Hintonburg resident Phil Castro writes about the intersection of urban development, architecture, and the artistic impulse. In this post he looks at a subject recently studied by the city: the effects of infill housing. This piece is cross-posted from Apartment 613 with their permission.
At its most basic definition, infill housing is the addition of dwelling units in already existing and established communities. In Ottawa, infill housing typically means the construction of modern homes on vacant, abandoned or seemingly underutilized lots. And as a city, we’re currently developing an international reputation for some cutting edge modern infill. The results can be fantastic, but – as many a comment in the blogosphere suggests – beauty is often in the eye of the beholder.
The city has formally stated that infill development proposed within the interior of established neighbourhoods should be designed to complement the area’s pattern of built form and its desirable characteristics. However, according to the city’s website, in the spring of 2010 a number of community associations and individual community members expressed their concerns that recent small-scale infill housing projects were incompatible with the character of the neighbourhood. Moreover, those projects were allegedly contributing negatively to the community. The associations asked what the city could do to prevent this pattern from continuing. As a result, 400 properties were studied during the summer of 2010, the purpose of which was to:
• determine how the new home fits within the specific context of the street and neighbourhood in which it’s built;
• characterize the infill to understand how it contributes to or detracts from the street and neighbourhood;
• find out if there are any trends in infill construction; and,
• see if steps need to be taken to improve the nature of infill development
Based on the survey’s findings, the city concluded that a single infill project that isn’t sensitive to the existing streetscape can contribute negatively to the street and neighbourhood. And those negative contributions are only compounded when problematic infill is repeated within the same neighbourhood, and in particular on the same street.
My first question is this: what are the positive points of infill, and why were they not also included in the city’s conclusions? To any observer it would seem that the city’s findings are lopsided and lack objectivity. This is where it gets personal for me. The picture above is my house; a house designed with the help of a close friend and my father. I built my home with the love and support of my family and friends; it was a labour of love and I shed blood, sweat, and the occasional tear constructing it. I’ve received a lot of criticism over my house, but never from a neighbour; in fact I’ve been defended by them (note to reader: don’t cross a life-long Hintonburger!).
Most recently, my home was pictured on the cover of a local weekly with the caption “Planners rise up against akward infill.” The article didn’t even mention my house, simply using the picture of my home without speaking to me or asking me for an interview. The author used a few distressing phrases to characterize infill development: “drawing a line in the sand,” “ready to go to battle,” leading a charge,” “scourge of front yard parking,” and “live in fear,” for example. My hope is this aggressive language was represented out of context; more objective coverage, I believe, is shown here, here and here.
Before I bought the lot, I met with my future neighbours and showed them what I wanted to do. They provided a lot of valuable input and I regulated my design according to their ideas. For example, I was asked not to use any reflective metal siding – something I’d originally planned on using. I was also asked if I could change the roof line.
While I agree infill is changing the character of neighbourhoods, what sort of character are we trying to protect? In my case I live in Hintonburg (and am proud of it). But what sort of redeeming architectural value exists in a house like this? My home was designed in consultation with my neighbours and sits on what was originally an empty lot. Additionally, I chose to build a carport rather than a garage not only to accommodate a vehicle but also to promote interaction with my neighbours that wouldn’t have been possible with a closed-off garage. I recognize every situation is unique, but I also fear that rules imposed by the city around infill development could make a house like mine impossible in the future – even if the builder of that home goes into the project with the best intentions.
Happily, the city is inviting further debate on the topic in an effort to address the findings of the survey, as they develop options that could be used to tackle the negative impacts of certain types and patterns of infill housing. There are a few upcoming sessions where the public can come and share their own viewpoints:
• Monday, February 7, 7 to 9 pm St. Bartholomew’s Church, 125 MacKay Street
• Thursday, February 17, 7 to 9 pm, Connaught Public School (Gym), 1149 Gladstone Avenue
• Tuesday, February 22,7:15 to 9:15 pm St. Matthew’s Anglican Church (Main Hall), 217 First Avenue
• Thursday, February 24, 7:00 to 9:00 pm, Ottawa City Hall, Festival Control Plaza (First Floor, Laurier Entrance), 110 Laurier Avenue West
* Note that the same content will be presented at each of these meetings.
Following these meetings, that input will be analyzed and evaluated. The city says they hope to host one final consultation session at a later date. A report on the issue will be brought to the city’s planning committee this spring.
Architecture is born out of a necessity, and even when things aren’t built as intentioned, there is always devotion in the design. I like to think of architects as artists, and I’m always quick to point out that if we place more rules on how things can be designed, we will in effect be regulating the production of art. In turn, I ask: what will that do for a creative, evolutionary and revolutionary community? A revolutionary Ottawa can only fueled by its own talented architects and designers, including more than a few Carleton and Algonquin grads.
Anybody who can’t attend the above meetings (especially students and artists) please seek more information and send comments to:
Planner, Infrastructure Services and Community Sustainability Department,
City of Ottawa,110 Laurier Ave. West, Ottawa ON K1P 1J1
Tel: 613-580-2424, ext 25192
The relevant comments left below (by both friends and foes of infill) will also be happily submitted to the city by Spacing Ottawa