Peninsula Voices – Silvia Bonet: Designing a Sustainable Future

by Jesse Holth | photo by Janis Jean Photography – 

What does tomorrow look like? It’s hard for any of us to predict the future, but sometimes it’s part of the job. I chatted with architect Silvia Bonet, of Finlayson Bonet Architecture, about housing, sustainability and accessibility.

We have a housing deficit and an affordability crisis – how do we address these in the context of sustainability?

Affordability and the housing deficit are intrinsically connected. Governments at all levels can influence processes and contribute to solutions – by facilitating zoning bylaw changes, streamlining the applications for multiple residential buildings, and assisting with infill projects. There are also financial measures that can be used as tax incentives, such as the elimination of GST for rental projects.

Our city structures reflect post-war economic affluence and the impact of the automobile, with new suburbs spread around urban cores. Low densities appealed to homeowners looking for spacious gardens, and the quietness of being away from the commercial districts. This urban structure is questioned today due to its environmental impact, including the high cost of infrastructure services (power, water, roads, sewer) that only serve a few dwellings. This is a model that we must revisit in order to address sustainability.

Can you explain the term “greenwashing” as it relates to infrastructure? Is this something we can avoid?

“Greenwashing” happens when industries make false claims of using green technologies, especially with the rising awareness around sustainability – companies, technologies and practices need to be scrutinized to verify these claims. As a society, we often try to use sustainable practices but we are not always aware of the collateral impact of practices claiming to be “green.”

For example, suburban living could be mistaken as a “sustainable” approach due to a multitude of treed and green areas. But the low densities, along with a lack of amenities and public transportation, creates a non-walkable community that enforces the use of single-occupant vehicles and its associated greenhouse gas emissions. There needs to be a reduced reliance on cars and car-centric infrastructure, while preserving and maintaining greenspace.

People might have different concepts in mind when the word “density” is mentioned. What does it mean to you?

In simple terms, urban density is the ratio between the number of dwelling units and the footprint of a defined area. But density is also rooted in our memories from an early age, through our exposure to cities, towns or villages. Context also matters – for example, a medium density in Manhattan is very different than a medium density on the Saanich Peninsula. It all depends on existing infrastructure, closeness to amenities, walkability, health services and education – the existing urban layout with all its complexities provides the guidelines of how density can be supported.

Some towns in the Middle Ages had houses with the second and third floor expanding onto the streets, in order to gain additional space. The city grew organically within its protective walls, an old concept like today’s “urban containment zone” but with different reasons.

While concepts like density and building height seem to be quite literal, they are profoundly subjective. In my opinion, urban sprawl negatively impacts the growth of cities because it forces the infrastructure to extend farther, lose efficiency, increase costs and be less sustainable. Densification allows for more compact and liveable cities.

You said architects try to address problems that currently exist, as well as those that could arise in 20 years. Can you speak to the necessity of long-term vision when it comes to new developments?

Architects design the built environment – it is our job to understand the societal changes of the future. This is not a small task, but a properly built structure will stand for 100 years or more. We can see this in buildings around Greater Victoria that are older than the 1920s, for example. But how do we forecast what comes next? How do we address the problems of tomorrow? How do we predict technological changes and their impact on everyday life?

Today’s problems will be old tomorrow – we need to envision and consult with planners, engineers, geographers, sociologists and anthropologists to know where, why and how these changes will happen. For example, we currently have large parking lots where cars sit 80% of the time. This could be addressed with car share, public transportation, and driverless cars in the future. We are slowly changing the approach to parking, but the number of units in a building greatly depends on the number of parking spaces available, rather than how many people could be housed.

If drones will deliver goods to a building, is a loading bay still necessary? These kinds of questions are what architects must think about in their designs. How will technology affect our lives? Will artificial intelligence give us a chance to work less and have more leisure time, and how will that extra time be spent? Will we need more communal spaces, parks or recreational hubs?

Our vision as architects must be far past what we can see today – we need to have the capacity to see how society will function in 50 years. What are the things we should address that are permanent to human beings? What do we need to provide? In our built environment, what activities will actually take place?

Accessibility is important to consider when building new neighbourhoods and upgrading old ones. What is the connection between accessibility and sustainability?

These concepts are not opposed – striving for equality requires the inclusion of everybody. A sustainable city plan will include accessible pathways and reliance on public transportation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A more compact city is the most sustainable approach, as it permits more people to live in a smaller area. It allows people to walk and use alternative modes of transportation, and to access all types of services within a confined footprint.

The town of Sidney is a great example of this – it’s an ideal place to promote higher density in the core and scale down as it spreads toward the boundaries. This means the urban typology changes into different housing types, from condo buildings to townhouses and duplexes.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

As architects, we must approach problems in a creative way, providing options that allow the community to continue growing – because we want it to grow! We want more young people, and more viable housing. This means we need to accommodate infills, four-plexes, and a variety of housing types in order to fill real needs.

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