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Jonathan Diamond, a Toronto builder whose family has owned Well Grounded Real Estate since the 1950s, and architect Pooya Baktash, co-founder of Partisans, are looking to reboot the apartment corridor for their Scarborough rental project proposed for a site at 1925 Victoria Park Rd.

It’s a question that comes up constantly in debates about Toronto’s intensification plans: why doesn’t the city encourage the construction of European-style mid-rise apartments? Not the pyramid-shaped confections we seem to produce in abundance, but rather boxier buildings that encircle an internal courtyard and are designed without set-backs or podiums.

Their design involves the use of single-loaded exterior corridors overlooking the internal courtyard.Partisans

Land prices are part of the explanation, as are planning policies that insist on so-called “angular planes,” an increasingly criticized urban design requirement unique to Toronto.

But if you really want to pry open this riddle, a good place to begin is the prevailing, and largely unquestioned, assumption about the nature of interior corridors – those liminal spaces between the elevators and the apartment door.

The vast majority of Toronto apartment buildings have so-called double-loaded corridors – the doors, and thus the units, open off both sides. But Jonathan Diamond, a Toronto builder whose family has owned Well Grounded Real Estate since the 1950s, and architect Pooya Baktash, co-founder of Partisans, are looking to reboot, and elevate, the unloved apartment corridor to become a defining feature of a Scarborough rental project proposed for a site owned by Diamond’s firm, at 1925 Victoria Park Rd., at the east end of the Golden Mile.

Their design involves the use of single-loaded exterior corridors overlooking the internal courtyard that will serve as the focal point for the 12-storey, 168-unit, mass-timber project, which, they say, will be the first privately developed “Tier 4″ (or net-zero) building under the Toronto Green Standard. (TGS sets out an escalating set of performance benchmarks for new buildings. Tier 4 is the most exacting, and all the Tier 4 projects built to date are public.)

The project can be built with mass timber.

The decision, explains Mr. Baktash, wasn’t merely aesthetic. Rather, he says, the use of such external corridors unlocks an impressive array of design and operational improvements, including better unit layouts with windows on both sides, cross ventilation, greater energy efficiency, and perhaps a stronger sense of community. “Not heating or cooling the corridor reduces energy consumption significantly,” he says. “All of these things we see in Europe.”

Mr. Diamond – who has a PhD in neuroscience and worked in the tech industry before joining Well Grounded with his father, brother and a partner – describes the project as an “experiment” buttressed by intensive scientific scrutiny focused not just on the building’s energy profile, but also the experience of exposed corridors for residents.

The design isn’t as encumbered by the angular plane rules that mid-rise developers must satisfy.

To counter skeptics who pointed out that the project is neither a motel nor a condo in Miami, they hired the energy modelling firm RWDI to test how the structure would function in different weather conditions while satisfying so-called passive house performance standards.

That testing process appealed to Mr. Diamond’s own interest in using lab techniques to drive decisions about how to design an atypical building that can be both green and liveable.

“One example,” he says, “is using wind studies to actually understand how snow is accumulating on the site, how precipitation falls, is it too windy, what are the conditions there?” Mr. Baktash’s massing proposals, in turn, maximize sunlight in the internal courtyard while taking advantage of the sun as a passive energy source for individual units. The courtyard, he adds, creates a controlled internal climate, as well as a sense of intimacy.

Because the property was previously used for commercial tenants – a drug store and a fast-food outlet – the design isn’t as encumbered by the angular plane rules that mid-rise developers must satisfy when building on downtown main streets that back on to single family homes in low-rise neighbourhoods.

Mr. Diamond is approaching it from the perspective of a property manager who has to think about the long-term viability of his assets.

Consequently, the project can be built with mass timber, which is generally not an option for buildings that have set-backs. It will also use pre-fabricated elements made in local manufacturing facilities and shipped to the construction site, thus reducing construction waste and emissions related to concrete. As Mr. Bakstah says, “Mass timber isn’t the goal; it’s a tool.”

The design further envisions a range of other energy efficiency elements, such as a sewer heat recovery, a geo-exchange system and radiant heating in the floor – a feature generally considered to be a luxury item in North America, but which is far more common in European multi-unit residential buildings, where the notion of thermal comfort is tightly tethered to a building’s energy performance.

Mr. Diamond stresses that while the project is somewhat radical by Toronto standards, he’s approaching it from the perspective of a property manager who has to think about the long-term viability of his assets. He cites research showing that the lifetime operating costs of a multi-unit residential building, including energy, runs to more than 40 times more than the up-front construction outlay – a ratio that justifies upfront investments in passive-house-grade systems.

While their proposal has attracted enthusiasm inside the City’s energy and environment division, the response from the planning department has been predictable, says Mr. Baktash, adding that officials questioned the notion of a building that would rise straight up, as is entirely commonplace in many big cities. “We did not do Tier 4 for the City of Toronto. We did it because the business case and the value of the project made sense.”