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Infill balcony housing — an adaptive reuse proposal

Balconies are a never ending debate here in Toronto (and in many other places). In some cities, like New York, they don’t seem to matter for new housing. Residents seem to be generally content without them. But here in Toronto, we have typically included them in new high-rise housing and there has been a lot of debate and criticism around both their utility (high up in buildings) and their impact to overall energy performance.

I have noticed that we are starting to see fewer balconies on new buildings, and I suspect this might increase with the way that costs are right now. And for some people and some (sub)markets, this will be just fine. But I happen to be a huge fan of outside. As my tanned dad likes to say when asked about the value of outdoor spaces in multi-family housing, “you don’t get this dark by staying inside.” He is pretty tanned.

I also believe that great outdoor spaces are an important ingredient in shaking off the deep-rooted cultural biases that this city has toward low-rise housing. Since pretty much the beginning, low-rises houses with backyards have been seen as noble, whereas apartment buildings have been viewed as disease-breeding tenements liable to morally corrupt even the best of intentions.

This is one of the reasons why we created the two-storey House Collection of suites at Junction House and why One Delisle is almost entirely formed by its outdoor spaces (both balconies and terraces). We wanted to celebrate multi-family living.

At the same time, I really like this adaptive reuse proposal by Peter Song over at BDP Quadrangle. The idea is to allow people to infill their balconies with more interior space so that our existing stock of housing can become more flexible for growing families and for when people’s lives just generally change.

The balcony offers extra space for children to play, and parents to work. ©Peter Song

It would be a great way to capture additional space within our existing stock of buildings, and I think it would be pretty interesting to see what people ultimately choose when given a binary option: more interior space or more outdoor space. Maybe it would help provide some clarity to the great balcony debate.

Technically, it is my understanding that this is entirely doable.

In the middle of writing this post I shot an email over to one of the best structural engineers in the city (James Cranford, Principal at Stephenson Engineering), and he confirmed that strength is no problem. Typically balconies are designed to accommodate more load than the suites. The thing we’d have to look at is slab deflection, since this is not usually limited on balconies.

The greater challenge is likely to be the overall coordination.

In some cities this sort of thing happens all the time on an ad hoc basis. People just do it and the end result is likely more functional, but the building elevations end up looking pretty schizophrenic. Here you’d need each condominium corporation to bless the change (since the envelope is a common element). And people would also need to agree on what design(s) should be used across the building.

It would require some work, but I think Peter’s idea is a really good one. What do you think?

3 Comments

  1. I used to live in a NYC apt. with the option to enclose an outdoor balcony. Some people took that option, which was like a greenhouse with glass upper walls above the balcony wall.
    The problem was heating and electricity, of which there was none because who needs that on a balcony?
    The concrete slab was not ideal for a spare bedroom either, but that at least could be covered up with flooring or a carpet. But it could get mighty cold in an unheated “greenhouse” in the winter.

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  2. Andre D'Elia

    Hey Brandon, Interesting concept. I have seen balcony infills in countries with temperate climates. Not to be too much of a downer, it would be more challenging to do this in Toronto. Some things to consider – waterproofing, and insulation, heating/cooling, and mech exhaust/intake.
    Waterproofing and insulation:The balcony above would need to be waterproofed and insulated, which means the neighbour above needs to agree to convert his/her balcony to a terrace. This means rebuilding that units exterior facade if glazing goes down to the balcony slab. The balcony floor of the unit being converted also needs to be insulated. This would most likely from the inside, which create a step up in the unit. Also need to consider your neighbours on either side of balcony if it is a continuous strip balcony. You will need exterior walls here. Side exterior walls won’t be necessary if it’s an inset balcony.
    Heating/cooling: the new enclosed space will need to be conditioned. The existing mechanical system would need to be looked at to make sure it can accommodate the additional area. Duct distribution would need to extend out to the new perimeter. Not a big deal if the unit mech system layout allows for some easy rework. Most MURB duct layouts are not designed with the possibility of easy modifications (maybe they should).
    Exhaust/intake: this is done typically through louvre above the glazing tight to the ceiling. This would need to extend out to the new exterior. May not be too big a deal but something to resolve nonetheless.
    My thoughts on what construction considerations need to be made. I won’t get into the approvals process, which could be interesting – condo board, neighbours, building permits, possibly CoA. I would recommend they hire a good architect 😉

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  3. Benjamin Gianni

    Interesting idea but there are a lot of waterproofing, thermal bridging and insulation issues associated with capturing balcony space in our climate. it would definitely have to be something planned into the design of the building. A balcony is a different animal when it is a roof, and a warm space over a cold one (i.e., an un-enclosed balcony below) poses challenges. It would be easier if the captured spaces were not conditioned, but they would limit how and when they are used.

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