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A midrise on top of a warehouse

The Fenix Lofts & Docks in Rotterdam’s Rijnhaven port district is a cool example of adaptive reuse. The base (or podium) is a warehouse that was built in 1922. It has a concrete structure. On top of it, a new 9 storey apartment building (also concrete) is supported using a steel table and frame that goes through the existing warehouse.

Here is a photo from inside the warehouse:

Parking is accommodated above grade within a portion of the existing warehouse. You don’t want to go underground here. This is certainly not the most cost effective way of building new housing, but it is a solution that could work in some situations. If any of you have a site or are looking at a site with an existing building worth preserving, this might be an option to consider.

Architecture by Mei Architects. Photos by Marc Goodwin. For more information, check out Dezeen.

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Jason Statham’s home is on the market for $6.995 million

I keep coming across actor Jason Statham’s homes (or former homes) in design publications. At the beginning of this year, he and model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley sold their Malibu beach house for $18.5 million. It was beautiful. And last month, he listed a home — he seems to have many — near LA’s Sunset Strip for $6.995m. (Pictured above.) A renovation of an existing 1957 house, Statham purchased the house in 2015 for $2.7mm and completed a meticulous renovation with Standard Architecture. Look at that roofline! For those of you in the market, here’s the listing.

Photo: ©Benny Chan | fotoworks

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Mapping spring breakers

The following video was published last week showing the “secondary locations of anonymized mobile devices that were active at a single Ft. Lauderdale beach during spring break.” Said differently, the company used anonymized mobile phone data to see where spring breakers went after they left the beach. This was in order to better understand how they may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19. If you can’t see the video below, click here.

The video is astonishing for two reasons. One, it shows you the extreme reach of just one beach in South Florida. Imagine if they had analyzed all of the beaches up and down the coast. And two, a lot of you are probably freaked out that this sort of mobile phone data is available to private companies. If you’d like to learn more about how this all works, check out this opinion piece from the New York Times.

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Beer over water and the contributions of John Snow

The work of John Snow is instrumental to the field of epidemiology. In the mid-19th century, during what was the third major outbreak of cholera, he created the following map showing the clusters of cholera cases in London’s Soho neighborhood. Stacked rectangles were used to indicate the number of cholera cases in a particular location. This was a major breakthrough for the fight against cholera because, at the time, it wasn’t clear what was causing it. According to Wikipedia, there were two main competing theories. There was the miasma theory, which posited that cholera was caused by bad particles in the air. And there was the germ theory, which posited that cholera could be passed along through food and/or water.

By mapping the clusters of cases, Snow discovered a concentration of incidents in around the intersection of Broad Street and Cambridge Street (now Lexington Street) where a water pump was located that drew water from the Thames. This led Snow to the conclusion that it was maybe a bad idea to offer up polluted river water as drinking water. And sure enough, when the pump was shut off and residents were directed to other nearby pumps, the incidences of cholera began to decline. The germ theory had proven to be true.

The first time I saw John Snow’s map was in architecture school. Perhaps many of you have seen it as well. It is often used to illustrate the potential of visual representations to not only tell a story, but to teach the creator what that story actually is. In hindsight, it may seem obvious that polluted river water is something that we maybe shouldn’t drink, but it wasn’t at the time. This map helped people understand that. Today, we have far more sophisticated tools available to us, but we still have a lot to learn and we’re doing that every day — particularly during a pandemic.

One other thing worth mentioning is that there are a few exceptions to Snow’s findings. Supposedly, many of the workers in a nearby brewery were able to completely avoid the cholera infection during the outbreak by only drinking their own brew. Some say it is because the brewery had its own water source, whereas others say it is because the brewing process — the water is boiled — kills the cholera bacteria. Either way, I think the moral of this story is pretty clear: when in doubt, choose beer over water.

Map: Wikipedia

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COVID-19 in the developing world

One of the things that Bill Gates mentions in his recent TED talk about the coronavirus is that we need to be aware of what might be coming in developing countries, particularly in the southern hemisphere with winter about to arrive. (There’s some evidence of a relationship with temperature.)

So far, countries like Brazil have been criticized for taking a laid-back approach to fighting the coronavirus. But the same could be said for many, or perhaps most, countries around the world at the outset.

However, in the case of densely populated slums — like Brazil’s favelas — the problem is expected to be more severe. Without the ability to socially isolate and without proper services, it is questionable whether they will be able to “flatten the curve” in the same way that some developed countries have. There’s also a lack of government oversight in these communities.

Incidentally, the Financial Times is reporting that organized crime has started to step in to fill this void — and it is happening over WhatsApp. Here is an excerpt from the above article: “Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organised crime resolves,” read one message sent to residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum.

One hope is that rich countries will be largely through their outbreaks by the summer and that a vaccine will be well on its way.

(On a related note, here is an excellent slide deck from the London Business School on the economics of this pandemic. It’s very comprehensive and worth a read.)

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Internet traffic is up 36% in Toronto

Most of us are using the internet and our phones a lot more these days. According to Cloudflare — who recently published these stats on how the pandemic has impacted internet usage — traffic is up about 36% in Toronto between early January and late March 2020. Here is a heatmap of the city:

Similar maps are available for other major cities across the world. The red areas are places where internet traffic has declined and the green areas are where internet traffic has increased. Looking at Toronto, you can see that usage in the financial core of the city has, not surprisingly, declined. This makes sense. Most people are now at home using the internet there.

It would be interesting to see some sort of split between residential and commercial usage, because my mind is associating these red areas with businesses. And when you do that, some cities, like Toronto and New York, appear very monocentric; whereas others, like Berlin, appear far more polycentric.

The other thing Cloudfare looked at was internet activity by category (as of March 2020). What is also not surprising is that kids content is way up, and leads by a wide margin. For you real estate folks, you should also note that apartment searches seem to be down and are not far off from air travel. Now would be a suboptimal time to move.

Much of this probably won’t surprise you, but it is revealing nonetheless.

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How to respond to the coronavirus

I just finished watching this TED talk with Bill Gates. For those of you who are up on their TED talks, this is not the one from five years ago where Bill predicted a pandemic and told us all that we were nowhere near ready. (We, of course, didn’t listen.) This is one that was published a few days ago and talks about how we should be responding to the outbreak that we are currently living through. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been committing significant resources toward solving problems exactly like this one. So it’s interesting to hear his thoughts. In case you’re wondering, herd immunity isn’t the answer. We need (1) widespread testing and (2) to be extremely disciplined about our social distancing. In his words: “But money, you know bringing the economy back and doing money, that’s more of a reversible thing than bringing people back to life.”

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The Ontario Association of Architects recently announced its short-list of projects for their annual Design Excellence Award. (If you aren’t familiar with the OAA, here’s a bit of background.) There are so many excellent projects on their 2020 short-list, that I would encourage you to check them all out.

However, as a developer, it is my duty to shamelessly plug the architects that we are working with. superkül, the firm behind Junction House, was short-listed for two projects — both of which are custom homes. One of them is in Toronto and the other is in Singhampton, Ontario, which is just south of Collingwood and the Georgian Bay.

The second home — called Woodhouse — is located on a 90-acre site. And I love everything about it. I love the “breezeway” that separates the living areas from the more private sleeping areas, and I love how they incorporated an existing 19th century log cabin into the build.

Here are a few photos:

Photos by Alex Fradkin and Kayla Rocca

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9 square meters

Before bed last night, I was was reading about a Tokyo-based real estate company called Spilytus. They have an apartment brand called Ququri (pronounced ku-ku-ri) that specializes in tiny apartments, which I suppose isn’t all that novel for Japan.

Since the brand was launched in 2014, they have developed over 70 buildings and now manage about 1,200 micro apartments across the central wards of Tokyo (~17 units per project if you do the math). We are talking about apartments in the range of 9 square meters (plus sleeping loft) for somewhere around ¥75,000 per month.

Not surprisingly, their projects seem to lease up right away. And supposedly there’s a long wait list for future projects. People are clearly looking for affordable housing in the neighborhoods in which they want to live. It’s about lifestyle and location, and living a large portion of your life within the public domain.

This housing typology isn’t for everyone. But it’s great for some people. And I have no doubt that demand for it will only continue to grow in big global cities. However, for what we are all going through right now, I can imagine that it would be nice to have a bit more than 9 square meters to roam around in.

Image: Spilytus

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What they don't teach you in architecture school

When you go to architecture school, you are indoctrinated to appreciate certain projects, buildings, and houses. One of those pieces of architecture, at least for my generation, is the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, by Mies van der Rohe.

Completed in 1951 for Dr. Edith Farnsworth (a nephrologist), the house is one of the most celebrated midcentury modern houses in the United States. Today, the former weekend retreat is a museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Information on how to visit can be found, here.)

But what they don’t teach you in architecture school is that the house never really worked all that well as, you know, an actual house. And that the client and architect ended up embroiled in legal battles toward the end of construction.

This is part of the story that is told in Alex Beam’s new book, Broken Glass, which was recently reviewed by Witold Rybczynski in the Wall Street Journal. Now, Witold isn’t a fan of modern architecture to begin with and so the Farnsworth House never stood a chance:

Despite the purposeful appearance of his architecture, Mies was not particularly interested in practical matters. The travertine on the terrace weathered badly, and a poorly designed heating system left sooty stains on the windows. The glass walls resulted in spectacular heating bills in the winter and hothouse temperatures in the summer—there were only two small openable windows. Then there was the problem of condensation on the glass in cold weather. “You feel as though you are in a car in the rain with a windshield wiper that doesn’t work,” Farnsworth complained. A film about the genesis of her house, starring Elizabeth Debicki and Ralph Fiennes, is currently in the works. It will be interesting to see if it will show the doctor squeegeeing her foggy windows.

On his blog, Witold calls Mies an aesthete. Appearance was everything. My personal view is that it’s generally good practice to design houses so that they function properly. But icons are icons and the Farnsworth House is certainly an icon. Maybe we should just call it a prototype.

Image: Farnsworth House (National Trust for Historic Preservation)