.  (Neglecting to point out that those two cities sprawl because they are huge and rapidly growing, and that both, with centres full to bursting, have no alternative to sprawl – conditions quite different from those in Winnipeg.)

Those who defend the Waverly West development argue that there will soon be a shortage of available lands for low-density single-family housing. They also suggest that refusal to expand the supply of available land will result in a leapfrogging of development to our outlying communities.  This threat of leapfrogging should not be taken as proof that Waverly West is necessary. There are more alternatives than either allowing development at Waverly West, or helplessly watching the uncontrolled growth of Oakbank.

Current projections of land shortages are based on the assumption that low-density single family housing in “greenfield” development sites is the only way to expand our city.  The projections also indicate that there is limited land available for infill development in already-serviced areas of Winnipeg.

Projections

However, even the most dire projections of available infill lands suggest that a large number of housing units can be constructed on “infill” sites.  (In this context, it is important to note that “infill” does not necessarily mean “downtown”, and that many serviced acres are available adjacent to existing residential areas.)  In the interests of sound development and effective use of existing infrastructure, it seems better to exhaust the opportunities for infill development before issuing a carte blanche for expansion into prime agricultural land.

There is little indication that the original landbanking goals of price stabilization are part of the current strategy. Even if costs were lowered, the cost reduction would be available only to initial purchasers, and the true market value of the lands will result in excessive profits to those purchasers upon re-sale.

This would be a strange kind of subsidy for the province to provide – and it is precisely this flaw which brought an end to landbanking in other jurisdictions.  If the province wishes to assist with the long-term health of our city, and to assist with housing for middle-income Winnipeggers, there are better ways to accomplish these goals.

If the Waverly West lands are to be developed, as they may be over the next few decades, the City should make every effort to fill the centre before facilitating the expansion of the periphery.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Thursday, September 23, 2004

I have a brother-in-law who, when hearing of disagreements about taste says “That’s why they make chocolate, and vanilla.”

When the battle is over flavours of ice cream, there is room for both chocolate and vanilla.  When the battle concerns policies that can have profoundly different effects, thoughts about ice cream flavours seem less insightful.

When the physical form of our city is debated, and two opposite propositions are put forward, it is not always easy for the two sides to co-exist.  Physical developments are real and relatively permanent.  They either get built, or they remain ideas.  If they are built, the group who objected  loses the battle; and conversely, if construction is halted, the project proponent loses the battle.  A middle road in these circumstances can be hard to find.

A Winnipeg developer and architectural firm, Stechesen Katz Architects, recently purchased a derelict and abandoned bridge, and right-of-way, adjacent to the Kenaston bridge over the Assiniboine River.  Zoning regulations permit reuse of the bridge and right-of-way for residential or office use on approximately 50% of the purchased lands, but zoning must be adjusted in order to permit building on the entire bridge.  As has been reported in the Free Press, the new owners hope to build a condominium on the bridge, with units looking east over the Assiniboine River.

When I heard about this project, I was pleased that right here in River City someone had the gumption to try something creative and risky; that the market in our slow-growth city can handle an out-of-the-ordinary housing solution; that there is a market for housing close to our city centre; that one of the province’s better design firms was behind the project.

There is a group of citizens opposed to this development.  Their objections seem to centre on a perceived threat to the enjoyment of the river, and loss of a possible recreational walkway across the river.  They also claim that the project would violate Plan Winnipeg. Though I do not agree with the points raised, each of their objections could be argued on its merits.

That will happen next Tuesday at about 6 p.m. at the city centre community committee meeting at City Hall.

I spoke recently with an opponent of the project, who asked me if I knew of another such multi-use bridge anywhere else in the world.  Though I could think of two excellent examples from 15th century Italy, I had to admit that, no, I knew of no comparable modern projects.  The fact that there are no other projects like this was used as an argument against the development.

If no one else has done it how could it be right in Winnipeg?

My own response was the opposite: What better reason could we have to make this happen than that this would be a first in the world?

The two questions – why should we do something new, and why should we not do something new – are really the heart of the matter.  They represent two incompatible world views. And with them it is hard to make a chocolate/vanilla swirl.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, July 10, 2004

I suspect that many young architects enter the profession with a desire to accomplish something that will last longer than they will.

Most buildings, though, do not last very long.  Even important works of architecture are often demolished a surprisingly short time after they are constructed.

Most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings had already been torn down by the time he died.  And several buildings by our current icon of the profession, Frank Gehry, have been torn down because of the expense of maintaining his formally complex creations.

The irony is that cultural artifacts that are physically much more vulnerable – words written on paper, music played into the wind and dramatic performances lasting little more than an hour –have a better chance of achieving eternal life than bricks, stone and steel.

Powerful works of art can be central to our lives for centuries; weaker creations do not last so long.

If we happen to go to a bad movie or exhibition of paintings, we can leave and forget the experience quickly.  If it really is terrible, the rest of the world will soon forget it, too, and this oblivion is the blessing that protects us from constant bombardment from creative acts which did not quite make it.

This potential for very quick oblivion in the other arts has an interesting impact on creation: The “right” to fail and be quickly forgotten gives the practitioners of these other arts license to make very big mistakes without crippling effect, and this licence also gives freedom to make breakthroughs and compelling new markers for all of us.

Though the lifespan of a single building may be relatively short, when mistakes are made in our built environment they are with us, and stare us in the face, for a long time. A second-rate book has a shelf life of a few months.  A poor building or planning decision can be a part of our collective lives for decades.

Because poor architecture does not have the blessing of quick oblivion, owners and architects elect to only slowly move beyond today’s norms and expectations.

Because the impact of error is so permanent (40-year permanent, not forever permanent), and because errors are so visible to us all, the arts of architecture and planning are subject to much more strict rules and approval procedures than are the other arts.   At the civic level, we have levels of artistic oversight and control that would never be accepted in other creative disciplines.

My normal response to these levels of control in planning and architecture is to wish for less; to hope that many clients and designers working together can – on their own – challenge existing norms, and create a better collective environment.

But sometimes things happen that are truly destructive to our urban environment; when we see this occur we can only wish that even more strict levels of control had been in place.

Winnipeg has recently experienced such a development.  One of the recent influx of national chain pharmacies has just opened on the land on which the Winnipeg Supply building stood.  The new building is set behind an immense parking lot just as it would be for a store in “big-box-land”.

This has been done not in low-density suburbia, but in a downtown area where the buildings are set close to the sidewalk, where pedestrians actually walk, and where diverse storefronts are a part of normal urban experience.

The destruction of a coherent urban space and relationship is palpable (yes, even Portage Avenue is nice), and it will be a long time before it can be healed.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, June 19, 2004