The Art of Architecture: Filling you in on infill

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:

Selma Hassan,

Planner, Infrastructure Services and Community Sustainability Department,

City of Ottawa,110 Laurier Ave. West, Ottawa ON K1P 1J1

Tel: 613-580-2424, ext 25192

Fax: 613-580-2576

E-mail: selma.hassan@ottawa.ca

The relevant comments left below (by both friends and foes of infill) will also be happily submitted to the city by Spacing Ottawa

6 comments

  1. Phil, thanks for posting your own POV on your home. It’s great to hear from the source on something you admire when walking (I’m a Hintonburger too).

    I may not live adjacent to it, but I do love your home. Well done!

  2. Count me as another fellow Hintonburger who would defend your house as fine infill. I think it looks awesome.

  3. A lot of the negative comments about some new infill are probably due to modern design, not actually compatibility issues. It is not the City’s or Planning Act’s place to mandate whether a building should be modern or traditional. Sticking only to Hintonburg, there are a number of modern infills that are compatible with the streetscapes in terms of massing, height, street-level character, etc. Examples are the townhouses on Gladstone at Rosemont, Jim Colliza’s new, small houses on Armstrong and his house on Grant near the Market, the single house on Stirling, and the single currently under construction on Bayswater. Mr Castro’s house on Armstrong does look out of scale, but this is due mainly to the very small houses on either side, which are very much below what the zoning permits. This infill actually conforms to the zoning for height, and there are other equally high buildings nearby. I personally don’t overly like the design at street-level, with no landscaping, parking dominating, and the blank wall that comes to the ground (on the right in the picture), but these are not fatal flaws in terms of compatibility. Armstrong is also transitional between Wellington and the low-rise character of the neighbourhood to the north, so somewhat more intense development should be expected here. It should also be noted that the Hintonburg Community Association did not oppose any of these modern infill projects (although some modifications were sometimes requested and agreed to).

    However, there are serious infill issues in this City. The main issue is that the decisions take place behind closed doors, and the public/community has no idea what to expect. The City does not take the secondary plans it produces (Community design Plans, etc.) seriously, and routinely ignores limits they appear to mandate. The Community Design Plan now being drafted for Wellington main street in Hintonburg appears to limit development to 6 stories on Wellington, but careful reading shows that virtually all of the street will be exceptions to this, because they are “gateways” or “nodes.” By my calculation, over 70% of the street will be such an exception. What does that mean? It means that the actual decision will be made behind closed doors by City staff, and by the time the public hears about it, it is really too late, since staff have already agreed to support the increased height etc. requested by the developer. I think the process has become corrupted, and clearly needs fixing. As for design “guidelines,” the City has no statutory power to enforce these, so they are toothless. I simply do not trust the process, and believe it is set up perfectly to promote conflict.

    It is not modernism that is a problem with infill (although the typical flat roof design in modern architecture probably exacerbates the appearance of exceed typical height). Instead, it is a broken planning process that does not give any confidence that communities and the public are being treated fairly or that the City Planning Department actually promotes residents’ best interests. This leads to the truly bad developments like the Ashcroft Convent site in Westboro and smaller examples in Hintonburg such as the monster vinyl-sided triple on Sims that is all garages at street level (doors are around the side!), and similar bad infill on Stirling, for examples (there are lots of others).

    So, by all means, no more rules on the type of design that can be used—architecture must evolve, and copying old buildings is not desirable. However, too many “architects” in Ottawa hide behind concepts like design, flexibility, and “art,” using this to justify truly bad buildings. The challenge is how to first make the planning process transparent, and second how to keep truly out of scale and ugly development from being foisted on our communities. Sadly, in Ottawa, for every architect who is an “artist” (Mr Castro’s word), there are probably ten hacks whose talent lies solely in minimizing cost while maximizing the building envelope, with no thought to design or streetscape. Couple that with the ubiquitous planning consultants and lawyers specializing in getting around even the weak regulations and bylaws we have, and the result is the generally poor development that characterizes Ottawa, with the few that are actually designed (like the modern examples cited above) being the exception. That’s why we need rules.

  4. I like your modern design but what really bothers me about your house is what I view as an incompatible set-back. Imo, it upstages your neighbours homes and blocks their view from the street. Cool design, but awkwardly placed. Sorry.

  5. this is happining to my home is saskatoon a big duplex is going up next door completly destroying my property value… can anyone help with this injustice

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