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A construction site on the 1400-block of West Broadway at Granville in Vancouver on April 22.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Vancouver Freelance

Vancouver has an uneasy relationship with the skyscraper – which is ironic, because the city’s development community has efficiently produced hundreds of them in the past decade. That expertise in building high-rises earned downtown Vancouver the top spot as densest urban centre in Canada, according to Statistics Canada data released earlier this year.

“Vancouver is really good at producing residential high-rise towers,” says engineer Chad Cranswick, who works on making high-rises more energy efficient.

As co-owner of B.C. Building Science, he and his business partner, Andrew Creighton, have worked on “loads of towers,” including Marine Landing, the mid-rise office/industrial building in South Vancouver now in the pre-construction phase.

Residential buildings more than 12-storeys high are set to transform the city skyline, with major city plans under way that will add not just density, but significant height to a city that’s been mostly low rise outside the downtown peninsula. The “gentle density” proposed a few years ago to tackle the affordable housing shortage has now given way to an aggressive push for high-rises. Like it or not, that’s the new reality, say housing experts, if we are going to the address population growth.

Opponents of high-rises claim they darken streetscapes and lack sustainability in both their construction and continuing operation. Traditional skyscrapers also require a lot of concrete, made from cement, and cement production is said to account for as much as one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using more sustainable materials in construction has so far been voluntary. With regulatory changes on the way, more developers will look to sustainable materials and design, such as cross-laminated timber and high-tech insulated windows, says Mr. Cranswick.

“The only solution, really, to solve [the lack of] homes is using space above the land, because there is not any more land,” says Mr. Cranswick. “At the core, we are stuck with towers and we are trying to do the best with that because we can’t just sprawl.

“Going up is the only way, so in that sense it’s sustainable because it’s our only option – it has to be sustainable.”

Mr. Creighton is a proponent of the high-rise, but he concedes that Vancouver is going through an awkward stage as they start to appear.

“It’s weird how you see a residential single-family home, and then boom, there’s a 15-storey tower surrounded by single-family houses, whereas before it may be townhouses or duplexes or even a four-storey. Now it’s a tower, in the middle of nowhere,” says Mr. Creighton.

Mr. Cranswick said it’s the demand around transit that’s driving the form, such as the towers rising into the sky at Oakridge Centre.

“There’s just been a massive amount of increase in towers around these transit hubs. At the core, it’s demand. … It’s solving that demand.”

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The 'gentle density' proposed a few years ago to tackle the affordable housing shortage in Vancouver has now given way to an aggressive push for high-rises.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

One of the growing risks in going higher is the technology required to pump water throughout the building. Pumps are required to vertically lift water hundreds of feet upward, a system that has the potential to fail. Wealthy residents of New York’s famous 432 Park Ave., one of the world’s tallest residential towers, are engaged in a battle over claims of millions of dollars in plumbing leaks and other issues, according to the New York Times. Once heralded as a technological triumph shooting 1,000 feet high into the sky, the cracks of such development are quite literally showing.

A year ago, residents of the striking 49-storey Vancouver House watched a flood of water gush down stairwells, and into condos and elevators. The flooding was reportedly due to a gasket failure on the 29th floor.

Travis Allan, former chief executive officer of Toronto’s Eddy Solutions, said there is a growing business in water leak sensors and alarms. The vast majority of his business is in high-rise construction, both during and after, he said. With so much risk, he’s seen insurance companies bow out of coverage entirely, and the carriers still willing to underwrite water leaks are demanding high premiums. As a consequence, the water leak business is booming. Metro Vancouver, with its growing number of high-rise towers, is becoming a key part of the business.

“Buildings are getting taller and the pressurization of these buildings is insane, so a small leak can become a massive problem. It’s a really, really big problem, and an expensive one,” said Mr. Allan.

“When you go higher, you get a higher exposure.”

Developer Beau Jarvis, president of Wesgroup Properties, says most developers would prefer not to build high-rises that go more than 30 storeys. The belief that developers gravitate toward tall buildings because they scale up, along with the profits, is largely a myth, he says.

“Building high-rises is a far more complex form of development, and it’s becoming increasingly complex, and increasingly risky from a cost perspective, and financing perspective, and we would much rather build low-rise wood frame homes all day long,” Mr. Jarvis says. “The time to construct a low-rise building is much shorter, which makes it less risky, and it’s typically a more affordable form of housing because concrete is more expensive than wood-frame. It’s less complex to build and it’s easier to meet energy targets than concrete high-rise construction.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a business case for building high-rises, he adds. Wesgroup has a project in the pipeline in the West End, a strata/rental hybrid that would be 50 storeys once completed.

Charles Montgomery is a principal of Happy City, a consultancy firm that helps developers, governments and planners build livable housing. Mr. Montgomery is also the author of the book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. In the book, he cites research that shows high-rise residents, even with views, reported being more prone to depression and suicide than those living at ground level. Lack of social connection played a part, according to psychologists.

He says a lot of the research on the alienation of tower life that he refers to in Happy City was from more than 40 years ago, and involved low-income tenants. Poor people tended to fare poorly in high-rises, while higher income groups did better, he said in an interview. To make high-rises more livable, a simple yet effective change that the city could offer is relaxations on height, in exchange for small social gathering nooks every three or four storeys, he says. That’s just one example.

For all the challenges of high-rise living, commutes to far-flung suburbs are also detrimental to one’s life, he says.

“We know that couples who endure more than an hour commute each way are twice as likely to be divorced after 10 years than couples who enjoy a short walk to work.”

Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Montgomery say that the need for high-rises is largely due to the prevalence of so-called “single family” zoning, or detached houses. It’s a common argument that if such zoning allowed mid-rise densities, there wouldn’t be the need for residential towers.

“The reason we have a need for towers in Metro Vancouver is that we have made it illegal to build multi-family housing in [most] neighbourhoods,” Mr. Montgomery said. “If we don’t like towers, we could be building six-storey buildings like the one I live in, an immensely social place. We could build those everywhere.”

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