Paul Liberatore

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What it’s like to build homes in Vancouver

 
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Davidson’s firm plans to submit a project for consideration for the pilot. We talked to him about what it’s been like to build in Vancouver and what he thinks of the new program. Davidson outlines some challenges but he also noted that the City of Vancouver has made positive steps in improving the process over the last year.

 

What is it like to build in Vancouver? How difficult is it?

The first projects I did were in Alaska so coming from there, where it’s a bit of a wild west, it was a shock to come to Vancouver and try and figure out how to navigate all the layers of process. It’s definitely a challenge. At the same time, we’re working on a project in San Francisco, which is actually worse in a number of different ways, but they’re both quite a challenge. There are just so many different hoops and so many different agendas that you’re trying to work with.

How long would it take to go through all the hoops?

It really depends on the kind of project. There’s the simple path that they call outright, which would be your typical single-family house or something like a laneway house. For the last couple of years, we’ve generally budgeted about six months to get through that permitting process. The more complicated development permit process, we would allow at least a year, if not more, for the development permit and the building permit.

What kind of project would that be for?

That would be if you’re doing a duplex or one of these new character homes projects. You have to go through a development permit process where you notify the neighbours, you put the board up, and you do all that. The city has actually made some decent progress since 2014, when it first started getting really bad, on the straight-forward types of applications. But there’s a real systemic problem around their continued demand for development permits on small projects. We did a garage on the back of a house in a duplex zone and we had to go through a development permit process just to add this garage. The longstanding quip about it is there’s too many rules and not enough people. They’ve actually gone through the process of hiring more people and they’ve been working towards quotas, which has been improving the turnaround times. In the last three or four months, we’ve actually had more permits ready to go than we’ve had carpenters available to build them, which is a very new situation. Before that, it was always the permits that were the single thing holding up production of housing.

Do you think your experience is typical — your problems and the improvements that you’ve seen?

Yeah, I imagine so. I think so.

What do you think about the City of Vancouver's pilot project?

We certainly welcome the idea. We’re going to see how it actually plays out. Projects like laneway houses should be simpler. There’s also a laneway house policy updatehappening right now as well. They’re working to make that process simpler. They’re attacking it on a few different fronts. If we could turn around a permit in six weeks or eight weeks, or something like that, that would bring us back to where [we were] back before 2014.

Why did it become bad in 2014?

2014 was the perfect storm of a whole bunch of things. Mostly, it was the introduction of the new building code that required people, all of a sudden, to shift from standard two-by-six construction to something more energy efficient. They put a deadline on that. Everybody tried to get all their permits in all at the same time, before the deadline. It created this huge backlog and they’ve been dealing with that ever since.

So they were trying to get in so they wouldn’t be required to meet those [new regulations]?

They basically said permits after Jan. 1, 2014 will have to meet this new code. So everybody in the industry freaked out and tried to cram everything in all at once. At the same time, there were also new requirements for accessibility, new, stricter tree bylaws. It was a perfect storm of new rules coming together and not really planning for that transition.

At this point, in 2018, you’re encouraged by some of the improvements. Is that fair to say?

Yeah. Definitely. In 2014, they nearly put us out of business because of permit delays. We were within inches of being out of business. We had to lay off a bunch of people. At Christmas, we had all these projects in for permit and no work. Now, we’re in the opposite situation. We’ve got three times as much stuff under construction as we’ve had in the past. So it’s definitely a big change from four years ago.

How would the pilot project speed up permits?

We’ve been involved in these permitting workshops for the last year and a half. They’ve been talking about what they call a kind of a Nexus lane. I think the goal is to work with experienced teams to have a quick path. I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet. I’m not sure they do either. I know that when we go in to drop off a set of drawings, we go through a preliminary review at the table with a planner just so they make sure there’s enough in there to go into the queue. A lot of us have argued if we just spent another hour at that table, we’d basically be done. So can we just get in and do that? Part of it, also, is changing the process of how we deal with trees. Because the landscape has been a big bottleneck for just about everybody.

Why is that?

The first thing is they’re trying to do way too much with landscape on single-family houses. They’re trying to micro-manage the design, which is really a pretty low priority. On the tree front, they had big ambitions to save a lot of trees, which is a good goal at a high level but the way they were managing that is they were asking for substantial changes to your building during the permit review. It’s just a completely absurd way to do it because the building is fully designed, fully engineered, and they’re coming back and saying, ‘Oh, you need to take a 10-foot-by-10-foot chunk out of the corner of your laneway house. Basically, the big process has been to move that discussion from the end to the beginning, so we can sit down with the landscape designer and we can sit down with a planner at the beginning of the project and figure out where the building can go. That makes a big difference. I think they’re just trying to figure out how to formalize that into their process.

Your firm plans to get involved in the pilot?

Yes, we’ve been involved in this discussion pretty heavily. I think they’re starting up with two projects, so we’ll put one in. If we can be one of the two, that’s great.

A laneway or regular-sized house?

For us, it would be a laneway house.

Why should the public be concerned about the issue?

It’s important because the amount of time it takes to issue a permit obviously impacts people directly when they’re trying to build something. It can add months to the process. It also means that if you’re a neighbour to a building project, it can make the whole process take a long time — from when the tree barriers go up to when people are actually moved in and [the site] cleaned up. And, it adds to the cost of projects. Ideally, in my mind, I feel small lot residential projects should not have to go through the same level of scrutiny as an apartment building. Frankly, you could build a pink duck — whatever, who cares what it looks like — if you’re doing it on a small lot basis, it’s not going to fundamentally alter the city. The city has been just far too precious in their approach to single-family neighbourhoods. I think a big part of our housing crisis unfolds from that.

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