Archive for October, 2004

‘Errand Girls’ a going, growing concern: SMALL BUSINESS I Local entrepreneurs expand personal concierge service

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

Sun

Peggy McConnell runs a personal concierge business, The Errand Girls Services Inc., that will do anything, or find someone who will, for clients. This day’s errand finds her at Capers filling a client’s shopping list.

All the time she was growing up Peggy McConnell’s dad warned her away from a career in a corporate cubicle.

A business owner and entrepreneur himself, he encouraged his daughter to be her own boss.

It took McConnell more than 20 years in the working world to heed his advice but now at 41, she has embraced the frenetic lifestyle of the fledgling entrepreneur with an enthusiasm that would have made her dad proud.

A blond dynamo who doesn’t like to sit still, McConnell has channelled her energy into a service that has her running around for others: The Errand Girls Services Inc. (www.errandgirls.ca). A personal concierge service for time-strapped singles and families, The Errand Girls does everything from stocking fridge shelves to sourcing the best birthday gift.

Along the way they have previewed multi-million homes for particular renters, filled in as black-garbed witnesses for a somewhat unconventional wedding (“that was an easy job. Nothing to do but just stand there,” says McConnell) and rushed forgotten airline tickets out to harried travellers who found themselves ticket-less at the terminal.

It’s a concept that is catching on but still McConnell finds herself explaining her work.

“When people hear concierge they ask what hotel I am with,” she said.

The company evolved from one that McConnell first envisioned would have an event-management focus. When she and her younger sister Joanie McConnell first launched the idea they found themselves helping to run people’s lives.

“When we first started we thought we would be an event-management company but that evolved into errand girls becoming like a personal assistant,” said McConnell. “We realized we were doing more than planning people’s parties — we were managing their lives.”

The pair linked up with Lori Petrie Mock, an event organizer with her own company, Laughing Peach Productions, and McConnell took on business partner Robyn Simons to help provide a full-service organization that would provide everything from party planning to prescription pickup. In its latest coup, The Errand Girls has been named the concierge network affiliate for Vancouver for XPACS (Xtreme Professional Athletic Concierge Services) and it has opened offices in Toronto and Whistler.

“We want to be known as — ‘if we can’t do it, we will find someone reputable to help you,’ ” said McConnell.

McConnell who still has a part-time corporate gig, working three shifts a week in computers at the Workers Compensation Board as a systems operator, said while the company has been running for the past two years, it has really taken off in the past 12 months.

“This last year has been a whirlwind,” she said. “If we can repeat the same success in 2005 that we had in 2004, we’ll be good.”

Like many in today’s corporate world, McConnell was prompted to create her own career by the uncertainty surrounding her job future.

Before she went to Workers’ Comp, she had worked in the information technology department of the Royal Bank, in a job here that disappeared when her department was shifted back east.

Now she worries the work she is doing will join the trend to outsourcing.

“Because of this constant threat in general, of outsourcing, a lot of us are thinking what will we do,” she said.

“We used to joke we’d get a job in the mailroom and now the mailroom is outsourced.”

McConnell, now the mother of two youngsters, aged 10 and 12, didn’t follow her father’s advice at first.

“My father was an entrepreneur who always worked for himself,” said McConnell of her dad, now deceased, who ran a successful cartage firm during his working career.

“He told me to stay away from the corporate world, but of course I fell into it.”

McConnell first ventured into the entrepreneurial world running a bed-and-breakfast from her Ladner home. But when her marriage broke up and the family home was sold, she had to find a new outlet for her business creativity and energy.

“I know my job as it is can’t go on forever,” said McConnell. “I have to be prepared.”

McConnell favours weekend work and nightshifts and a part-time job to free up weekdays to devote to the business.

“I tell people you can call me any time of the day or night, you’ll never know if I’ll be up,” she said.

“The phone starts ringing from Toronto any time after five o’clock in the morning.”

The pace is hectic but with many clients requiring tasks to be fulfilled — everything from watering plants and faxing bills and other important mail to clients in the film industry who are on the road for weeks at a time, to stocking a fridge for someone’s return home, to delivering Krispy Kreme doughnuts — she can plan her own schedule.

She charges $40 an hour on average, with different packages available and gift certificates like the one a Calgary man bought for friends as a present on the birth of their new baby.

McConnell’s office is run from her home on a huge working table, along with computers, faxes, printers and other office paraphernalia, while her two children do homework at one end of the table and the business buzzes around them.

“I guess the whole point of all this is if I wasn’t running this business, I would be running a marathon,” said McConnell. “I have too much energy, it’s not for everybody.

“I could never sit somewhere eight to four.”

As the business grows, McConnell hopes her role will shift to focus on administration for the most part with added staff to take on the job of running hither and thither answering errand requests.

“I don’t want to be running around, I want to spend more time with my children, my goal is to be in the office,” she said.

While McConnell is finding success — “nobody’s starving,” she says of the financial rewards, “just a little hungry once in a while, but it’s good to be hungry because you work all that much harder,” she said, adding an entrepreneur’s existence isn’t for everyone.

“It is all good and well for somebody to say, ‘start your own business,’ but it takes dedication and determination, and I have both.

“I’m definitely not a corporate, sitting in a cubicle, eight-to-four person.”

Laxton says he may be forced to tear down landmark Evergreen Bldg

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

CITY PLANNING I John Laxton appeals denial of permit to add floors to Evergreen Building

Frances Bula
Sun

 

Vancouver developer John Laxton has told the city he will have to tear down the landmark Arthur Erickson-designed Evergreen Building if he doesn’t get permission to put an extra four floors on it.

In an unusual and public confrontation with the city of Vancouver, Laxton, who is also a prominent lawyer and one-time chair of B.C. Hydro under the NDP government, has filed an appeal against a recent decision to limit the number of storeys he can add.

In his appeal, he warned that, if he gets turned down, “We will have no choice but to proceed with plans for the redevelopment of this site.”

In his submission to the board of variance, which will hear the appeal Nov. 3, he writes: “The issue simply is should the Evergreen Building be torn down or preserved. We would prefer to save the Evergreen Building. However, this will only be possible if we are permitted to build to the full amount of our allowable density.”

The saga began two weeks ago, when the city’s development-permit board unexpectedly refused a permit for more than two storeys to be added to the 10-storey building on West Pender.

Two of three board members said they thought the four-storey glass box Laxton and Erickson proposed to put on top of the terraced structure detracted from an “iconic” building, echoing what people on the board’s advisory panel and some members of the public had said.

That was despite the fact that Erickson himself designed the addition, and the city’s influential central-area planning director, along with staff and the urban-design panel, supported what they called the “light and lantern-like” box on top of the existing 10-storey building.

Laxton abruptly cancelled an open house last week for the Evergreen redevelopment, which will convert the former office building to residential use. That move will approximately double the building’s value even before any extra floor space is added.

Now Laxton has filed an appeal of the development permit board decision — a rare move for a developer.

“I don’t recall in my time a single instance that a developer has appealed a decision of the board like this,” said Dave Rudberg, the city’s chief engineer and one of the three members of the development permit board. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

Board chair Rick Scobie, who confirmed Laxton has filed the appeal, also said it was uncommon, although not completely unheard of.

Rudberg, along with deputy city manager Brent McGregor, opposed the addition and limited it to two storeys, while central-area planning director Larry Beasley supported it.

“It’s a bit of a landmark and so it needs to be dealt with carefully,” Rudberg said.

The appeal will be heard Nov. 3 by the board of variance, an independent body composed of five people appointed by the city and provincial government.

If the appeal fails, the future of the Evergreen is unclear.

Although the building is considered a landmark by many, it has no heritage protection and it was built to only about two-thirds of the maximum allowable building space for the site. In a city where a square foot of residential space with a view sells for anywhere between $400 and $800, that difference means a lot.

Staff had previously encouraged Laxton to get the building, which is 24 years old, designated as a heritage building, which would mean he could get a “density bonus” — a free parcel of imaginary floor space that he could then sell to other developers — as an incentive to preserve the building as is.

But that would take time.

In his appeal, Laxton said the existing zoning on the site would allow him to build a 300-foot tower, “which would be far cheaper to build than a conversion of the existing building.”

Laxton said he is forgoing additional profit by only converting the existing building because, if the current building is converted, it will have 30 units that face onto Pender and have no water view. That makes them worth less per square foot than a new tower he could build, where every unit would have a water view.

Laxton’s appeal says that even with four storeys added, the Evergreen Building would be only 175 feet tall, considerably less than the 300 feet allowed.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Something Special: affordable homes seen in a new light

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

Kim Pemberton
Sun

 

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Stephanie Robb in her refurbished Vancouver Special home.

The “Vancouver Special” may be ridiculed by many in a housing market that favours heritage homes, but graduate architect Stephanie Robb may get the last laugh when the tide shifts and design-savvy Generation Xers start viewing these homes in a new light.

Robb, who transformed her own small Vancouver Special into a home reminiscent of a Yaletown loft, says these type of buildings are ideal if one is looking for a modern, contemporary living space. The post Baby-Boom generation, now in their late 20s to late 30s, often can’t afford to live in one of the city’s heritage-style homes, which not uncommonly are priced at $500,000 on the East Side. (A heritage home this month in East Vancouver went for the a whopping $750,000 – a price typically associated with the bottom end of the scale for West side homes). Facing these kinds of prices no wonder Robb feels the answer may be in the vastly more affordable rectangular-box house. Commonly know as a “Vancouver Special” these homes were built by the thousands in the 1960s and 1970s, and are dotted throughout the city – most particularly in East Vancouver.

“For someone wanting to live in a modern space they [Vancouver Specials] lend themselves to that really easily. There are not that many modern homes in Vancouver,” she says.

Robb and her husband paid $204,000 in 1999 for her 1,000 square foot house, located just four blocks from Commercial Drive. The couple then invested another $150,000 to create an open concept home suitable for their young family, two daughters now ages 12 and 10. The house transformation was completed two years ago.

Besides the obvious price advantage and central location, Robb says the greatest benefit is the fact the house is built directly on the ground.

“That simple characteristic can create wonderful indoor/outdoor relationships…It’s pure gold, especially in our climate.”

The formerly cramped, two-unit house, built in 1974, is now an open concept home with wall to wall glass doors, opening onto concrete garden patios, in both the front and rear of the home. Interior walls were removed and the original wood-frame structure was revealed, creating a feeling of a “cabin in the middle of the city.”

On the main floor, the two central bearing walls were replaced with steel beams mounted into the plane of the ceiling. A step Robb understandably worried would go well.

“It was interesting to watch. They did it like it was surgery,” she says. “That part was the one I was most fretting about, but it was the easiest.”

This structural manipulation allowed the entire main floor to be free of structural supports. On the upper floor steel tie rods were installed to allow the rafters there to be exposed as well – a move that created a vaulted ceiling, again adding to a greater sense of spaciousness in the home.

The family also added 200 square feet to the house, while seemingly small, made for a dramatic impact in the master bedroom and created additional space for a piano on the first floor.

Robb says when she first saw the home she could immediately see its potential as a modern living space. Yet, others did not share her view at the time. The house, located on a small 25 by 100 foot lot, had been languishing on the market for months despite it having an expansive view of the city’s downtown core from the upstairs floor.

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

The renovated first floor seen from outside the patio doors.

“My husband was thrilled it had a view,” she says. “I literally walked past the front gate and fell in love with the house instantly. I loved the proportions and knew it would work.”

However, Robb’s plan to convert the house hit a snag when she went to city hall for work permits. She says it took 13 months before the city would issue a development permit and staff there tried to persuade her to build a traditional heritage home instead.

“The city requested I tear it down. I was shocked. How could it be a reasonable stance to determine a perfectly good building should be torn down? These houses are worth retaining.”

Robb’s partner in the design firm Pechet + Robb agrees.

Bill Pechet says he views “Vancouver Specials” as “an untapped resource.”

“When Generations Xers have money or children and want to get into the housing market they will look at these with fresh eyes,” says Pechet.

“Generally, right now they’re seen as an embarrassment. People equate them with cheap housing and don’t see them as having value. Even the city doesn’t regard them as having a heritage value, but it does represent a time in the city. In our view they will be seen as a heritage building [in the future].”

However, the assistant director for city planning Rob Jenkins says the city is open to a Vancouver Special conversion provided this is also something neighbourhoods accept.

“From a broad policy perspective we are looking at all kinds of alternative options for affordability in housing throughout the city, but it’s a balance. It has to respect the community it is in and it [a Vancouver Special conversion] would need to be assessed,” he said.

Jenkins says he is personally aware of another architect who moved from a small heritage home to a larger Vancouver Special because she too could see the “creative architectural” potential these homes represent. (While Robb’s home is small many Vancouver Special have as much as 2,500 square feet.)

Converting them and reusing as much as the existing house as possible as well as making more efficient use of land by building townhomes both make sense from a sustainability perspective, said Jenkins.

Robb’s “modest” project did support “sustainable precepts of material reuse,” UBC director of the School of Architecture Chris Macdonald wrote in a recent edition of Canadian Architect

“Traditional expectations of home ownership are in Vancouver increasingly challenged by a housing market confined by geography and exacerbated by a continuing influx of external investment,” writes Macdonald.

“In the face of this challenge, the creative reassessment of the circumstances surrounding the project of the single family house should become obligatory, including a thoughtful consideration of how our persisting aspiration for freestanding individual houses impacts pressing collective interests in “green” and ultimately sustainable development patterns.”

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

An eating area and bar-style counter.

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Stephanie Robb outside her renovated Vancouver Special.

The Robb home, he concludes does attempt to deal with the pressing local issue of sustainability but “regrettably” it is outside Vancouver‘s current housing practice.

Jenkins adds that while most builders today have “tended to go towards the older architectural style the [city] guidelines do permit more modern interpretation but not much take-up of that has occurred.”

Still, Robb says while the community at large are not yet beating a path to her firm’s door to redesign other Vancouver Specials she has heard from many builders who say the change “makes sense.”

“Builders know buildings inside and out, so it’s good to know they also see the potential for them being renovated instead of torn down,” says Robb, adding she hopes the day will come when Vancouver Specials are also regarded as having heritage value.

[email protected]

Homeworks

If you live in a Vancouver Special you might just find your home photographed and detailed on an Internet site dedicated to this particular residential architecture — www.vancouverspecial.com

According to this intriguing web site (which does not provide a link to its creator, 45-year-old Keith Higgins) there are 1143 Vancouver Specials in the city photographed so far. But, Higgins notes, there are thousands more still to do, estimating Vancouver Specials represent 10 per cent of the detached residential stock in Vancouver.

Among his findings of the homes he’s documented so far:

* There are 757 specials with full balconies and 247 with half balconies.

* Forty-five homes have Lions as decorative statues on the fence while another 16 have some other form of statue.

* Stucco is the exterior finish for 988 homes; 815 used brick, 121 used stone or faux stone, horizontal siding was used on 142 homes and 173 homes used vertical siding.

* A symmetrical roof type was used for 778 homes, double roof for 173, a split roof for 68 and 13 homes have an asymmetrical roof.

Higgins, a fine arts graduate, who lives in an Edwardian style house, began photographing Vancouver Specials with a Polaroid camera years ago before they stopped making them around 1985.

“What I’m trying to do is document every Vancouver Special. Number one because I think they’re an under-discussed, under- documented part of Vancouver‘s environment. They’ve had a huge economic impact on the city and people who probably wouldn’t have been able to afford big new houses suddenly could. They continue to have an impact because they hold their value.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Want to sell quickly? Try a little ‘staging’

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

REAL ESTATE I A staged home is a clean home that appeals to buyers

Sharon Dunn
Sun

 

 
A cluttered den, below, is not appealing to prospective buyers. The cleaned-up den by Dekora is shown above.

If you are about to sell your house in today’s cooling market, you might want to look at “staging,” a method of preparing your home for sale to make the best impression on potential purchasers.

It not only can sell your home, but also can help get you up to 20 per cent more for your property.

So, you won’t mind that it involves cleaning and decluttering and tidying and organizing — whew, I’m exhausted already. But that elbow grease can potentially translate into thousands of dollars.

“Staging is done strictly to sell the house,” says Kelly Ralph, of Creative Touch Interiors. An accredited staging professional, she says staging is important “because the way you sell your house and the way you live in it are two separate things.”

“And unlike decorating,” she adds, “staging costs a fraction of the price. You’re not spending hours with the client picking out fabrics, you’re really just redesigning.”

Christine Rae, Canada‘s regional director for stagedhomes.com, and owner of decoratingsolutions.ca, puts it this way: “Decorating is personalizing a home, usually you have a budget to work with, and you add things to the home. Staging is just the opposite — you’re taking things away, depersonalizing, so a buyer can see the space. It’s about selling the space, not decorating it.”

Staging a 2,400-square-foot home would take, on average, five hours, and at a rate of about $75 an hour, would cost the homeowner some $375.

If extra furniture is needed, Ralph goes to Executive Furniture Rentals in Toronto at an extra cost to the homeowner.

Mark Miller, president of Executive, says, “we’re often called upon to furnish empty houses because empty houses do not sell.” But he cautions, “when you go into a gorgeous designer home, you must remember that the furniture doesn’t come with it.”

Miller himself learned that the hard way. “I bought a house once that was beautifully furnished. I didn’t consider that the furniture didn’t come with it,” he admits. “I spent years trying to recreate the look, and couldn’t do it without the expense of a designer and expensive furniture.”

Miller says his company rents “realistic furniture, the kind that most people use in their own home.”

Says Executive’s stager, Heather Clouston: “We’re here to give a perspective of space and a warm welcome, so a purchaser will think, ‘I’d like to live here.’”

She adds, “Staging makes it easier for the buyer to picture himself living in the home.”

But what exactly does a stager do?

“Tackles the three deadly sins of sellers,” Ralph says.

These are:

- Too many personal items. In my case, it’s too many pictures displayed on my desk.

“It’s more important for the purchaser to look at your beautiful corners, mouldings, plantation shutters and wood floors,” Ralph says.

I point out that one of the pictures displayed is of me and Bill Clinton.

If you’re selling, Ralph says, Bubba will have to go — not to mention my photos of Mom, Dad, my kids, Boots the cat, etc., etc. You get the picture.

“To live in a house is one thing, to sell it is another,” Ralph says. “Remember, you’re trying to sell the house. You’re not trying to sell yourself.”

All books and magazines also have to go. “Empty your bookshelves,” she advises. “I was in a listed house on the weekend that had a Playboy magazine in the bathroom.” A definite no-no.

And Ralph warns potential purchasers always look in the medicine cabinet. “Do you really think people want to see what kind of tampons you use?”

Religious items should also be put away.

“One house had religious music go off periodically,” Ms. Ralph says. Hired to stage the house, she gently told the owners to stop the music. “They weren’t insulted,” she insists, “and their house sold quickly.”

Another vendor had a son who was a priest. “There were crosses all over the place, and holy water. Enough to frighten most purchasers,” Ralph says with a laugh.

- Clutter: “Most clutter can be packed away,” Ralph says. “Don’t showcase your beautiful collection of china dolls.”

All clothes must be put away. “And neatly,” Ralph says, “because people will check the closets.”

If there isn’t enough room in the drawers and cupboards, the answer is to store it all short-term, Ralph says.

(All Canadian Self Storage is an example of a local provider, they will come to your home and take your boxes away. “Whatever you do, don’t leave the boxes lying around. Homes with too much stuff don’t sell,” Ralph says.)

In the kitchen, make sure your dishes are done. “You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t do this,” says Ralph. “The idea is for the purchasers to see that there is room for them to move in.”

- Cleanliness: “Cleanliness sells,” Ralph says. “If you can smell it, you can’t sell it. Get rid of the dog, cat, bird, whatever, and all signs of it, for resale. If you’re having an open house, take the animal with you, and get rid of the litter box.” According to Ralph, nobody wants to move into a house where an animal lived, even if they’re animal lovers themselves.

“And if you’re a smoker, get rid of the smell,” she says. “And don’t forget the evidence. Ashtrays — get rid of them.”

Cooking odours are another faux pas.

“I recommend the carpet be cleaned,” Ralph says. “That will help get rid of cooking odours. In some cases, I’ve recommended that the owners watch what they’re cooking for a while, and stay away from foods with lingering odours.”

She also suggests confining your workspace to one area and making the beds.

“And don’t forget curb appeal,” Ralph says. “The first impression is vital. If they don’t like it outside, you won’t get them inside”.

“But why would I need a stager, when I can do it myself,” I ask.

“Because as a stager, I have no emotional attachment to your home,” Ralph says, “so I’m able to see it from the purchaser’s perspective.

“People think when you’re staging, you’re pulling the wool over their eyes. But that’s not so. A staged home is a clean home that looks great and is screaming, ‘I’m ready for you to move in.’ “

Adds Rae: “Staging has other benefits as well. Sellers often say how cathartic it is for them. By staging and removing things, they make the emotional cut that they can’t do when they’re living in the home.

“Often the owner comes home after the staging and says, ‘This is not my home anymore.’ They are now ready to sell. It can help them get a good start to move on.”

Editor’s Note: Two B.C. home staging companies are Dekora which can be reached at www.dekora.com. Telephone (604) 876-4355 or Spruce Home Staging at www.sprucehome.com. Telephone (604) 733-7375.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Buildings slated to get a lot ‘smarter’

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

Ellen Simon
Sun

 

Lights controlled by sensors that measure sunlight.

An air conditioner that shuts off when a window is open, or built-in blinds adjusted by a computer program that tracks the sun’s path.

Buildings are getting smarter — and the next generation of building materials is expected to do even more. Like windows which could trap the sun’s energy to heat hot water, or sensors measuring the carbon dioxide exhaled by people in a room to determine if the air conditioning needs to be turned up.

“More potential products have been invented in the last 15 years than in the entire prior history of architecture,” says Philadelphia architect Stephen Kieran. “We’re only beginning to tap the potential of those materials.”

The new materials and technology are being used in a wave of buildings designed to save as much energy as possible. They range from old ideas, like “green roofs,” where a layer of plants on a roof helps the building retain heat in winter and stay cool in summer, and new ideas, like special coating for windows that lets light in, but keeps heat out.

Most commercial buildings still lack even rudimentary technology, such as timers for lights, but the idea of buildings that use technology to save energy got a boost from the 2000 energy crisis, when California experienced blackouts and electricity prices rose.

That year, the U.S. Green Building Council launched a program to accredit building professionals in environmental design. Interest in the LEED program — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — has skyrocketed. Since 2000, about 19,000 people have been accredited, 9,000 in the last month alone.

About four per cent of new commercial construction is now completed under LEED guidelines, said Taryn Holowka, a spokeswoman for the Green Building Council.

Many new building materials are first developed in Europe, where energy is more expensive. “The construction industry is behind the times in some ways, compared to many other industries,” said Patrick Mays, chief information officer of architecture firm NBBJ.

More sophisticated building materials are in development.

A new building at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii will be a “net zero energy building,” using no energy from the electric grid. The building will be cooled with piped-in sea water and the condensation on the pipes will be used for irrigation.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

BC’s housing boom likely to continue into 2005

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Derrick Penner
Sun

B.C.’s residential housing boom has not stalled in the latter half of 2004 and promises to march on into 2005, although not at as torrid a pace, Canada Mortgage and Housing said Thursday in its National Housing Outlook.

The federal agency again confirmed B.C. housing starts will hit 31,700 in 2004, and estimated that starts will increase to 32,400 units next year.

“We’ve had a quarter-point increase in the [Bank of Canada key interest] rate just recently, and that is going to have an impact on people with variable rate mortgages and those with lines of credit, but it’s not enough to quell demand in the market right now,” said Cameron Muir, a market analyst with Canada Mortgage and housing.

He added that while interest rates are expected to climb by as much as two percentage points over the next couple of years, housing markets should remain strong because market fundamentals are expected to stay solid as well.

“In terms of the B.C. economy, it’s in a growth phase rather than at a peak,” Muir said.

Employment growth has been strong, consumer spending has been high. “And the other side of the the economy, the export side — that has been struggling — is starting to turn around,” Muir said.

Nationally, CMHC predicts new housing starts in 2004 to hit a 17-year high of 226,800 units, although it expects rising prices and mortgage rates to dampen demand.

“Activity in the new-home market in the third quarter hit heights not seen since the latter half of the 1980′s, so the stage is now set for residential construction activity to slow in the months ahead,” said CMHC chief economist Bob Dugan.

He said housing starts will drift down toward “more sustainable levels” in 2005, but will remain at a high 210,200 units.

CMHC estimates that B.C. will be the only province to show an increase in housing starts next year.

B.C. and Alberta, however, are also expected to lead the nation in the decline in housing resales, CMHC said.

Nationally, resale activity will dip 3.6 per cent to 445,900 units in 2005, Dugan added, as activity “backs off its record-setting clip,” and return to a more balanced position.

Dugan said price gains that homeowners have experienced will decelerate in 2005, but Muir said in B.C., the gains will still outpace inflation.

“Rather than double-digit increases year-over-year, you’ll see single digit increases,” he added.

B.C.’s decline in resales, Muir said, will have more to do with the construction of new housing inventory catching up to demand and a declining number of first-time and investment buyers than economic factors.

Nationally, resales, on pace to reach 462,600 units, will hit an all-time high for the third year in a row. Sales are rising in all regions except Nova Scotia where they have fallen for two years in a row.

Ontario is expected to see 85,200 starts in 2004, but decline to 79,000 in 2005 to be more on par with population growth.

Quebec starts are expected to hit 56,000 units in 2004, but slide to 48,000 units in 2005 on slower employment growth and higher interest rates.

BUILD, BUILD, BUILD:

Housing starts in B.C. are expected to continue to grow through all of next year:

2003 (actual): 26,174

2004 (forecast): 31,700

2005 (forecast): 32,400

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

 

UBC builds community with heart

Thursday, October 28th, 2004

Point Grey campus gets $600-million worth of buildings, technology — and a vibrant public square

Doug Ward
Sun

CREDIT: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun Campus academic and institutional buildings are about attracting and retaining top students and faculty, says Linda Moore, associate director of external affairs.

The University of B.C. is midway through a $600-million growth spurt, giving the campus a new social heart, new housing and shiny new academic facilities with state-of-the-art technology.

An architectural competition is underway to design the new University Boulevard neighbourhood, where a mix of cafes, restaurants, shops and public square will give UBC a more dramatic entrance and a vibrant gathering place.

Construction crews will begin digging a hole in a few months for a new underground bus loop on University Boulevard – a loop projected to handle 53,000 transit trips both ways daily.

A new neighbourhood will be developed above it — one of nine neighbourhoods of the University Town project, which will more than double the campus population by 2021.

Linda Moore, the UBC official charged with transforming University Boulevard, uses a famous observation from an American literary figure to describe the uninspiring entrance that currently exists where the boulevard intersects with Wesbrook Mall.

“We’ve been using the little saying of Gertrude Stein: ‘There is no there there’ because look: There is no ‘there’ here.”

But there will be more “there” everywhere on campus. That’s clear from the hardhats and “Construction Access Only” signs that are ubiquitous at UBC.

About 80 per cent of the construction activity has been about building a new generation of institutional buildings, including the Michael Smith Laboratories, the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, the Life Sciences Centre and the Earthquake Building.

Most days, about 1,000 tradesmen, 15 cranes and convoys of dump trucks and other heavy equipment arrive on campus.

“Someone here said that UBC is the biggest construction site west of Toronto,” associate dean Douw Steyn said.

“I have no evidence if this is true, except that there is a heck of a lot of construction here.”

The pace is so constant that UBC has hired a consulting firm to coordinate road closures and signage with the seven major contractors active on campus.

“UBC gets a lot of criticism from neighbourhoods because there are only four major truck routes in and out of the campus,” said Joe Redmond, vice-president of UBC Properties Trust.

“People think the trucks are for building residential. But actually most of the trucks coming here are for institutional buildings.”

Redmond said the new Life Sciences Building, for example, required the excavation of 120,000 cubic metres of earth, an amount equal to about 10,000 truckloads.

But both the academic and institutional buildings are about attracting and retaining top students and faculty, said Moore, associate director external affairs for University Town.

“What’s key is that everything we are doing is to support our academic mission.”

Even revamping University Boulevard between Wesbrook and Main Mall.

Moore recalls arriving at UBC as a young English major about 25 years ago and “not realizing that University Boulevard was the front door to the university.”

This is because the gateway to UBC at University Boulevard and Wesbrook has all the architectural drama of a suburban business park.

“We have a sea of pavement that really doesn’t speak to the idea of place — to what we call university-ishness,” Moore said.

“I always think of the new student, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, from somewhere in small-town Canada, staring at the entrance, and going: ‘Is this it?’ “

Just what the new $100-million University Boulevard development, adjacent to the Student Union Building, will look like will be decided in an architectural competition launched recently.

Moore is confident the neighbourhood, with its public spaces and shops, will give students a “place to go” — something that has been missing from campus.

“There will be at least five new buildings,” he said. “The whole idea is to create a vibrant collection of uses.

“So that on the square and on the street there will be shops and services.”

There will be rental housing above the shops for students, faculty and staff.

Empire Pool is being relocated to the north side of War Memorial Gym. The new pool will have 50-metre lanes so that swimming competitions can be staged. UBC has asked its architects to relocate and give prominence to Empire Pool’s venerable diving tower. “It’s a UBC icon and we don’t want to lose it,” Moore said.

While UBC is preserving some if its heritage, it’s the newly minted buildings and the wizardry inside them that defines the new campus.

The new academic construction is the result of a move in the late ’90s by Ottawa and the provincial government to invest heavily in scientific research in post-secondary institutions.

Ottawa‘s funding comes through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which has given UBC $400 million over the past five years.

UBC vice-president Dennis Pavlich said UBC has received more CFI funding than any other Canadian university. “UBC has been unbelievably successful in receiving CFI money.”

In a survey of which public universities have the best scientific research programs, added Pavlich, UBC rated second in Canada and 12th in North America.

Under the CFI grant program, Ottawa puts up 40 per cent of the infrastructure costs of projects chosen by national selection committees, made up mostly of scientists.

The provincial government, through its B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, provides a matching 40 per cent and UBC covers the remaining 20 per cent, often with money from private donors.

Almost all of the CFI funds have gone for scientific research, although UBC was successful in getting CFI money for a project at the Museum of Anthropology, which will enable collections to be accessed digitally and expand the public gallery.

Some of the new facilities are also funded by the B.C. government’s Double the Opportunity Fund, which seeks to double the number of computing science and engineering students graduating from UBC.

The largest and most expensive of new buildings is the $172-million, five-storey UBC Life Sciences Centre, new home to the UBC Medical School and a variety of teaching and research facilities for life sciences, and to the Centre for Disease Modelling and the Centre for Blood Research.

The facility is part of the provincial government’s commitment to double the number of graduating medical students to 256 per year by 2010.

The centre will provide links with tele-learning facilities at the University of Victoria and the University of Northern B.C. Cameras will allow medical students in Victoria or Prince George to listen to a lecture delivered at UBC and ask questions, and vice versa.

The outer shell of the Life Sciences Centre encloses three buildings. It has two open atriums with glass roofs. One of the atriums will house a coffee house and cafeteria. The building has 500,000 square feet with ample laboratory space.

The top four floors of the Life Sciences Centre are labs for medical research and for the life sciences, including biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, immunology, anatomy, physiology, zoology and medical genetics.

There is a morgue below ground, holding cadavers for use in medical instruction. A bio-containment facility for the handling of potentially lethal pathogens will also be underground.

“Between the Michael Smith Laboratories and the Life Sciences Centre we will really house a high percentage of researchers who do cellular and microcellular biology, which is at the cutting edge of scientific research,” said biochemistry Prof. George Mackie,

Mackie said the new buildings were needed because the existing ones “were designed for an earlier era of research and had become obsolete.”

Perhaps, the best-known of these new buildings is the Michael Smith Laboratories, the institutional legacy of Dr. Michael Smith. The $30-million lab covers 7,500 square metres adjacent to the UBC Bookstore.

In 1987, UBC established Canada‘s first interdisciplinary biotechnology unit. Smith headed it and recruited the young microbiologists and other scientists. Their offices and labs were scattered across the campus.

It was the late Nobel Laureate’s dream to create an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to genomic research — and to stem the brain drain of top Canadian scientists to the U.S. That centre now exists and bears his name.

A swirling ribbon of coloured glass stretches across its glass face, representing a DNA sequence.

The Stewart and Marilyn Blusson Education Forum is located on the ground floor and is open to the public. A teaching lab will provide outreach to about 2,000 Lower Mainland high school students annually. There is also a 100-seat lecture theatre that is electronically linked to other UBC teaching sites, and an atrium.

The second and third floors are dedicated to the research facilities of the former Biotechnology Laboratory.

The lower floor will house the UBC Bioinformatics Centre, where five researchers and about 70 students and lab workers will integrate computers, software tools, and databases to address biological issues related to genomics. The Michael Smith Laboratories represents the UBC component of the Centre for Integrated Genomics, a collaboration with the B.C. Cancer Agency.

The $68-million Irving K. Barber Learning Centre will retain the heritage core of the iconic Main Library, while adding a new building and renovated floor space. The Learning Centre and the glass-encased Koerner Library directly across from it, will make up the academic heart of the campus.

The centre — geared with wireless technology — will offer a new robotics-driven automatic storage and retrieval (ASR) system.

ASR technology has been used by a variety of industries for more than 30 years. Libraries have turned to ASR over the last 15 years to help house library collections, including print materials, microforms, videos and artifacts.

Users retrieve materials from the system by making a request through the library’s online catalogue. Using the book’s bar code as the locating device, the robotic mini-load crane identifies the bin that holds the requested item and delivers it to the circulation desk. A library worker retrieves the requested item from the bin and holds it for pickup. The entire retrieval process takes about two minutes.

The idea behind the Learning Centre is to turn the Main Library into a leading-edge, advanced distance-learning facility, accessible to online users throughout the province. People will be able to locate books and receive materials without having to physically go there.

The two wings of the Main Library will be demolished and, along with them, the stacks where generations of UBC students roamed.

Over the next decade, less than half of the library’s acquisitions will be in digital format. The library will be out of space to house print material within the next two years. But with space for more than 1.4 million volumes, ASR will provide growth area for the physical collection for at least 15 years.

The Earthquake Engineering Building will contain shake tables and test monitoring systems, and will allow engineers to assess the seismic capability of buildings and structures. Scale models of buildings will be placed on the shake table and subjected to motion. The building on the East Mall is designed so pedestrians can watch tests being conducted.

The $8.9-million Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory, expected to open next spring, conducts research on marine life and economies around the globe. It has an “immersion room” that allows researchers to examine three-dimensional computer models projected on the walls.

“When you are inside it, it’s like being immersed inside a modelling system,” Steyn said.

The models will deal with all aspects of fisheries, ranging from economic features to species, population and ecosystems.

The new surge in infrastructure investment has been accompanied by the creation of perhaps the most extensive wireless web network in North America, said David Vogt, director of Digital Learning Projects at UBC.

“UBC has taken upon itself to establish a number of wireless nodes right across campus,” Vogt said. “There is a dedication to being wireless friendly here and the UBC network is the most advanced in North America, if not beyond.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Scientist builds a ‘living brain’

Wednesday, October 27th, 2004

Tom Spears
Sun

“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate object… but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

- – -

OTTAWA – A Florida professor has built living brain cells into a “brain in a dish” that’s able to control an aircraft simulator — but also raises questions about whether he has created a living, and even conscious, brain.

Thomas DeMarse of the University of Florida took some neurons (brain cells) from a live rat, then made them multiply into a mass of 25,000.

The neurons have formed connections with each other, just like brains in living animals.

And with 60 electrodes to send computer signals in and brain signals out, the biomedical engineer says his “living brain” has learned to keep a simulated aircraft stable in varying weather conditions.

Hey, says a Canadian professor of horror literature: That’s what Dr. Frankenstein did!

“In a way it is Frankenstinian because he’s essentially creating another life form. It’s not really a rat,” says Laurie Harnick, who teaches American literature and horror films at the University of Western Ontario.

“The cells have, if not consciousness, some sort of mechanism to make something happen” in the flight simulator.

However, DeMarse says the goal isn’t to build living brains.

“We’re interested in studying how brains compute,” he says in a written summary of his work. (He couldn’t be reached for an interview this week.)

DeMarse says computers made of metal and silicon have never mastered the flexibility we have in living brains. He wants to apply the skills of our brains to computers.

For instance, he says, a human can see an unfamiliar object and understand right away that it’s a table or a chair — something very difficult to program into a computer.

The experimental brain “is essentially a dish with 60 electrodes arranged in a grid at the bottom. Over that we put the living cortical neurons from rats, which rapidly begin to reconnect themselves, forming a living neural network — a brain,” The connections didn’t happen randomly, he added.

“You see one [neuron] extend a process, pull it back, extend it out, and it may do that a couple of times, just sampling who’s next to it, until over time the connectivity starts to establish itself.”

Further, he says that his “brain in a dish” gradually built new neural connections after he hooked up the electrodes to an airplane simulator. At first it just let the aircraft drift randomly. Now he claims it stabilizes the flight in virtual weather conditions.

“I suppose in a way he’s creating a new organism, with roots in something we do recognize,” said Harnick.

The Florida biomedical engineer and his partner have a $500,000 US research grant from the National Science Foundation.

PROBING THE BRAIN:

How scientists are using rat brain cells to fly a model airplane:

Network is hooked to a computer.

Neurons analyse and process data.

Some 25,000 rat neurons are grown in culture over an array of 60 electrodes, creating a neural network.

Model airplane equipped with onboard camera feeds visual information about simulator-created horizon into the neural network.

In an attempt to keep the plan stable and level, neurons send signals back to plane’s control surfaces.

Source: Vancouver Sun

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

New iPod will store tunes and photos

Wednesday, October 27th, 2004

Apple says the new version of the iPod will hold 15 hours of music and 25,000 photos

Connie Guglielmo
Sun

SAN FRANCISCO - Apple Computers is hoping to boost sales for its phenomenally popular iPod digital music player by shipping new devices that will also store 25,000 photos.

A 40-gigabyte version will sell for $499 US ($613 Cdn) and a 60-gigabyte version for $599 ($736 Cdn), Apple chief executive Steve Jobs said. The new iPod will hold 15 hours of music.

“We think music-plus-photos is the next big thing,” Jobs said at a glitzy unveiling Tuesday where he was joined by U2 band members, including singer Bono. “Everyone has a digital camera right now. So everyone is taking tons of digital pictures and building digital libraries.”

Apple also released, in conjunction with Bono and U2, a special-edition black version of the iPod, with a red tracking wheel. A 20-gigabyte version of that iPod, available in mid-November, will sell for $349 ($429 Cdn).

Apple is capitalizing on strong demand for iPods, first unveiled in October 2001 and now the fastest-growing product made by the company. Over all, iPods accounted for 23 per cent of Apple’s $2.36 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter, up from 12 per cent a year earlier. The sales surge helped make Apple the second-best performing stock in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index this year.

Jobs, 49, built the company’s success around the “classic” white iPod and a “mini” version released in February that comes in five colors. Apple sold 5.74 million of the players, including 2.02 million in the quarter ended Sept. 25. Total iPod revenue more than quadrupled to $537 million in the period compared to a year earlier.

Apple also said it expanded its iTunes online music site to nine more European countries.

Apple’s iPod sales growth will continue, say analysts such as Merrill Lynch & Co.’s Steven Milunovich. He estimates that Apple will ship 2.68 million units during the holiday season, almost four times as many as the company sold a year ago.

Apple began shipping the mini overseas in July, helping bolster sales.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

UBC to build $100M new neighbourhood

Tuesday, October 26th, 2004

University will hold a design competition for $100-million revamp

Doug Ward
Sun

 

UBC officials are searching for an architect to revamp its main entrance with housing, stores, restaurants and a public square.

VANCOUVER - The University of B.C. will announce today an international search for an architect for its proposed $100-million University Boulevard neighbourhood development.

Hoping to attract world-renowned architects such as Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and others, the university wants to set a new standard for its campus architecture.

“This competition is an important opportunity to build world-class architecture that will define the entrance of UBC and create a new social heart for the campus,” said Dennis Pavlich, UBC’s vice-president of external affairs.

The project will revamp UBC’s main entrance at Wesbrook Mall and create a new neighbourhood, including housing, stores, cafes, restaurants and a public square.

“We want University Boulevard to become the hallmark of UBC. It will be a huge meeting and gathering place,” Pavlich said.

“But ultimately what it comes down to is creating memory. Which is why the architectural competition is so important. It’s not only about creating beauty — it’s also about creating spaces where people can chat and learn and make decisions.”

The University Boulevard neighbourhood will be one of nine distinct residential neighbourhoods making up the University Town community, which will boost UBC’s population to 20,900 by 2021, from about 10,400 today.

UBC officials also want the new project to create a more dramatic visual presence at the main campus entrance at University Boulevard and Wesbrook Mall.

“We are trying to give it a very strong architectural and functional identity, so that when you think of UBC that’s what you are going to think about,” Pavlich said.

Linda Moore, associate vice-president for University Town, said the new entrance should “create an experience where people know they’ve arrived at UBC.”

After all, added Moore, “when you arrive at Harvard, you know you’re at Harvard.”

University Boulevard is the first architectural design competition to be held in B.C. since 1991, when the Vancouver Public Library held a national design competition that was won by architect Moshe Safdie. A winner will be announced in May 2005.

The University Boulevard competition jury includes Safdie, who lives in Israel and the U.S., and four other internationally known architects: Arthur Erickson from Vancouver, Leon Krier of France, Demetri Porphyrios of Britain and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of the U.S. The jury will also include a number of UBC officials.

The 7.2-hectare design area is made up of five building sites. The competition will include a new University Square, a new greenway, new university related shops and services, apartments and open spaces and pedestrian connections between buildings.

The number of participants in the competition will be reduced to a shortlist of six and then of three. Round-table lectures will be held in January 2005 to present the work of the six shortlisted architectural firms.

The design submissions of the final three will be showcased in March 2005 and voted on by UBC students, faculty and staff.

The vote and comments from the community will be presented to the jury, but the results won’t be binding.

“It’s very unusual. But I see it as very democratic,” said Pavlich. “It’s important, because for this facility to succeed, the community has to see it as meeting their needs.”

The vote is a direct result by UBC to requests by the campus community for more input into the project.

UBC wants to avoid the public controversy that accompanied the release in 2003 of the draft design for the University Boulevard Neighbourhood.

The response to University Boulevard was overwhelmingly negative at early public meetings because of proposals to construct residential towers as high as 18 storeys, extend University Boulevard to Marine Drive for vehicle traffic and rebuild the bus loop below grade.

In the end, UBC altered the design, dropping maximum building heights to five storeys from 18.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004