It was a meeting that left Toronto's Design Review Panel (DRP) confused and more or less at a loss for words, as an OMB-ordered presentation—likely a first in the DRP's 10-year history—asked panel members to weigh in on what seemed like a bitter dispute between City planners and a condo development team. The proposal in question was Social at Church + Dundas, a 52-storey tower from the Pemberton Group with architecture by RAW Design, whose Site Plan Approval application has been disputed at the OMB over the past few months.

Rendering of the Social at Church + Dundas, image courtesy of the Pemberton Group.

The story is a strange one but not too uncommon, and led to a discussion that spun off into a larger, and at times disheartening conversation regarding the state of architecture in Toronto. The City and developers had reached an agreement at the OMB, but the official settlement from the Board was withheld pending a handful of unresolved issues, including Section 37 funds and the balconies of the building, on which the two parties could not find common ground. The Board included in its final statement an item ordering the two parties to consult the DRP on the issue of the balconies. As a result, the only thing that the Panel could comment on was the balconies; everything else about the building, including massing, building height, podium height, floor layout, setbacks, and so on, was previously agreed upon and unmovable.

The vague statement, however, failed to clarify whether the DRP's decision was legally binding or could simply be considered a suggestion, and did not outline next steps after the DRP presentation to reach a resolution.

View looking north on Dalhousie Street, image courtesy of the Pemberton Group.

The City's opposition to the balconies revolved around the building appearing too massive by the addition of a continuous extrusion around the tower, and also by the infringement of the balconies on the 3-metre stepback recommended in the Tall Building Design Guidelines. They argued that being located on a small site in such an urban locale amidst other current and future development sites, the tower needed to minimize its massing so as not to infringe on sky views and sunlight access at street level. For them, the apparent massing, along with its precedent-setting implications, were the most pressing issues.

From the development team's point of view, the architect was attempting to create an iconic tower, as the building will be highly visible from nearby Yonge-Dundas Square, among other prominent locations in the downtown area. The architect explained that the developer has required each unit to have a balcony in order for them to be marketable, and that they have gone through several iterations and have settled on this scheme as the most aesthetically striking. Their concerns are mainly with the appearance of the building, and the necessity of having balconies in order to make the project economically viable.

Different iterations of the balcony design, image courtesy of the Pemberton Group.

Panel members were unsure of how to approach this review, as given the lack of objective criteria against which to judge the balconies, their commentary would be reduced to their individually subjective opinions of the design. Notwithstanding the fact that they were being asked to critique only one aspect of a large development independently of all other building considerations, the Panelists were hesitant to comment given the apparent lengthy negotiations between the parties that had already occurred, and their lack of context surrounding those previous conversations.

The Panel commentary broadened to larger city-wide trends when one Panelist remarked: "It's a sad commentary on architecture when the OMB brings it all down to balconies. Is that what architecture is all about these days, guys? If it’s all just about the balconies, that’s pretty sad." This sentiment was echoed by several other members, who lamented about a recurring theme of late, where all too often towers are reduced to sculptural balconies as their only form of architectural expression. One Panel member summed up the issue in their commentary:

"The economics of it demand that the only way we can give the building any sort of flair is to give it a very basic facade and then sculpt it with balconies. It's a sad state of affairs if all we have for architecture is reduced to balconies. I'm not necessarily saying people are cheap, it is just that the economics of it dictate that we have to have balconies and can't make money from a curtain wall. I don't see exceptional architecture here, but that's subjective."

Rendering of the Social at Church + Dundas, image courtesy of the Pemberton Group.

Through their line of questioning, Panelists discovered that two key aspects of the balcony design had been disregarded: their utility, and their energy impact. Several Panel members questioned the usability of a balcony above the 20th or 30th floor, and pointed out that their use as an amenity was being left behind in favour of appearance. "I am troubled by this preoccupation on the image of the building," one Panelist remarked. "There is too much emphasis on the massing, and not enough on utility". Panel members were not provided with balcony dimensions, though it was clear from the floor plans provided that many of the balconies would not be able to fit much on them.

The question of energy impact was also brought up, as most concrete balconies do not provide a thermal break between the exterior and interior of the building. Panel members asked the design team whether the current design of the balconies was influenced by energy modelling, wind reduction, or sunlight management, but it was clear that none of these aspects had informed the current iteration. They suggested the design team consider these parameters as a way to influence the final form of the balconies.

Typical tower floor plan, image courtesy of the Pemberton Group.

As Panel members attempted to critique the balconies, a common suggestion was to pull them away from the corner of the building, rather than having them wrap all the way around. That way, with the corners exposed, the emphasis would be on the massing of the building, rather than the balconies, and it would reduce the apparent massing that the City is concerned about.

In the end, the Panelists were asked to vote on the balcony design, and after a lengthy discussion about how and what exactly they would be voting on, the final tally was split evenly down the middle: 4 voting for refinement of the current design, and 4 voting for a redesign of the balconies. The Chair of the Panel was then forced to cast a vote to break the tie, opting for a redesign of the current iteration.

Rendering of the Social at Church + Dundas, image courtesy of the Pemberton Group.

It is unclear what will happen next, but we now know that the Social at Church + Dundas is close to achieving Site Plan Approval, and may soon move into sales. As for the issue of the architecture of Toronto's condo towers, that conversation will continue to evolve as the city develops. In the meantime, you can let us know what you think by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.

Related Companies:  MMM Group Limited, NAK Design Group, Pemberton Group, RAW Design