Editorial: Site Unseen

Habitations Saint-Michel Nord. Photo by James Brittain

As Canadian cities slipped in and out of lockdowns over the past year, architecture firms have been periodically turning to virtual site visits to limit in-person contact at meetings. Here at Canadian Architect, we’ve also been looking at new ways to review buildings. This was particularly the case for the current issue, written and produced entirely during a full lockdown in several Canadian regions.

In non-pandemic times, Canadian Architect insists that writers visit the buildings they are reviewing. But the current stay-at-home order in Toronto, and similar guidelines elsewhere, made that it impossible for us to undertake even this basic step as we were preparing the present issue on the theme of Houses and Housing.

Fortunately, the pandemic has opened up new possibilities for reporting on architecture. One of the projects featured in this issue—Joey Giaimo’s South House—is part of an ongoing virtual Home Tours series hosted by the Toronto Society of Architects on Instagram Live. The online tours, recorded as cell phone camera walk-throughs, have so far attracted some 5,000 views. The half-hour tour of South House—along with architectural drawings, historical research and interviews with Giaimo—provided writer Monica Hutton with the basis for her review.

Another of the articles in this issue—Odile Hénault’s review of Habitations Saint-Michel Nord, a social housing complex in Montreal revamped by Saia Barbarese Topouzanov—had its beginnings well before the pandemic. Hénault has long been interested in the architecture of social housing, and has been tracking the redevelopment of Saint-Michel Nord since its design phase. Coincidentally, as a young co-op student, she worked briefly for the architects who designed the original set of buildings in the 1970s.

As the pandemic spurs some firms to review their business strategy, we felt it timely to revisit the topic of architects who also work as developers. Searching through our archives, we discovered that regional correspondent Graham Livesey wrote on the same topic in our pages a decade ago. The current piece checks in with some of the architects that Livesey profiled ten years earlier, and contains comments from several younger-generation architects who are exploring the risks and rewards of this type of endeavour.

Video interviews were key to Paniz Moayeri’s story on the Friends of Ruby Home in Toronto—another case in which the main story was about the people and processes behind a project. Moayeri spoke extensively with architect Paul Dowsett, as well as connecting to the client group and hearing about the residents’ experiences of moving into the transitional housing facility. Her account highlights how a community-focused process consistently drove the design of the Friends of Ruby Home from its inception.

This month’s technical article assesses the embodied carbon impact of selected Toronto multi-unit residential buildings.
The research comes from an online graduate seminar at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, led by architect Kelly Alvarez Doran last fall. Industry collaborators agreed to have their projects modelled and assessed by the students. They provided working drawings and participated in online classes, where they spoke about design strategy, structure, and materials selection.

The resulting recommendations for reducing embodied carbon in large residential buildings are especially timely. The City of Vancouver recently released plans to reduce embodied emissions from new buildings by 40 percent by 2030—a first-of-its-kind mandate in North America. Doran is advocating for other jurisdictions to follow suit, since embodied carbon forms a significant slice of near-term global carbon emissions. (Some 13 percent of our global annual emissions can be attributed to carbon pollution created when extracting, manufacturing, assembling, replacing, and disposing of building materials.)

Nothing quite replicates the thrill—and immediate understanding of a project’s aesthetic merits and shortfalls—that comes from visiting a place in person. We’re looking forward to that becoming the norm again. Meanwhile, we’ll continue exploring the work of architects in depth using the tools at hand. We trust that this work will serve the readers of Canadian Architect well, during these pandemic times and beyond.