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 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.