April 19, 2021

Starchitect Designed Vancouver House Floods Itself: Should Radical Design Be Rethought?

Everywhere around the world the tall buildings are called marvels of engineering, providing custom work and employment for the Hollywood deck of designer darlings called “Starchitects”. Of course those same buildings overshadow parks and other buildings and usurp tons of resources. They also are being associated with a whole bunch of problems because they are so big, different, and house so many units.

It was Kenneth Chan in the Daily Hive that revealed the news:  starchitect Bjarke Ingels’ designed Vancouver House had a “severe failure of the building’s water systems, causing a deluge of water to pour out of pipes, into the condominiums, and out of the elevators.”

And it’s bad. There’s a series of videos documenting the water dumping from the 30th  floor area impacting nine floors below that, blowing out some elevators which are not operational.  A side note: replacing elevator cable subjected to water can cost $60,000 per cable. The units impacted are not livable: the degree of water infiltration elsewhere in the structure has not yet been assessed.

There are images of residents sloshing in water over their toes. Sadly there was water gushing down the emergency exit stairway as well.

And there’s more.

This seems to be the tipping point event that has made residents go public, with Mr. Chan receiving a photographic tome of building deficiencies, cracks, peeling exterior surfaces, and discoloured walls. As Mr. Chan carefully puts it, the graphic litany produced by a frustrated strata owner “highlighted alleged inconsistencies with the final product compared to the marketing materials, alleged building design and system deficiencies, and alleged damage from contractors moving equipment and materials in and out of the building for construction during the occupancy period.”

This water failure will cost millions of dollars to remediate, and will impact owner insurance rates for the 480 units, 105 which are market rental.

The problem for strata owners of tall and radically  designed buildings is how to get stuff fixed, but not complain so much that you lose the equity you have in the purchase of your own unit. That is what happened with 432 Park Avenue in New York City, which at 426 meters had to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to build. That building has had water damage in the millions from plumbing and mechanical issues, and the walls creak and make noise just like on a ship.

In a building that is not permanently inhabited year round, 40 percent of owners commissioned a study of what was happening to the structure of the  building. The study showed that 73 percent of mechanical, electrical and plumbing components observed failed to conform with the developers’ drawings, and that almost a quarter “presented actual life safety issues.”

You can read a more annotated version of the problems with 432 Park Avenue in this article from Surface magazine by Ryan Waddoups.

I wrote about the Shangri-La in Vancouver which at 62 storeys and 201 meters is the tallest building in Vancouver.  Completed in 2009, that building is not having happy strata meetings as reported by Joanne Lee-Young of the Vancouver Sun.  This Westbank development built by Ledcor has heat stress fractures in the windows that can cause the windows to instantaneously  shatter, which could be a problem to passing pedestrians or users of the tower’s pool area. The remedy, replacing all the windows  will cost over 60 million dollars, and a one hundred day court trial on liability is set for October 2021.

Noted writer and architect Lloyd Alter has questioned why we are creating taller, more complicated buildings and has made a demand for simplicity in design. It’s also a plea to follow the guidelines to reduce carbon emissions.

As Mr. Alter notes in describing Vancouver House, architect Bjarke Ingels “has designed a building where every single balcony is the roof of another unit. Every jog and every corner is an opportunity for failure. Every living room there has four surfaces exposed to weather… And don’t even get me started on the upfront carbon emissions produced by designing a facade with twice the surface area that you actually need to enclose the building.”

Mr. Alter likes Passive House or Passivhaus, noting there is a price to pay “every time you get fancy”.

 When I became a real estate developer, I learned that you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel, because it always costs more, and you get sued, or you get broke. Or both. Perhaps that is my problem with Bjarke; I don’t see buildings, I see lawyers.


Rows of dumb boxes in Munich

Rows of low dumb boxes in Munich/MikeEliason/CC BY 2.0

And here is where Mr. Alter spells it out:  if we are going to build affordable housing to Passivhaus standards, we have to keep it simple, and plan with that in mind right from the very beginning, because if you try to hit the standard after, it just costs more money.” He says we should embrace the box.

That’s a Passivhaus form of design for taller buildings too. “Dumb boxes” are “the least carbon intensive, the most resilient, and have some of the lowest operational costs compared to a more varied and intensive massing….Every time a building has to turn a corner, costs are added. New details are required, more flashing, more materials, more complicated roofing.”

The flood in Vancouver House has also unleashed a torrent of other challenges that those strata owners and renters are facing.

Will there be a rethink and a return to simpler, more cogently legible and built design?

Here’s a YouTube video of Mr. Ingels describing his design intent with Vancouver House.

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  1. So, before everyone jumps on this … probably best to know what failed – was someone stupid with a sprinkler, or was it actually a flaw in the base building? Before everyone bags on Bjarke … and god knows its easy to do, best to know what actually happened at least vaguely.

    Also as a reminder – 100% of the construction drawings, and mechanical engineering were done by local architects and engineers – so even if it was base-building, Bjarke didn’t fundamentally sign off on any system, the responsibility and liability is almost 100% local, and almost 100% unrelated to Bjarke.

    (now if it was a drain stack that failed, and it is 100% forseeable in a building’s design phase that putting toilets over air is tricky, then this could be traced back to BIG, but water supply lines themselves don’t care where they go, so odd designs don’t make them fundamentally any harder than non-odd, you just have to design and build them correctly, which is the builder and local consultants/architect of record turf)

    Editor’s note: Article states large buildings “associated with a whole bunch of problems because they are so big, different, and house so many units.” Not about designer.

    1. CTV are reporting that a gasket failed – which presumably could have happened in any new building designed by any architect. (https://bc.ctvnews.ca/flooding-at-vancouver-luxury-condo-tower-caused-by-gasket-failure-developer-says-1.5392398). The same story also acknowledges “one of several videos of the flooding broadcast at 11:30 p.m. on April 17 was actually from a different building and not associated with Vancouver House.
      1075 Nelson Street (next to Westbank’s Butterfly tower) has been approved, and when built will become the world’s tallest Passivhaus building at 60 storeys – more than Vancouver House.

      Landa Global Properties and Asia Standard Americas are planning to build two condominium towers of 43 and 48 storeys to Passivhaus standards at 1400 Alberni Street. They’re designed in a retro 1930s style by another starchitect; New York-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects with Vancouver’s MCM Partnership. New City of Vancouver guidelines on energy performance will see more projects using Passivhaus standards, and they won’t necessarily look anything like the low rise buildings illustrated here.

    2. True. The architect has her name on the design but this looks to be more of an engineering or contractor problem than an architectural one. This is not the architect’s responsibility unless somehow the design of the building itself did not permit pipes and fittings to appropriate standard. At first glance it looks like the project contractor decided to go cheap on many of these fittings, which places it under the construction manager’s purview.

  2. While dumb boxes may be the least carbon intensive of high rise forms, they are still the most carbon intensive building typology yet to be invented.

    1. Uh you know your carbon footprint is about more than the embodied energy of your the one time cost of constructing your building– it’s the transportation and heating costs that super density supports for years afterwards.

      New York City is the most low-carbon city in the United States.

      I don’t like towers particularly, low-rise wood superfan– though I live in one and it’s pretty sweet, got potential to be better too– but towers are environmentally wondrous.

      Don’t forget how much sprawl super density prevents.

      1. A recent study* ranks New York City as the third city in the world with the highest carbon footprint. Incidentally, Vancouver ranks 35th., nothing to be proud of either.

        *Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Dan Moran, lead author and principal investigator on the Global Gridded Model of Carbon Footprints. Study released in 2018.
        Study compiled a list of the carbon footprints of 13,000 cities worldwide
        Emissions are highly concentrated in a small number of crowded, high-income cities and affluent suburbs.

      2. All those carbon sacrifices are for naught as the super wealthy consume and consume and the poor and middle class are kettled and caged. The multi billionaires that could have alleviated a year of death and sorrow, simply by donating a fraction of their wealth to relief programs so that more people could stay home for a month and break the cycle of exposure and infection are without exaggeration utter monsters. Those are the people who benefit from urbanization at this point in history.

        There’s a reason the greatest minds in history chose communing with nature over the rat race and a forest bath is the prescription for sanity. We are not meant to live like that. When we do we only enrich those who have no compunction in taking what rightfully belongs to all. Dignity and a connection to the planet as an organism of which we are part. But those who ‘have’ would make you feel guilty for wanting your birthright as a sentient being. I don’t speak of dominion over nature, but instead, the deep visceral connection to all living things that cannot be experienced in a condo in the sky or properly understood during a brief vacation once a year.

        We have all the tools and knowledge to make a better existence for every living thing, but the religions from Capitalism to Catholicism and every flavour in between are playing us for chumps. It is impossible to continue feeding that beast once one sees things for how they truly are. High rises are the outgrowth (upgrowth?) of this, not a cure. And you thought I was never going to make a relevant point. 🙂

  3. I do love architecture , but even with a star architect name affixed to a condo project (big or small) , its just not for me . So many horror stories i heard from friends over the years about condo living. It has the same appeal to me as booking a cruise, none.

  4. Apparently the MC2 condos at Marine & Cambie flooded when it first opened and its elevators were out of service for a while. Those are regular run-of-the-mill towers.

    and then you have malicious acts like these floods:
    Low-rise on Kaslo St.:
    Midrise in Lonsdale:
    Highrise on Beatty St.

    In my building there have been floods from residents doing stupid things like hanging clothes on fire sprinklers or toilet tanks breaking. In those cases, there was water pouring our the drainage holes of the windows with several inches of water in the afected suites and likely below, but never any problem with the water getting from inside the suites to the elevators.

  5. The comments about the design – all the corners, all the angles – remind me of the Barrett Commission studying the leaky condo crisis 20+ years ago. Simple buildings leaked less.

    1. @Michael … if only the city allowed them … nothing is allowed without ‘articulation’ … at least most of the articulation on the ‘haus is underhang, and building envelope consultants are a thing now

  6. This leak does not appear to have anything to do with the design of this building. Yes articulations have a chance to catch water, but the articulations on this building actually are more sheltered than on most. And there is nothing that special about the structural system for this building either. Actually there isn’t anything that is technically special about this building. As dumb boxes go, this one isn’t particularly smart.

    Also, lets look at the dumb boxes in the photo. In Munich, they are probably built in concrete, but built here in wood, they would be trouble:

    1. Cantilevered balconies not covered by eaves. To paraphrase a mob movie, these are already rotten, they just don’t know it yet.

    2. Lack of eaves generally. Water is left to run down the facades, finding any break or weakness, and testing the rainscreen every time it rains.

    3. The cantilevered corner at the top left is exposed to water on all sides. This kind of thing was a design trope here in the 90’s, now immortalized in the leaky condo crisis.

    4. Look at the building at the right. The panels between the floors look to sit slightly proud, fine on the underside, but just an articulation that catches rain at the top. Would need careful installation of flashing all along the top surface. Probably fine in concrete, just trouble in wood.

    As I said, these buildings would probably be fine in concrete, and I advocate similar forms. But they would need to be seriously adapted to be built in wood. And that has been one of the problems with our low rise buildings, copying the style of concrete buildings but building them in wood. But even in concrete these boxes also could do with some work. The lack of decoration gets tedious after a while, and the artificial blankness dictates the removal of eaves that could benefit the concrete as well.

    Not that I am defending the problems with this building. Looking at the photos in daily hive, they look like similar photos of other westbank buildings. Just not paying attention to the details. Even a walk about the base of the Shangri-La reveals that weakness. The condo lobby is charmless and surprisingly cramped. The hotel lobby and burberry store almost disappear into their sameness and monotony.

  7. Designing a flood-proof house requires careful planning, adherence to local regulations, and often a professional architect or engineer’s expertise. It’s essential to consider the specific flood risks in your area and tailor your design accordingly to minimize potential damage and protect your home and belongings.

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