Right now, it’s a strip mall. But the site at 1925 Victoria Park Avenue in suburban Toronto could soon give us a glimpse of the future of apartment living – and signal the start of a business that transforms the way housing is built.
These are the promises made by the architects PARTISANS about the development, which they are designing for a private real estate company. If it is realized, the 12-storey apartment building will have its structure made largely in a factory, from engineered wood components that fit together like high-tech Lego – and construction could begin as soon as next year.
“This is going to be the start of something big,” says Pooya Baktash, an architect and a partner at PARTISANS. Mr. Baktash and his colleagues are using the project to launch a new business called Serotiny. Working with the Austrian construction-tech startup CREE and a crowd of prominent local partners, they hope to develop a process to deliver many more buildings like this one.
Running north-south along Victoria Park, a major arterial road, the building would be structured in two linked pieces. The taller one will rise 12 storeys to the west; the shorter one, six storeys on the east side, bordering a neighbourhood of houses. The space in between will hold a sunlit courtyard on the second floor, with copses of trees standing atop a concrete base. The main floor will be for retail and a daycare.
From the second floor up, their design features the factory-built panels of engineered wood, which can be assembled quickly and precisely on the site. This approach dramatically reduces the emissions required for construction; wood is far less carbon-intensive than concrete. Through rigorous engineering, the developers and designers aim for the building to be extraordinarily well-insulated and energy-efficient. Their goal is to hit Tier 4 of Toronto’s Green Standard, making this the most energy-efficient multifamily building in the city. This is highly complex and very difficult.
But the clients are on board. “The project is unusual,” admits Gabriel Diamond of Well Grounded Real Estate, the developers who are leading the project. “But this is a generational investment, one we’re very passionate about.” Gabriel and his brother Jonathan are partners in the business, which was founded by their grandfather Harry Diamond in the 1950s.
Gathered in their office in midtown Toronto, the Diamonds are adamant that this building will be more than an interesting one-off. Their investment thesis is that big apartments that provide a high quality of life will be desirable, especially to parents and kids, for many decades to come. “In Toronto, there’s a stigma around renting as a family,” Gabriel said. “But there should be options. We believe that buildings like this, with larger units that allow for families, are very necessary.”
Their architects are a young Toronto firm who don’t lack for ambition. But in this case, Mr. Baktash began with a nuts-and-bolts question. “I asked these guys, what’s your budget for this building for the next 30 years?” Mr. Baktash explains. “That’s becoming the norm in Europe: when you do a development, you do life cycle costing. And that’s what we should do here.”
Real estate developers typically view construction and operating costs in isolation. The idea here is to see them holistically. This leads to radically different design decisions. “In a condo, the developer wants to exit” – in other words, sell and walk away – “within five to seven years,” Mr. Baktash says. “The long term doesn’t matter to them.”
At 1925 Victoria Park, for instance, the building’s walls, windows and doors will be much better insulated than those in a typical condo. This costs more up front, but pays off with lower bills in the long-term. And it also reduces the carbon emissions of the building from operations well below those of a standard multifamily residential building, according to an analysis by consultants Focal Engineering.
The architects hope to demonstrate that such thinking is not only possible but profitable. On the latter point, they may have a challenge. The Diamond brothers admit that their business model is unusual. Building rental and using novel construction techniques reduce the financial return and increase the risk. But the Diamonds already own the land, and they are thinking long-term. “We plan to be here for the next 50 to 100 years,” Gabriel said.
The building’s design makes other unusual choices. The apartments are organized along exterior corridors; you ascend in an elevator or staircase, then move along a covered outdoor passageway to an apartment’s front door. Such “single-loaded” units have major advantages: The corridor space is less expensive to build, and it doesn’t need to be climate-controlled, saving costs to the landlord. More importantly, it gives each apartment windows on two sides, providing natural light and cross-ventilation.
That idea is simple and logical – and already common in Europe. But it’s very rare in North America and unfamiliar to most consumers here, which is why builders don’t generally do it. Jonathan says the family is ready to take that risk: After all, people who live in houses are used to putting their coats on in winter before going out the door. And, he explains, the covered corridors, draped with extensive plantings, add quality of life. “This design will provide a place where people will want to spend time.”
Here’s hoping. If completed, the building will be the most innovative the city has seen in a generation, combining novel construction techniques and thoughtful design into a building type – the apartment building – that will likely define Toronto’s future.