Archive for September, 2009

Setting limits in a 24/7 wired world

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

It is easy to fall into the habit of ignoring the real world when you are always plugged in

Gillian Shaw
Sun

Alfred Hermida, who leads the integrated journalism program at the University of B.C.’s School of Journalism, utilizes all available technology in his daily life but still tries to take some time off. Photograph by: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun

Marc-David Seidel was sitting in a cafe in Berkeley, Calif. watching two customers at a nearby table carry on an awkward and disjointed conversation that made it clear each was more concerned with eyeing their phones lying on the table.

While the pair were together in person, their attention was directed to cyber conversations instead and it was only when a thief snatched both phones off the table as he ran by that the two focused on each other.

“They were having a very disjointed conversation — I couldn’t help but notice — it was like two monologues,” said Seidel, associate professor in the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business, who has done research on social networks and has been online since 1980.

“Until somebody ran by and grabbed both their phones and then they started interacting with each other for real — they had a conversation about crime.

“It was a perfect metaphor for our digital life.”

LINES ARE BLURRED

It’s a life that has become 24/7, where the lines between work and leisure life are becoming so blurred that it’s projected they’ll disappear totally by 2020.

When the Internet first emerged, it effectively had an off switch. You had to go through a tedious process of logging on, logging off, and waiting while traffic wended its way through the clunky connections of cyberspace. Today, you can carry a virtual computer in your pocket in the form of your iPhone, BlackBerry or other smartphone and you can be constantly cyber-connected.

If people can’t call you on a land line, a cellphone, a satellite phone — there’s always text messages, Facebook, Twitter messages, LinkedIn, e-mail, your Flickr site that shares your vacation photos while you’re still on holiday and online games that let you compete with people around the globe and around the clock.

For some, it’s so ubiquitous that failure to answer an e-mail or a tweet for a day or so can have friends, relatives and colleagues speculating that the recipient has met some awful fate.

Going off the grid doesn’t necessarily mean disconnecting — you could be sitting around a campfire watching YouTube videos on your iPhone, or as one vacationing dad did — sending minute-by-minute photos of a European vacation with family — leaving viewers to wonder if the man was devoting any attention to his family or merely documenting their travels.

“It used to be a healthy divide, but the 24-hour reach of technology puts an end to the separation between work and private life; it blurs the boundaries entirely,” said Seidel. “That can be both positive and negative.”

Seidel’s research has left him convinced that online social networks lack the quality of face-to-face interaction and even phone calls and written letters. And he says people overestimate their ability to multi-task — a contention he regularly proves in his class by calling on students who are intently staring at their notebook computers. The ones who are using their computers to take notes are quick with an answer; the ones who are checking out Facebook answer with a blank look.

“I would say online social networks don’t really replicate offline social networks,” said Seidel. “They tend to be surface rather than deep and meaningful connection.”

The 24-hour connectivity sets up expectations both in work and personal life.

“If you don’t respond instantly people think something is wrong or that you are ignoring them,” said Seidel, who, despite having worked with the Internet since 1985 refuses to carry a BlackBerry or a smartphone and only carries a laptop when he is travelling. Right now he is on sabbatical and he has set his e-mail to auto reply telling senders he isn’t available until July of next year.

“I have figured out how to manage,” he said. “I am old-fashioned, the Internet for me is something that should be there when I want it to be, it shouldn’t be able to grab me.”

Alfred Hermida, a colleague at the university and a professor who leads the integrated journalism program at UBC’s graduate school of journalism, grapples with such issues both in his own life as a “digital news pioneer” and in teaching a generation of students that takes the Internet for granted — regarding it not as an adjunct to their life but as an integral part of it.

I sent Hermida a direct message on Twitter asking if he was available for an interview, knowing because he is on my Twitter network that my message would be reaching him in Toronto.

Hermida also has a blog at http://reportr.net, a website www.alfredhermida.com, he runs www.newslab.ca , has a Flickr account for photos and video, an online video show, JournalismPlus.com on Blip.tv, he is on Twitter, on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Ning and several other social networks.

Hermida answered my message on his iPod touch and we talked over the phone.

GENERATIONAL OUTLOOK

“It is very much a generational outlook,” Hermida said of the notion that technology is something to be turned off or on in our lives. “For the freshman class at university, it is not a case of taking over their lives, it is part of their lives.

“The whole idea of contemplating a world before the Internet is very alien to them. One of the things with technology is that if it is part of the way you live, it becomes invisible.

“You don’t really think you are using a device for something. Just as you don’t say, ‘I need to set aside time to use the telephone.’”

Hermida doesn’t segment technology into working tools and devices for leisure. The same iPod touch that allowed me to connect with him was also helping him find his way around Toronto using Google maps.

“In a sense, technology becomes a part of what you do,” he said. “You don’t think about it in terms of setting aside time for it.”

Hermida sometimes asks his students go offline, a task they can find daunting.

“Sometimes I ask my students to go offline for eight hours and often it is a bit of an eye-opener,” he said. “After about half an hour, they are saying, ‘what do I do now?’

“Or they will go and take a walk and they won’t be plugged into an iPod — they’ll hear birds chirping in the trees and they’ve never heard that while they’re walking.”

While Hermida is a digital pioneer, he sets limits — managing expectations of students he says have grown up expecting and getting instant feedback.

“Their expectation when they e-mail is that you will reply straightaway. I’ll say, ‘I’ll get back to you within 24 hours.’ Maybe it’s the evening and I want to have some time off.”

Hermida doesn’t decide when to connect digitally — it’s the way he lives.

“I have to make a conscious decision to disconnect,” he said. “It is not a conscious decision to connect — my default state is always on.”

Hermida will get a head start on catching up with e-mail by checking in Sunday night, a practice he says friends do as well.

“It is almost because you can, you will,” he said. “The responsibility then falls to individuals to make those limits — to say, ‘if you e-mail me over the weekend I’ll get back to you Monday.’”

Answering the boss’s call or e-mail on your BlackBerry is one of the many ways the line between work and leisure is disappearing. According to a forecast by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, by 2020 that line will have disappeared.

Jonathan Ezor, assistant professor of law and technology and director of the Institute for Business, Law and Technology at the Touro Law Center, and special counsel to The Lustigman Firm in New York, said that raises a number of issues for both employees and employers alike.

“There are a few things employers have to be concerned about. One has to do with work hours; to the extent that employees need to track their hours and making sure policies are very clear as to what constitutes work.

“Is being on one’s Palm Pre at the beach work hours? And how does it get tracked?”

On the flip side, someone in an office cubicle could be betting on a sports event online, planning a party, holiday shopping or catching up on Facebook. Ezor points out that for both sides in the employment equation, technology brings advantages and disadvantages.

Security is another consideration when people are able to work anywhere anytime and laptops and smartphones can carry enough data to pose a substantial risk to companies and organizations if they are lost or stolen.

“I look at this from the point of view of a technology lawyer as well as technology fan,” said Ezor, who also has a website, www.mobilerisk.com.

BALANCED SCHEDULE

For Ezor, technology helps balance a complicated schedule that includes a full-time position as a professor, consulting work as a lawyer and parenting children with special needs.

“That is the benefit side, you can work whenever you need to, on your own schedule — you can be productive and you can take a family trip even if there is some critical piece of information you might be asked for,” he said.

“But we are working more hours than we used to. You can no longer say, ‘Sorry, I can’t be reached.’ It is very hard to be off the grid these days — you have to make a serious effort to be unreachable and that is a downside.

“Today if you’re a mechanic you’re not fixing cars by BlackBerry. For information workers to be able to work wherever one wants it can be a wonderful thing. To have to work wherever one is — that can be good or bad.”

David Gewirtz, editor-in-chief of ZATZ and cyberterrorism adviser to the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals, recently released a special report entitled The Dark Side of Social Networking.

Gewirtz focuses on the security implications of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn. But with more than two-thirds of the world’s Internet population visiting such sites at least once a month and nearly 10 per cent of all time spent online devoted to social networking, he also sees the life balance issues in technology.

“I’m addicted to e-mail so I check it before I have my first cup of coffee and last thing before going to bed,” he said. “I used to drive across the country without a cellphone; now I’m not willing to drive around the corner to the 7-Eleven without making sure I have my cellphone and that it is fully charged.”

Gewirtz has 15 to 20 computers in his house and he talks about a three-day vacation he once took in British Columbia as a memorable holiday.

“I claim to my wife in a perfect world I’d never touch computers again, I’d never use e-mail and I’d be as happy as a clam,” he said.

“Until I want to order something from Amazon.”

With information and entertainment coming at us from numerous sources and at a pace that can quickly overrun our schedules, many people don’t think of just doing nothing.

“My TiVo has 2,000 hours of programming — every one is something either I or my wife wants to watch,” said Gewirtz. “You can keep yourself entertained any time of the day or night.”

Despite his compulsion to check e-mail, Gewirtz has one unbreakable rule — he doesn’t give out his cellphone number.

“If I’m out, I don’t want to be disturbed,” he said. “I used to find the cellphone chasing me everywhere I went.

“Customers and contacts are annoyed when they can’t find me on a cellphone, but I really prefer not to scream over a concert to a customer.

“Those are the boundaries we need to set up digitally. The real answer is good living practice.”

Justin Young, managing director of Radar DBB, a marketing and branding company that is deep into Web 2.0, said when you spend all your time online, it is hard to differentiate what is work and what is play.

The answer, he said, is deciding what specific hours are for — for example, if he is working on a presentation, he’ll turn off his e-mail.

“Technology,” he said. “It can run you or you can run it.”

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Home buyers happy to fork out more green for greening

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Smart owners would pay up for enviro-certification

Sam Cooper
Province

Jason Holweg of T.Q. Construction works on some double-pane, energy efficient windows at a home in Burnaby. Photograph by: Nick Procaylo, The Province

Homeowners may be thinking about the earth’s future when choosing to go green, but incentives for the self-interested consumer are a growing part of the picture, industry experts say.

Ron Lemaire, spokesman for the Canada Green Building Council, says according to a Nielsen survey conducted this year, 82 per cent of Canadians said they would invest more for a green-certified home. A major factor is perceived value, he said.

“The whole building market is facing challenges, but green building has not faced the same impact,” he said.

There are also green “collateral benefits” for households, according to Lemaire, including cost-saving efficiencies through energy conservation and improved health and safety.

Federal incentive programs are encouraging homeowners to think green, but more could be done at municipal and provincial levels, Lemaire said.

The B.C. government wrapped up the popular LiveSmart B.C. program in mid-August, 21 months before it was supposed to end.

The program — in which homeowners conducted energy audits and received breaks on approved energy-saving home improvements — reached its three-year target of 40,000 home assessments in 15 months, using up $60 million allocated for the fund.

Blair Lekstrom, B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, said the government hopes to bring LiveSmart back when the economic situation improves.

“The success of LiveSmart B.C. was tremendous, but the harsh reality today is the economics are very difficult,” he said.

Here are some of the green incentives currently available to B.C. homeowners:

- The federal Home Renovation Tax Credit applies to eligible home renovation expenditures for work performed, or goods acquired, before Feb. 1, 2010. A maximum tax credit of $1,350 can be claimed when filing 2009 tax returns.

- Canada’s ecoENERGY Retrofit allows homeowners to get an energy evaluation and receive a grant for recommended energy-efficiency improvements. The average grant is expected to be more than $1,000, with upgrades expected to result in a 30-per-cent reduction in energy use and costs.

- Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation offers a 10-per-cent loan insurance refund for home purchase and construction, when a house meets energy rating requirements.

- Certain home renovation and solar-energy materials are exempt from B.C.’s PST, such as insulation materials, storm windows, storm doors, weather stripping, caulking material, window insulating systems.

- Under the Sunshine Coast Bathroom Fixture Replacement Program, eligible residents can receive a free dual-flush toilet and flow-reduction faucets when they remove two large toilets from their house. Value is up to $500.

- City of Vancouver residents can purchase a backyard composter for half-price, at $25.

© Copyright (c) The Province

Just when is right time to buy a house?

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Scott Hannah
Province

Q: Mortgage rates are still low and house prices keep going up. Is now the time to buy? And is it better to buy as big as you can?

A: It’s best to determine how much house you can afford and if it fits your lifestyle before buying a home. Many home buyers don’t fully realize how much it costs to buy and pay for a home. You have to consider all of your costs up front (such as moving, taxes and legal fees), plus the ongoing costs, and the impact these extra expenses will have on your lifestyle.

Identifying all of the up-front expenses will help you determine the true purchase price of a home and your mortgage payment. Making a list of all the monthly costs of home ownership, including mortgage, property taxes, strata fees, insurance and utilities, will help you determine how much house fits your budget and lifestyle. Include additional expenses such as new furniture and renovations in your overall costs.

For most people, it comes down to setting priorities and making choices. Buying a detached home may mean a longer commute and higher transportation costs than an attached home in the city. You also have to consider any existing obligations and the stability of future employment.

One way to help you determine whether now is the time to buy is to set aside the difference between your current monthly housing expenses and the estimated amount it would cost if you were in your own home. Put the money in a separate account for three to six months. You will gain valuable insight about the monthly costs of owning a home and can make a more informed decision about whether to buy. And the money you saved can help with your down payment, renovations, furniture or other purchase costs.

Delaying the decision for a few months in order to find a home that is the right size — and price — for you will mean fewer sleepless nights ahead.

Scott Hannah is the president and CEO of the B.C.-based Credit Counselling Society. For more information about managing your money, check www.nomoredebts.org or call 604-527-8999.

© Copyright (c) The Province

Suites at District – 299 E. 7th Ave., Vancouver – priced below comparable resale properties

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Trendy, arty and the price is right

Lena Sin
Province

The development is comprised of two new condo buildings and a restored heritage building. __SUBMITTED PHOTO

Buyers have walnut or oak hardwood floors for the entry, kitchen, living and dining rooms. The high ceilings and big windows give the suites a bright, airy feel. Photograph by: Les Bazso, The Province

The kitchens feature solid stone counters and stainless steel Kitchen Aid Architect II appliances. Photograph by: Les Bazso, The Province

The Facts

What: District South Main, 103 condos in the first building. (A second building, to be released at a later date, will have 148 units.)

Where: 299 E. 7th Ave., Vancouver

Developer: Amacon

Sizes: Studio, 425 sq. ft.; one bedrooms from 544 to 616 sq. ft.; one bedroom and den from 611 to 737 sq. ft.; two bedrooms from 763 to 978 sq. ft.; two bedrooms plus den at 882 sq. ft.; and one bedroom lofts from 686 to 885 sq. ft.

Prices: Studios starting at $223,900; one bedrooms from $279,900; one bedroom plus den starting at $309,900; two bedrooms starting at $384,900; two bedroom plus den starting at $444,900; and one bedroom lofts starting at $329,900.

Open: Show suite open daily from noon to 6 p.m. at 299 E. 7th Ave. Sales start Oct. 3.

More info: www.southmaindistrict.com

It’s clear Amacon did its homework before marketing its latest condo development in Mount Pleasant, one of Vancouver’s oldest and most creative enclaves: The show suites are furnished with art by local artists, the brochure was produced by a design firm in the ‘hood and floor plans were designed with artists in mind.

But at the end of the day, it’s price that drives sales and this is likely the biggest reason why District South Main is poised to attract buyers: Amacon says its suites are priced below comparable resale properties

“We competitively priced it. We knew that we had to be realistic,” said Nic Jensen, sales manager for District. “We’re back to pricing pre-construction homes lower than resales. That’s very reassuring; it gives the buyer confidence that there’s something being left on the table for them. And that’s how it was when everyone was buying five or six years ago.”

Prices start at $223,900 for a studio of 425 sq. ft., while one bedrooms between 544 sq. ft. to 616 sq. ft. start at $279,900. Two bedrooms, from 763 sq. ft. to 978 sq. ft., start at $384,900 — which Jensen notes is comparable to a one bedroom in Yaletown.

It’s for this reason that the preview has been drawing prospective buyers from downtown, the suburbs and, of course, the local Main Street neighbourhood.

“The building and location itself is very trendy. There’s definitely pent-up demand to live in the area,” says Jensen.

Located at 299 E. 7th Avenue, just half a block off Main Street, the development is comprised of two new condo buildings plus a restored heritage building that will be turned into commercial space.

In designing District, Amacon was cognizant that it was building in a neighbourhood with a strong sense of community that values both creativity and authenticity.

As such, the restored heritage building, which once housed beer, supplies and horses for the nearby Brewery Creek, will see half its commercial space allocated to artists, be it a dance studio or art gallery. Amacon has yet to determine who will be moving into the other half.

Amacon is currently marketing the condos in the 10-storey south building, with 103 units. The second building will be nine storeys with 148 condos. There is no release date on the second phase yet.

Building on the success of its Beasley development downtown, whee Amacon slashed prices by a minimum of 22 per cent in the spring in order to push sales, they’ve similarly kept prices down at District by negotiating lower costs on the construction side.

And in partnership with radio station Rock 101, Amacon is giving away a 630-sq.-ft. condo, as well as a $15,000 Harley Davidson, a Fuego barbeque and iMac computer package. Two hundred keys will be given out and on Nov. 6, a draw will be held and the winner announced on Rock 101.

Completion for the first building is slated for July 2012. The preview is on now with sales starting Oct. 3.

© Copyright (c) The Province

Strata must act if owner doesn’t pay fees

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Strata has a duty to collect the funds in order to protect other owners

Tony Gioventu
Province

Dear Condo Smarts: Three owners in our strata have not made payments on a special levy that was due at the end of February this year. They each owe roughly $9,000, and our suites currently sell for around $325,000.

Our property-management company has placed a lien against the strata lots, but has advised us not to proceed with a court-ordered sale as we are told the judge would be very unlikely to force a sale.

Part of the problem is our manager is afraid of one of the owners.

If we can’t go to court, how do we get money from these owners?

– N.B., Surrey

Dear N.B.: If a strata lot owner has not paid his strata fees or special levies, the Strata Property Act gives you substantial authority to protect the strata interests, and also to ensure those funds are collected.

Take this chronologically. On Feb. 28, the special levy was due. Those units that missed that deadline should then receive a demand notice advising if they do not pay the amount within 14 days, the strata corporation will be entitled to file a lien against a strata lot.

Once that period has expired, the strata council then needs to decide when a lien will be filed, if the owner is not co-operative in providing payment. The lien provision is there to ensure the strata corporation can collect the money, and it takes a priority over other items such as personal debts and mortgages.

The cost of filing the lien is also included in the lien amount the person owes.

If, at that time, the owner is not co-operative, the next step is to proceed with a court application for a forced sale of an owner’s strata lot.

Depending on a number of conditions, and with the advice of legal counsel at this point, you will decide on what the appropriate time and amount are for proceeding to the application for sale.

According to Stephen Hamilton, a lawyer in Vancouver, “Most strata corporations would consider proceeding to court for the application when the amounts reach $2,000 to $5,000, or a long period of time has passed for the amount owing.

“While most of the costs are recovered, the strata corporation does have some cost associated with court fees that may not always be recovered.”

Don’t wait for the owner to go into bankruptcy or, worse yet, lose their asset because of proceeds of crime, tax evasion or long-unpaid family maintenance requirements.

In such a case, your strata corporation might not be at the front of the queue to get paid what it is owed.

The strata corporation must enforce the bylaws and has a duty to collect the funds.

It is reasonable to take the necessary steps to protect the interest of the other owners who have paid their assessments and are shouldering the costs.

Tony Gioventu is executive director of the Condominium Home Owners’ Association. Send questions to him at [email protected]

© Copyright (c) The Province

New life for an old building

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Owner Bob Rennie donates its use to Games’ athletes

Clare Ogilvie
Province

Developer Bob Rennie and the World Olympian Association’s Charmaine Crooks celebrate on the roof of the Wing Sang. Photograph by: Jon Murray, The Province

The 120-year-old Wing Sang building in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown has a long history of welcoming people who needed a place to call home until they found their feet in Canada.

So it is fitting that its owner, condo-king Bob Rennie, has donated the newly renovated heritage building as a home-away-from-home for any Olympians and Paralympians visiting B.C. for the 2010 Games.

“I learned [that] past world Olympians needed a home and to me, that just sounded like a really nice, simple use for our business and for our area,” said Rennie, who plans to move his office and art-collection gallery to the location soon.

“If it is about diversity . . . the building speaks to that, the area speaks to that and the Olympics certainly speaks to that.”

Rennie is also keen to bring the Games experience to the Downtown Eastside.

“I want the Downtown Eastside to be part of the Olympics,” he said.

Rennie had offered the Wing Sang for use as Canada House, but when a sponsor had issues with it, the deal soured.

So when Charmaine Crooks, the vice-president of both the international World Olympian Association and of Canada’s chapter, asked if Rennie could offer up the building for WOA, it all came together.

“The great thing that I love about this centre is that we have someone in the community who has donated to us,” said Crooks, who won silver for Canada in athletics at the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

“Like many others, we rely on the kindness of our community partners, and in Bob Rennie we have found someone who really believes in what we are doing.”

There are 100,000 known living Olympians in the world — 3,000 of them in Canada.

At each Games since 1992, there has been a hospitality house offered, where they can meet and reconnect and work on programs related to Olympic legacies.

“The hospitality centre will be alive with passion,” said Crooks.

“It will be alive with memories and it is a great way for sponsors and the community to really connect with the Olympians.”

Crooks plans to run outreach programs to the community, youth and others through 2010 partners, such as the Vancouver Organizing Committee and various levels of governments.

Already, 50 Canadian Olympians have signed up to volunteer at the centre. There will also be an international forum on sport tourism as a catalyst for development.

“If we can use some of the programs that we do through the centre to give back to the community, then we will have something that really resonates with the Olympic values, and that’s what spirit of the Games is all about,” said Crooks.

“We are doing it because it is the right thing to do.”

© Copyright (c) The Province

Forced green renos could make living in Vancouver more expensive

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Plan put to council could add to soaring costs for Vancouver homeowners

Lena Sin
Province

Forcing Vancouver homeowners to do green upgrades as a condition of getting a home-renovation permit could backfire, critics caution.

The idea was brought forward to city council Tuesday as a “priority action” by the Greenest City Action Team.

“Requiring efficiency upgrades as a permit condition for renovations” was one of six priority recommendations the team wants council to adopt in a bid to make Vancouver more environmentally friendly.

But critics warn that forced green upgrades could making living in Vancouver more expensive — at a time when housing and property taxes are already soaring.

“Trying to force people to add unaffordable upgrades to their homes could backfire. At a time when property taxes are skyrocketing, the last thing the City of Vancouver should be doing is making home ownership even less affordable,” said Maureen Bader of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The specifics of how the proposal would work — and what the associated costs would be — are still unclear, since city staff is just beginning to look at the issue.

The proposal, which would amend the existing building bylaw, will target single-family homes and duplexes.

David Ramslie, the city’s sustainable-development program manager, said generally the required efficiency upgrades will be tied to the nature of the renovation and will be as affordable as possible.

The city is aiming to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 30 per cent by 2020, so energy-efficiency upgrades on heating and hot-water systems will be key areas targeted, Ramslie said.

Water conservation will also be a guiding principle. For example, a condition of issuing a permit for a bathroom renovation may be installation of a low-flow toilet, he said.

“Our key priority is to start with modest requirements that will not only help us combat against climate change, but will be very affordable — and in the long term pay for themselves in a very short order,” Ramslie said.

City staff will now compile a list of renovations and associated green upgrades that will be required as a condition of getting a permit.

Peter Simpson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association, said the proposed bylaw amendment must not make renovations unaffordable, since that could drive homeowners to work with underground contractors in a bid to avoid getting permits.

“If they make it too prescriptive, people will go to the underground industry,” said Simpson.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton echoed similar concerns, saying a bylaw amendment must not deter people from doing renovations or, alternatively, drive homeowners to do renovations without permits.

“I wouldn’t just say an outright no, that it’s a bad idea, but I think the city would have to proceed extremely cautiously,” said Anton.

The action team is a volunteer group put together by Mayor Gregor Robertson, whose election platform included making Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020. Its mandate is to recommend measures to improve the city’s environmental performance.

A stakeholder meeting with contractors and renovators will be held Oct. 7, followed by public consultations. A staff report is not expected to be submitted to city council until the end of the year.

© Copyright (c) The Province

Forced green renos could make living in Vancouver more expensive

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Plan put to council could add to soaring costs for Vancouver homeowners

Lena Sin
Province

Forcing Vancouver homeowners to do green upgrades as a condition of getting a home-renovation permit could backfire, critics caution.

The idea was brought forward to city council Tuesday as a “priority action” by the Greenest City Action Team.

“Requiring efficiency upgrades as a permit condition for renovations” was one of six priority recommendations the team wants council to adopt in a bid to make Vancouver more environmentally friendly.

But critics warn that forced green upgrades could making living in Vancouver more expensive — at a time when housing and property taxes are already soaring.

“Trying to force people to add unaffordable upgrades to their homes could backfire. At a time when property taxes are skyrocketing, the last thing the City of Vancouver should be doing is making home ownership even less affordable,” said Maureen Bader of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The specifics of how the proposal would work — and what the associated costs would be — are still unclear, since city staff is just beginning to look at the issue.

The proposal, which would amend the existing building bylaw, will target single-family homes and duplexes.

David Ramslie, the city’s sustainable-development program manager, said generally the required efficiency upgrades will be tied to the nature of the renovation and will be as affordable as possible.

The city is aiming to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 30 per cent by 2020, so energy-efficiency upgrades on heating and hot-water systems will be key areas targeted, Ramslie said.

Water conservation will also be a guiding principle. For example, a condition of issuing a permit for a bathroom renovation may be installation of a low-flow toilet, he said.

“Our key priority is to start with modest requirements that will not only help us combat against climate change, but will be very affordable — and in the long term pay for themselves in a very short order,” Ramslie said.

City staff will now compile a list of renovations and associated green upgrades that will be required as a condition of getting a permit.

Peter Simpson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association, said the proposed bylaw amendment must not make renovations unaffordable, since that could drive homeowners to work with underground contractors in a bid to avoid getting permits.

“If they make it too prescriptive, people will go to the underground industry,” said Simpson.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton echoed similar concerns, saying a bylaw amendment must not deter people from doing renovations or, alternatively, drive homeowners to do renovations without permits.

“I wouldn’t just say an outright no, that it’s a bad idea, but I think the city would have to proceed extremely cautiously,” said Anton.

The action team is a volunteer group put together by Mayor Gregor Robertson, whose election platform included making Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020. Its mandate is to recommend measures to improve the city’s environmental performance.

A stakeholder meeting with contractors and renovators will be held Oct. 7, followed by public consultations. A staff report is not expected to be submitted to city council until the end of the year.

© Copyright (c) The Province

A transformed Poland welcomes the future

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

The country has shaken off the devastation of the Second World War and 40 years of communist rule with an economic and cultural boom

Laura Locke
Sun

Warsaw’s old town was rebuilt after being obliterated in the Second World War.

“Why are you going to Poland?”

We were asked this question every time my husband and I mentioned our summer travel plans. We armed ourselves with various explanations:

“We’re checking out my husband’s ancestral roots.”

“We want to see first hand what our Polish-Canadian friends are always raving about.”

“We want a European adventure a little out of the ordinary.”

Now that we’re home after three weeks of rambling around Poland with our teenage son, we know you don’t need any excuse to pay a visit to this beautiful and friendly country, in the midst of sweeping transformation.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the elections that ended more than 40 years of communist rule in Poland. The country has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, and this new reality was a popular topic of discussion with locals during our travels.

Two developments mentioned frequently were the proliferation of consumer goods and the increased opportunities to work and study abroad. Poland became a full member of the European Union in 2004, and is expected to switch its currency to the euro by 2012.

One of the many pleasant surprises we encountered were the low prices. Our accommodations in Poland were about a third of the cost we’ve paid in London, Paris or Rome. Excellent, inexpensive restaurants are everywhere, and even cheaper fare can be found at small cafés and “milk bars,” which offer classic Polish dishes at shoestring prices to students and budget-minded souls like us.

In the tourist areas of Poland’s two main cities, Warsaw and Krakow, English is commonly heard. When we got off the beaten track, however, communication became a little more challenging, and our guidebook with basic

Polish phrases became well thumbed. Happily, our rather pitiable language skills were always rewarded with appreciative grins. Travel tip: when you need help with translation, seek out a teenager, most of who seem to be proficient in English.

Warsaw, Poland‘s capital city, is a testament to its citizens’ perseverance and courage. Much of the city laid in ruin after the Second World War. Its rebuilding efforts are a feat worthy of the world’s admiration. It now boasts a lively cultural scene, filled with concerts, festivals and theatrical productions. A cheap entertainment option is to head to the Old Town Square, lined with tall townhouses rebuilt with fine Renaissance and Gothic elements. Renting an apartment in Warsaw’s Old Town meant we could enjoy the talents of street entertainers, while popping into the many art galleries, antique shops and cafés that line the streets.

Other highlights of Warsaw include the regal splendour of the Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace, beautiful Lazienki Park, and the Warsaw Rising Museum, a moving, state-of-the-art tribute to the city’s residents who died during the war with a focus on the tragic Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Interesting side trips in the area include Kazimierz Dolny, a picturesque village on the banks of the Vistula River. Taking a bus through the countryside, we enjoyed a peaceful three days there, staying at a local convent. On the other side of Warsaw, three hours by train, lies the small city of Torun. Most famous as the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, its medieval quarter possesses enough superb Gothic architecture to make it onto “must-see” lists. We also visited idyllic Wroclaw, with its 12 islands and countless bridges, often called the “Venice of Poland.”

The country’s second largest city, Krakow, is undoubtedly one of Poland’s — and the world’s — treasures. Left largely unscathed by the Second World War, its central Old Town is crammed with cathedrals, restaurants, museums, cobbled streets and charm. Krakow lays claim to the largest medieval town square in Europe, a magical, vibrant focal point of the city.

Overlooking the square is the imposing Church of St. Mary, known to Poles as the Mariacki. The breathtaking high altar is often acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest examples of Gothic art (Picasso called it the eighth wonder of the world). Wawel Castle and Cathedral, a short walk from the Town Square, are other Krakow gems.

It’s easy to hop on tourist buses to explore some interesting spots around Krakow, such as the fascinating salt mines of Wieliczka. Tour guides take visitors through a labyrinth of tunnels featuring huge chambers, statues, chapels and chandeliers, all hand-carved out of salt. Outings to nearby Wadowice, birthplace of pope John Paul II, and Czestochowa, site of the Jasna Gora Monastery and its revered Black Madonna, give spiritual insights into this very Catholic nation.

Forty kilometres west of Krakow lies Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. It has been preserved as a sombre memorial to the more than one million people who died there.

Poland‘s story is a roller-coaster tale, from its “golden age” in the 1500s to its disappearance as a political entity a few centuries later. Despite having to defend their freedom on many occasions from aggressive invaders, the spirited Polish people and their culture have endured. The vestiges of Poland’s communist era, however, remain visible in many places. Fortunately, the peeling, grey apartment blocks and neglected infrastructure are finally getting the attention they have needed for decades.

Now, as Poland rushes into the 21st century, its challenge is to retain the faith and traditions that helped it survive. We look ahead to Poland’s future with great optimism, curiosity and affection.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Small-ship cruising brings its special charms

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Phil Reimer
Sun

The Spirit of Oceanus departs on a 335-day cruise in March. You can take the full trip if you have $250,000 to spare, or you can purchase one of the 24 segments.

If you counted the passengers on all 10 ships in the Cruise West fleet then doubled that number, you still wouldn’t reach the entire 2,100-passenger capacity of Holland America’s Eurodam.

That observation alone will tell you that you if you travel with Cruise West you won’t have to worry about having to save a lounger by the pool, find a good seat in the theatre or follow five cruise buses all going on the same tour.

That is what small ship cruising is all about. It is an intimate experience and Cruise West would like to keep it that way.

The largest ship in their fleet is the European river cruiser Amadeus Diamond. It carries 140 passengers. The Spirit of Alaska and the Spirit of Columbia are the smallest with only 78 passengers each.

Cruise West was founded by Chuck West, an Alaskan original who started in the north with West Tours. He later sold that company to Holland America and went on to create Cruise West. Chuck’s son Dick West now serves as chairman and managing director of the cruise line. He operates it from Seattle with Dietmar Wertanzl, the president and CEO who arrived at the company via Celebrity and Crystal cruise lines.

Being a small ship cruise line does not mean Cruise West lacks destinations to offer its customers. Next year, they will cruise in Antarctica, the Galapagos, the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, British Columbia, Alaska, the Panama Canal, Costa Rica and other places. For the first time, they will be offering a round-the-world cruise.

Their flagship, the 120-passenger Spirit of Oceanus will leave on a 335-day cruise from Singapore next March following the routes of great explorers like Magellan, Marco Polo, and Cook. You can book the entire journey for more than $250,000 or purchase any one of the 24 cruise segments.

Linda Garrison of website cruises.about.com advises that if you are going to cruise with this line, you better get along well with other people.

“Everything is in front of you, and if someone spots a whale on one side, a quick shout and everyone is immediately in the picture. It’s like a soft adventure every day what with the experts and naturalists onboard making it authentic and personal,” she said.

Cruise West keeps it simple, according to CEO Wertanzl. “We have one [meal] seating, at 7:30 p.m. each evening, and then most head to the lounge, to talk, listen to experts on the region and just generally mingle,” he said.

“We have a lot of repeat business so new destinations are important to us,” added Wertanzl. “We also want to expand our customer base which leans to Boomer plus.”

So if he could design a new Cruise West small ship what could we expect?

“I would design one that would carry no more than 150 passengers,” said Wertanzl. “I would make the cabins bigger, more balconies, more deck space, library, amenities such as a small gym or spa, a promenade deck and more space per person.”

Cruise West is considering the U.K., Australia and Asia as future destinations. For a list of all their cruises and more information, check out cruisewest.com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun