Opinion: Geller’s Affordable Housing Solutions #4 – Homes on Rooftops

The following article is an edited extract from the audio transcript of "Twelve More Affordable Housing Ideas" – a presentation by local architect and planner Michael Geller to a sold-out audience at SFU's downtown campus on April 6, 2016, and reproduced here with his permission. The lecture was the second of his SFU presentations on the topic, and more of Geller's ideas can be found in "Related" below.
Michael Geller
June 14, 2016

Why don’t we put housing on rooftops?

Whenever I fly over Vancouver I see these large, single-storey or low-rise industrial buildings – to me, these look like development sites.

Indeed, this was one of the suggestions of the report to which I contributed for the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force. Unlike my suggestion for modular housing in laneways, this one has not been followed through on.

But I think it makes sense. Not everywhere, of course not. But it’s quite delightful to see housing like this in New York City, for example, and what people have done there in terms of creating all kinds of housing for themselves, up on the roof. It’s hard to find a single-family lot in New York City, but there’s lots of them on the top of buildings.

And these homes can be modular too – pictured here we have an example of modular rooftop housing with solar panels.

Here’s an interesting application of this for downtown Vancouver – taking the old Canada Post office, and building on the roof of that. I’m very excited to see what may come of that building.

A few months ago I was in London, England. I went to the Architectural Institute to look at their library and I came across a publication on new housing ideas, from something called the New London Architecture at the Building Centre. It’s an urbanarium, in central London, at which they recently held a housing ideas competition. And sure enough, one of those ideas was basically building on top of a roof. And to help make it work structurally, they created what was almost like a permanent scaffold around the building, which they then built on top of – and I thought what an intriguing idea that was.

Here’s another idea on the same topic – I have a lot of friends who, unlike me, own a whole apartment building. And when I ask them, “Where will you live next?” a number of them have told me, “We are thinking about converting a couple of suites on the top floor into a larger condo and moving in. But what we’d really like to do is build a penthouse on the top.”

So I’ve suggested to the City that one way to get people to fix up, to rehabilitate some of these older apartment buildings is to allow one or two floors to be added on top. They might be built out of lightweight steel or they may even be wood, depending on the building. And with some structural upgrading, that would be possible.

And that structural upgrading might also be attributed to the seismic upgrading of the building. Because we don’t talk about this very much. We talk a lot about seismic upgrading of schools, but virtually all of the apartment buildings in West Vancouver, and many apartment buildings in other parts of Metro, will collapse in a severe earthquake. But the owners of those buildings would likely be willing to upgrade them if they were allowed to build a lovely penthouse on top.

Next time: Building over streets and rail tracks

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.