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Confessions of a Condo Architect

Halanah Heffez

 

Right after completing her Masters degree in Architecture, Alex got a job with a local firm that designs those condominiums you always see cropping up in the Plateau, Rosemont and Villeray. We have all seen these new constructions and shuddered, or perhaps just sighed it could be worse. The blocks are neither offensive nor inspiring: they're mediocre at best.

 

“We’re creating a generation of condos that are really ugly," Alex says,"It’s as bad as the 'eighties. Frankly, I think it’s going to be worse.”

 

She runs through a list of all-too-familiar features: cramped juliettes where balconies should be; basement apartments with dug-out cours anglaises surrounded with bars that end up looking like jail cells; the use of different tones of brick to break up the façade; the random insertion of incongruous colours to add a semblance of architectural variety...

 

As Alex describes it, designing condos is a constant give and take between respecting the building code while maximizing the client's profits that leaves little space for creativity.

 

Here's an example: the City of Montreal requires 80% of building fronts to be masonry and monotone bricks in taupe matt, grey anthracite and Champlain orange-red are inexpensive (how cheap it feels to reduce the urban landscape to colours in a catalogue). The most an architect can hope to do is to add a splash of coloured plexiglass, and only if the borough's CCU lets it through.

 

Within the envelope, the constraints are event tighter: Alex describes her workdays as "trying to shove too much into a space that’s inherently too small.”

 

She recalls debating with a colleague about the ethics of sketching a double-bed into the plans when a queen simply wouldn't fit in the room.

 

"'If you can’t fit a Queen-sized bed in your apartment, then it’s not an acceptable apartment," Alex insists. But most people don't have much experience reading architectural plans so they don’t necessarily realize what they’re getting.

 

The developer, on the other hand, knows exactly what they want: "they come to you and say: this is the lot, and we want 8 condos in it." That leaves room for only a couple two-bedroom apartments, and the rest bachelors, all within the footprint of what was once a duplex or triplex apartment block.

 

"It’s more profitable to sell more condos than to sell more bedrooms,” Alex points out.

 

There's another catch: buildings under three stories fall within part 9 of the building code, which is more lenient in terms of fire safety regulations. But by sinking in a couple basement suites and adding a mezzanine (which must not exceed a certain percentage of the floorspace), it's possible to squeeze five levels into a building that is officially only three stories high. At least there's a sliver of good news: just this year the city stopped allowing windowless rooms.

 

And while we may be in favour of urban density, tightly-packed residential units are not synonymous with density of inhabitants.

 

"All these properties with great potential are being turned into one single type of real estate that is not family friendly: it’s all geared to young professionals without children. They’re not big enough for a growing family and there’s no flexibility in the space," says Alex.

 

Another thing that she laments is that, with the requirement to transform every square inch of the lot into square-footage of floorspace, there's a tendency to lose the individual entrances, balconies and outdoor staircases that are typical of Montreal's urban landscape, and that create a dialogue between public and private space.

 

Of course, being an architect, she also dwells on the aesthetics: “It’s all going to look very 2010," she sighs, "....and not in a good way.”

 

http://spacingmontreal.ca/2011/12/19/the-architecture-of-mediocrity/

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Wah wah wah ... Even if we agree with her, she's still doing the job.

 

A professional's duty is not only to do his job but to steer the clients into an ethical direction. Or simply to refuse the job.

 

My 2 cents.

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