Getting off on rocks – Esquimalt part 3

< Esquimalt part 2

This is the part of the story where I get myself in trouble.

In my last installment I enthused about the way Dockside Green is integrating nature and living spaces in an industrial landscape. Joe Van Belleghem and Farmer Construction have done a nice job on the project so far and I wouldn’t mind living there. Especially in the lower level condos that each have their own “dock” style landing and bridge across the stream. Overall the buildings are visually pleasing and the environment comfortable.

But I’m not an architecture critic and my topic is not choice of window sizes or siding selection. I like the look of the buildings at Dockside,  but more important,  Dockside Green provides a vital model for urban re-development. I hope many developers will follow this pattern.

What I want to talk about now is interaction with the land. Dockside represents a fine example of bringing a ruined property back to life – Site Repair, to use Christopher Alexander’s apt phrase from his book, A Pattern Language.

What also needs repair is the way communities continue to allow perfectly good pristine properties to be ruined in the first place. Our economic system encourages this ruin.

In this idea, I’m operating under two influences:

First, my life-long preference for wilderness and for old things maintained and kept lively.

Image of Venice Piazza San Marco

Second, Jason McLennan.

McLennan, former CEO, and now board member of the Cascadia chapter of the United States Green Building Council, was the other speaker I heard at the Sustainable Connections conference, the same day Van Bellegham introduced Dockside. One statement of McLennan’s knocked me sideways.

“Overall, worldwide, all the land that we will ever need to build on has already been co-opted for human use. From now on we need to redevelop already used land.”

Jason McLennan

In other words – site repair.

When I heard this I wanted to leap up and shout hallelujah – which is something I never actually do.

McLennan has put this earth shaking assertion to work in the Living Building Challenge, a sustainable building certification that requires, among other shocking things, that the building be constructed without breaking new ground.

“A living building must generate its own energy, use only water falling on site, be free of toxic materials, be on non-virgin land and maximize access to fresh air and daylight.” The guiding question of Living Building is “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?”

The Living Building Challenge

That’s a tough one. It’s hard to conceive of anyone improving on something like this:

Image of lake and mountains at Glacier National Park

Meanwhile, most anyone can come up with a way to make this better.

Image of abandoned factory showing need for site repair

In my opinion, reworking the second would be a much better idea than starting a new building in the former. Can I get an AMEN on that?

But I was talking about Esquimalt.

I have to quickly say that I’m not throwing stones at a particular town. It’s a typical small municipality doing the best it can with limited resources. It has its history and its challenges. I make no political statement about the area. In fact, I know little about Esquimalt. I drove through the west end of the peninsula once, two years ago, and this year visited the east end looking at things with my own eyes. I know the Canadian Navy has a presence there. And I know that much of the land is fenced off and undeveloped. That’s what caught Tom’s eye from the end of the Ogden Point seawall. Beyond that, I’ve done a search on Google. That’s the sum total of my understanding of Esquimalt.

I’m only talking about Esquimalt because of rocks.

Image of rocky shore at Esquimalt, British Columbia

Esquimalt is my poster child for this discussion because it strikingly illustrates a disconnect in the building, development and planning sphere. A disconnect that continually amazes me. Once again, this is not because the community leaders are good or bad at land use planning, or any different than those of any other area. The thing that sets Esquimalt apart is the dramatic nature of the land that is being ruined by our penchant for building on untouched sites, our poor standard planning and our bad building practices.

The peninsula is geologically gorgeous, with miles of rocky bays, quiet craggy inlets and storm tossed points overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is, or was, a rich border zone between the land and the sea – full of wildlife, natural processes and heart-wrenching beauty. It also appears to be full – as are most communities these days – of people who don’t see any value in what’s around them unless they can sell it for cold, hard cash.

The entire peninsula ripples with stone outcroppings. In years past, perhaps as late as the 1960’s, those who built along its shores nestled their homes between the stones, their beach access meandered down through crevices, streams or grassy slopes at the end of inlets. They put their houses there because they loved the land and wanted to enjoy it as it was.

The opposite of site repair

The red and white house in the photo below is an example of a house built with it’s landscape in mind. The houses and beach stairs built around it in later years represent the opposite of site repair – the imposition of buildings designed for flat lots, onto land with dimension.

Old house in Esquimalt

1970’s and ’80’s housing tracts often chopped the land into grids, with property lines that ignored natural rock. Suddenly builders and homeowners treated stone as an obstacle rather than a rich resource for art and experimentation. Petunias planted in a circle around a boulder, driveways once bordered by stone outcroppings, lined instead with concrete landscape block.

It seems a curiously North American trait, this dislike of natural rocks. Whole cities have been built over the centuries along, amongst and into the rocky coasts of Europe. But we in the New World display a preference for our stone sliced, diced, flattened, crushed, dressed and polished – or even better – factory cast faux.

This dismissal of stone and focus on making bank has culminated recently in new houses crammed together atop the once lovely rocks of Esquimalt rather than integrated with them. Houses that value only square footage, fast construction and the lowest quality materials degrade the shoreline. They are bad enough.

Tract speculator houses blight the shoreline

Then there is this house. When I first saw it, I stared in disbelief. I took pictures in order to make this comment.

A house that ignores its surroundings

Not only did this builder ignore the inherent beauty of the landscape, he or she actually turned the house away from the views of nature and the sea to gaze at its own navel. Then, in a final middle finger salute to nature, they actively destroyed the native rock – blew it up – and replaced it with dressed stones shipped here at great cost from God knows where. Undoubtedly sparing no expense to show their wonderful “taste.”

I don’t see taste, I see ruin. And again I wonder why we come to beautiful places only to destroy them.

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One Comment

  1. A huge Amen to every bit of this. You are absolutely reasonable and kind here. The photographs are damning. When will we stop trying to eradicate the natural wonders that attract us to where we live in the first place?

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