The Way we Live Now, an 1875 novel by the English writer Anthony Trollope, condemned the overweening ambition and corruption of the nouveaux riches of Victorian England. It’s an appropriate title for this post, which follows my recent post about how the one-sided Committee of Adjustment process facilitates the construction of monster homes. Using the one that will soon be coming to our neighbourhood as an example, I’ll discuss the amenities that will be provided for the owners and the costs that will be imposed on the neighbours and on the broader environment.
Filling the Void Within
What will a 5200 square foot home buy you? First, more space and higher ceilings for the standard rooms. Beyond that, it provides space for a variety of single-purpose rooms. The architectural plans for the one coming to our neighbourhood include a home theatre, recreation room, and family room, in addition to the living room; a gym and a sauna; a servery to complement the kitchen; and an elevator. One can imagine monster homes accommodating other single-purpose rooms such as a music room, art studio, greenhouse, wine cellar, and even, inspired by Fifty Shades of Grey, an adult playroom in the master suite.
A Bigger Carbon Footprint
It seems obvious that bigger houses will have bigger carbon footprints, so I investigated this question using the Cool Climate Calculator developed at the University of California at Berkeley. Setting the location to my postal code, the calculator told me that the construction of a 5200 square foot house generates 4.84 tons of carbon dioxide, compared to a 3000 square foot house, which generates 2.79 tons, a difference of more than 2 tons.
A bigger house will require more heat and more electricity. Last year we spent $2500 on both. As a rough estimate, I assumed the increase in natural gas for heating and electricity would be proportional to the size of the house. Several factors may affect heat use. The new house coming to our neighbourhood will have more advanced heating and insulation technology than ours, but the back of the house will have seven heat-emitting picture windows. With a total height of 33 feet under a flat roof, it will have considerably higher ceilings than ours. Higher ceilings facilitate cooling when it is hot outside but require more heat when it isn’t, and in Toronto we run our furnaces more often than our air conditioners. Bottom line, I’m comfortable with this assumption. The calculator determines that our carbon footprint for heating with natural gas is 9.24 tons per year and theirs for heating will be 16 tons per year and our carbon footprint for electricity will be .46 tons per year and theirs will be .8 tons per year. The carbon footprint for electricity is so small because close to 90 percent of Ontario’s electricity is either hydro-electric or nuclear.
It’s clear that monster homes emit more greenhouse gases than standard homes. Furthermore, it’s unfortunate none of the owners of the numerous monster homes built in this neighbourhood have thought to mitigate their carbon footprint by installing solar panels.
Ungreening the Property
In addition to a larger footprint, the house coming to our neighbourhood will have a large deck and pool, structures which almost completely fill the backyard of the relatively small 7700 square foot lot. To accommodate the larger structure, three trees on one side of the house (a Douglas fir, a sugar maple, and a crab-apple) will be cut down. The City of Toronto Department of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (whose rubric is A City Within a Park)requires the owners to replace each tree that is cut down with three new ones. There is space for only two new trees at the front of the house, so the owners must compensate the City for 7 new trees at a price of $583 per tree. This is comparable to buying carbon offsets because it isn’t clear what the City will do with the $4081 it has received. It would be nice if the money were used to plant new trees somewhere in Toronto. But if the City is facing budget constraints, this money may end up maintaining the base budget of the department or, even worse, going into the City’s general revenue fund.
In addition to the three City-protected trees that will be cut down, there is a fifty-foot-long ten-foot-high cedar hedge at the back of the owner’s property. None of the cedars in the hedge are the required 30 centimetres in diameter, so they are not protected. With the pool planned to extend to within three feet of the property line, undoubtedly the hedge will be taken down. The hedge is home to several generations of cardinals and is visited by blue jays, squirrels, and rabbits. They will all be displaced. Here is a photo of the soon-to-disappear cedar hedge, with the three condemned trees on the left.
Many residents are arguing before the Committee of Adjustment against new houses that put theirs in the shade. The Committee of Adjustment in Toronto doesn’t seem to care. Computer-generated sunlight studies could readily determine the impact of new houses, but they are not required. In our case, the architects provided a sunlight study the afternoon before the hearing, but its simulation results stopped at 3 p.m., just when the shadow of the new house was falling on the two properties to its east.
I looked up sunlight studies online and found that Toronto’s neighbour, the City Mississauga, posted a report in 2011 with a protocol for sunlight studies requiring simulations at both solstices and the fall equinox at hourly intervals starting 1.5 hours after sunrise and continuing to 1.5 hours before sunset. Shadow impacts on outdoor spaces such as rear yards, decks, patios, and pools were not to exceed one hour in duration. I don’t know whether these standards are in effect now, but they are certainly more enlightened than Toronto’s absence of standards.
Better Design is Always Possible
I am sure my readers have seen newly renovated or redeveloped houses that fit in with the scale of their neighbourhood and don’t tower over their neighbours. If readers send me photos or cases, I would be happy to post them.
To have this type of redevelopment instead of the monster homes that are coming to a street near us and likely to a street near you, some changes in public policy would be necessary. The City would have to stop rubber-stamping applications for variances. And neighbourhood planning would have to take into account climate change, the existing tree canopy, and shade. Good design would have to become more important to the City than easy tax revenue.