People & Places

“People need to live somewhere” — talking infill, vacancy rates, and the North American dream with architect Ryan Koolwine

While community organizations fight intensification, there’s also a demand for affordable housing. What’s a growing city to do?

Architect Ryan Koolwine of Project1 Studio sits on the city’s R4 zoning committee, which gives advice to city decision makers about low-rise multi-unit buildings, and works with the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association to weigh in on rules around infill. You could say he’s been involved on all fronts on the building boom, and he has plenty to say about the future of housing. We brought him our nagging questions about the tension between the need for more dwellings and the pushback against infill homes. 

Photo by Miv Fournier

Affordable housing is a very popular topic these days. What’s the single biggest mistake you’ve witnessed in discussions around affordable housing?
The idea that if we lower the construction cost, we’ll get buildings with cheaper rent. There’s no proof of that whatsoever. Sure, many condo developers want to build as cheaply as they can — the cheaper they build, the more they profit. But rents are going to be a factor of the market; they aren’t going to be set by how much it costs to build. Affordability is going to come when you increase the supply. As soon as the vacancy rate goes up, there’s more competition in terms of what people are charging for rent. Trying to build things cheaply is not in anyone’s best interest.

The city has been struggling with infill, especially in older affluent neighbourhoods. What’s your take on the anti-intensification movement?
You can build a custom home with the same dimensions as a semi-detached, and no one has any issue with it. But if we’re putting four units in, that’s when you hear this pushback. Residents feel it’s over-development. At the same time, we’re hearing about a housing crisis. To solve this crisis, we need to feel more comfortable about densifying neighbourhoods that are in prime locations.

Neighbourhoods like Westboro?
Yes. Drive through Westboro, and you see these “Stop Over-Intensification” yard signs. This is a neighbourhood that’s affluent, and it’s located in an area that really needs to see more density. It’s an aversion to change. In my own experience, it’s the idea that having more people will overwhelm the system. But on the flip side, when you look at all the things Westboro has going for it, all those shops and restaurants, all those things need people. Then you add LRT. There’s a minimum density — people per hectare — needed to support an LRT system. If you keep Westboro at its current density, you don’t even come close to having the density you need to support public transit of this type. 

How do you explain a density formula to someone watching their neighbourhood change very quickly?
The density formula comes down to this: as a city grows, people need to live somewhere. If we’re not willing to intensify our urban neighbourhoods, you get the proliferation of suburbs. And if we’re trying to be environmental in any kind of capacity, we need to get people to not be in their cars for two hours every day. There’s an enormous potential for impact, but it’s incredibly inconvenient because in a lot of ways it is the North American model. You get brought up on this notion that to be successful, you have your house, your yard, your car. It takes a big shift in mindset.