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A Story About Basic Boxes

Ever notice these basic four-storey buildings around Victoria? There is a specific intention for them—tied to a collective exercise the industry and regulators need to accept.

Mar 25, 20243 min read
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In Victoria, BC, the MURB: Multi-Unit-Residential-Building program, delivered 13,000 rental units—roughly 80% of Victoria’s purpose-built rental (PBR) stock—to make a dent in the housing crisis.

These homes were delivered over a two-decade period between the 1960s and 1970s and ultimately ended when the program shuttered in 1984. What is often cited as the success of this initiation was the unique government incentives, but it can be contended that it was three-fold—Financial, Code, and Design.

Financial

Federally, the MURB program allowed investors to claim depreciation and other costs of an apartment building against unrelated income. The program was credited with incentivizing the construction of about 195,000 units nationally for $2.4 billion ($12 bn in 2023 dollars) in forgone taxes. Let that sink for a second—housing was viewed as such a benefit to society that the Federal government let go of billions in taxes—all carrot, no stick.

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Building Code

So many of these designs follow a similar program—basic boxes that are three floors above grade and one floor partially below grade. There is a very specific reason for this. Using a partially submerged basement floor, the buildings were considered three storeys under the Building Code and therefore, were a Part 9 building, which did not require an architect, among other things. It allowed building owners to construct a rinse-and-repeat, functional design that served a simplified objective of housing people.

Fast forward to today, and we just had Building Code change that requires every unit to be cooled. We have another code change coming in March 2025 that will introduce major seismic changes that will increase the cost of housing by 10-15%. Also in 2025 is an adaptability requirement for 100% of units when only 1 in 10 Canadians (2017) have mobility issues. You add in deconstruction, de-carbonization, inclusionary zoning, step code, etc., and it starts to add up. All these endeavours on their own are good and well-intentioned but when combined, dramatically introduce cost pressures on housing which has a direct connection to broad affordability. We know from the excellent work of Jens von Bergmann and others that low vacancy (low supply) is the primary driver of the pace of rent changes. We should be looking to simplify buildings to house as many people as possible as the primary objective.

Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This needs to be changed to "We design our homes, and then they design our budgets."


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Design

The lack of architects involved in the design also coincided with a lack of site-specific design beauty in many cases. That said, we have course corrected a little in that planning processes, design review and architect expression have resulted in every building needing to be bespoke. A building cannot be everything to everybody and in a world where each building must pay deference to its neighbours and fall within archaic zoning bylaws, design has lost legibility. In this new world of over-articulated cementitious schlock, the simplicity, legibility, durability and intentionality of MURBs of the old are now beautiful.

Developers, architects and planners need to enter into a new paradigm where functionality is at the forefront—society literally depends on it. We know that compact, walkable communities are the greatest tool we have in combating climate change-inducing GHG emissions. Every societal outcome is tied to the members of our community having safe, affordable and secure housing.


Questions?

If you have any questions about housing in Victoria, please get in touch so we can have a conversation.