comments 12

Affordable vs. beautiful

If you had to pick one, would you say that it’s more important for new housing to be affordable or to be beautiful? Many of you are probably thinking that it should be both. And while it is true that good and thoughtful design doesn’t always need to be more expensive, nice things do often cost money. And sometimes, doing as little as humanly possible costs even more money.

Let’s consider two development scenarios. In scenario A, the developer has well-oiled machine that delivers relatively affordable, but identical rental housing all across the country. The buildings are functional and there’s virtually no vacancy, but the architecture is undoubtedly bland and it certainly doesn’t respond to its local context. Standardization and efficiency trumps all, including aesthetics.

In scenario B, the developer is similarly building new rental housing, but she instead invests heavily in custom designs. Each building is unique. And each building goes through a “design review panel”, after which extensive changes are made in order to ensure that the design is truly beautiful and that it responds to its local context. As a result, there is a real price premium to these homes.

These are perhaps extreme examples. Usually, the goal is some sort of balance between affordability and beauty. But I do think it speaks to some of the tensions that our industry faces. So if you had to choose one, which one would it be? What kind of new homes do our cities really need more of? And if your answer is scenario B, does it change after a certain premium?


  1. David Supple

    rather than a balance it could be looked at as an ideal. those tasked with the creation must strive for the highest level possible of both to have a realized project. the risk is an ugly building that does not last because it is not admired or a unfeasible project due to physical universe constraints of time and money. it takes skill and a broad range of knowledge. the educational segregation of our institutions, emulated by our industry, is against us on this.


  2. Marc Lafleur

    I am not a developer, architect or anything involved in the industry and so truly don’t understand the in-and-outs of these decisions. However, from a laymen’s POV, I think setting these up as a binary that sit in tension with one another sets up an unnecessary zero-sum game; creativity need not be limited to how the building looks but needs to also address functionality, sustainability. We see affordable housing in Europe that can be called beautiful. That said, even in your example, the process is not without external elements that interfere – DRP for example, no matter how well-intentioned it is, it is another step that adds time and money to a development process I presume. So the issue feels like it needs to be asserted on multiple levels – on a cultural level, we in North America must value and demand beauty and design more than we currently do and on a systems level we must strive to streamline processes to find economic models that can support more holistic forms of value. Easier said than done though.


    • thanks marc. that was my point about the DRP: it adds time/cost. so in a way, we are saying that design/beauty is more important than affordability.

      (though there is a common counter argument out there developers will always charge the most that the market will bear. i don’t agree with this, but it allows some people to not worry about adding additional costs to new housing.)


  3. Myron Nebozuk

    I see this dichotomy differently; all expensive/beautiful construction eventually becomes affordable. The premium tag is temporary because all buildings age out and the features favoured by one generation give way to a new set of features. For this reason, society (and it’s so-called gatekeepers) should encourage developers to build more and more premium housing projects.

    The argument against genuinely affordable housing: Glengarry House at Carleton University. I lived in this dorm for one year in the eighties. Back then, Glengarry House was known as “Canada’s worst university dorm”. No wonder; the building was constructed like a prison. The building clearly said to its residents: “I don’t trust you”. The students returned the favor, each and every day. That is the core problem of most affordable housing: given every design team’s efforts to minimize physical damage (here we have that awful word “resilient” making yet another appearance), residents are inadvertently encouraged to seek out and demonstrate their worst selves.


  4. Jakob P

    I wonder whether there’s a middle ground. In laptops, even though the general form and requirements are similar, you can still tell an Apple MacBook from a Lenovo ThinkPad from an ASUS Zenbook. Each of these brands worked to create a distinct brand identity, and now replicates it across many different models with slight variations and evolutionary changes.

    And I guess in Toronto, we’ve had architects—Alliance buildings labelled as a “style”. Heck, even if you go high-end with Bjarke Ingels Group, you know you’ll always get some sort of stacked blocks with offsets each floor. Where’s the rest of competing architectural “brands”?

    I think the issue with “bland” buildings is not so much that they’re replicating some other designs out there, but rather that *all* designs across *all* developers look alike. Very few people will mind if Toronto gets a handful of Marilyn Monroe towers, a handful of BIG cube-stacks, a handful of AA reflective towers, a handful of One-Delisle-style flower shapes, and a handful of Aura oval-tops. And whatever other styles developers can steal from cities across the world.

    Instead of doing one-offs everywhere, put in some solid effort to make something interesting *and* scalable, then deploy the same stuff over and over and over again. Like Apple with its frickin’ aluminum chassis. It’s the same in many places, but it still looks good. If you’ve got 10-20 different styles, perhaps one for each different developer instead of a single “bland” default for all, cities can still be fun and varied.

    I don’t need architecture for my building to be a globally unique unicorn. I just want to go down the street without the feeling that each one of these buildings is literally the same but with different cladding.

    And you know what, “starchitecture” already follows this concept. See one Gehry building and you’ve seen them all. Sure it’s adapted to the local site, but they all use the same general concept which is one sees from the outside. Steal that principle from architecture firms. Make a brand identity not for the architect, but for the actual developer you work for. Pay great architects, even, to help you develop that brand. But then you own it, and you can scale it up. Architecture firms don’t have an incentive to scale. You have to own your brand. Like Apple. (Sorry if I sound like a broken record. I’m not actually much of an Apple fan. But they do some things *very* well. Often to the detriment of the industry as a whole.)


    • Jakob P

      Extra thought: the taller the building, the more visible from afar in the city’s skyline, the more distinct of an identity it should have vs. other buildings. Vienna has hundreds of these yellow+gray mid-rises, does that make it a bland city? No, because they’re not trying to put themselves front and centre. The important part is that they’re livable on the inside, that they’re easy to maintain and play well with the city’s plan for growth, and that they’re not “ugly” per se.

      Not every building has to be an eye-catcher. We can leave that to the trophy projects sold to rich people that need to park their money in real estate. What’s important is that the basics are covered. Good-looking exteriors that fall apart on the inside (Ice towers?) are a horrible concept, but rip-off architecture coupled with comfortable, maintainable, low-emissions, ideally low-cost living isn’t such a bad thing. Focus on the basics, and couple that with a repeatable but distinctly branded architectural identity.


  5. Pingback: What we value the most – BRANDON DONNELLY

  6. Organised complexity develops cognition in children. A balance needs to be struck. Could you build a building knowing it contributes to depression and meaningfully feels like a prison? It’s not a zero sum game. It is immoral to do nothing.


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