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Innovation critical in future B.C. Lower Mainland development

As costs, land constraints and other pressures mount, builders turn to technology, new ideas for projects

Sen̓áḵw, being developed in Vancouver's False Creek neighbourhood. (Courtesy Squamish First Nation, Sen̓áḵw)
Sen̓áḵw, being developed in Vancouver's False Creek neighbourhood. (Courtesy Squamish First Nation, Sen̓áḵw)

One reason Squamish Nation Council recently paused entertaining third-party proposals to develop parts of its B.C. lands is that the nation wants to approach developments with strategies and partnerships that are decidedly innovative and future-looking. 

That was one of the messages of Mindy Wight, CEO of Nch'ḵay̓, the five-year-old economic development arm of the Squamish Nation. She was speaking on a panel focused on innovation on April 5 at the Vancouver Real Estate Forum.

Development and construction conditions in the Lower Mainland are challenging these days.

Ever-rising construction costs and labour shortages, land values and elevated interest rates require companies to approach their developments with creativity and innovation. That means the best in the business are increasingly relying on digital technology and modelling to maintain profitability — and this is especially crucial for urban industrial projects. 

Taking advantage of the pause to innovate

The Squamish Nation Council says it is making plans to develop several of its owned lands in the region.

The council, however, instituted a one-year moratorium on third-party development proposals to enable the nation, Nch'ḵay̓ and its affordable housing provider, Hiy̓ám̓ Housing, to develop strategies to help fund several projects in its long-range capital plan.

Wight said the nation has more than 350 acres of land in the region that will eventually be developed for various uses, including master-planned communities.

"I think innovation will be really important to how we perceive sustainable energy, economic viability, (while also) blending Squamish values, culture and the stories of the land back into these developments," Wight said.

One nation project already moving forward is Sen̓áḵw. The development, when completed, would see 11 towers built on Vancouver's False Creek, on land the courts returned to the nation 20 years ago.

The developers broke ground on the master-planned community in September 2022. The development would bring 6,000 new rental homes and 1,200 affordable homes to the area by 2027. 

Sen̓áḵw is planned to be the largest net-zero carbon residential project in Canada. Wight said the plan includes harnessing energy from wastewater from underneath the Burrard Street Bridge.

The third-party proposal pause elsewhere in the nation’s portfolio aims to buy time to fold in other innovations, Wight said. "How does a tenant or resident want to use the property?

"If there's office space or other functions of the space, (how do we engage) current technology . . . in how we develop the properties?"

Software and BIM have become essential tools 

Software and building information modelling (BIM) are already making a difference in construction, said panellist Mike Maierle, principal with ETRO Construction

The ETRO team currently uses 26 pieces of software, Maierle said. The challenge is to tie all those tools together to create seamless functionality so builders can operate similar to the way manufacturers function today.

ETRO thinks about data in three pillars: scheduling, costs and problems. "We've figured out what data is important. Now that data is getting pushed into an estimating kind of brain that we've created."

Now, when clients come to them with complicated projects, ETRO’s data crunchers and designers can anticipate problems and rely on a textbook of issues and solutions that emerge at each step of the building process.

Pre-BIM, a project could have four sets of plans that would need to be provided to consultants, Mike McDonough, CEO at Axiom Builders, explained.

"BIM allows us to stitch all the information together in one spot . . . so we can visualize it, we can consolidate it."

Maierle said 3D building scanning is also full of potential. This can produce a 3D scan of each floor of each building the firm is constructing and they’re “moving towards” having a full digital twin.

That digital twin unlocks numerous benefits for maintenance, but can also provide point-and-click digital maps for residents or users with information as specific as what type of replacement water filter is required, Maierle said.

There is plenty of potential in digital tech, "but it's definitely a journey.”

Industrial properties in Vancouver face sharp need for innovation

Of all the commercial asset classes, industrial has a particular need for innovation in Vancouver given current supply and demand conditions.

Generally, that means finding ways to build taller structures in urban areas that are still attractive and useful to occupants.

Average lease rates for industrial in Metro Vancouver climbed from $11.60 per square foot (PSF) in 2019 to $22.90 in 2023, according to information provided during a panel on the industrial market.

Average prices to buy industrial space in the region climbed from $298 per square foot in 2019 to $584 per square foot in 2022.

While stakeholders suggest multi-level industrial facilities would be part of the solution to increasing prices, there remain constraints on stacked projects.

Inflation is one of them and another is a lack of design-build expertise, said Josh Gaglardi, principal with Orion Construction.

The construction of stacked industrial doesn’t yet include many efficiencies and actually leads to disproportionate construction costs, he said. 

"When we look at these types of multi-storey projects, depending on the constraints of the site, we see anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 times the (construction) price over a traditional warehouse,” Gaglardi told the forum.

"Moreover, the region has complex soil character caused by the post-glacial landscape and floodplains. Some (soil) areas are really firm, others really soft and liquefiable," Gaglardi said, noting industrial buildings must accommodate heavy materials and machinery.

Consultants are learning as they go with the first wave of stacked industrial buildings in the region. 

Stacked industrial in Vancouver

Riverworks, by Conwest, is an industrial project in South Vancouver that includes two-level industrial-office units with floor-load capacity on the upper level of 250 pounds per square foot.

Renderings of that building depict racking on the upper floor. That project is now in the selling phase. 

Meanwhile, at Marine Landing near the Canada Line’s Marine Station, Wesbild and Kingsett Capital are building a multi-level, mixed-use industrial-office complex in two six-storey buildings with strata units for sale. 

Generally, stacked industrial like those in the Lower Mainland means heavier warehouse, manufacturing or production activity on the lower floor with office space and some racking above.

Designing buildings to accommodate heavy loads and truck access to upper floors remains elusive. 

Municipal governments should provide additional technological, infrastructure and permissions support to help developers build high-density industrial, Gaglardi said.

He said local governments should also slash parking requirements at industrial buildings, since many parking spaces at these sites tend to go unused.

Stacked industry provides increased property taxes, more municipal fees (based on the value of the project), and perhaps most importantly, “higher intensity of workers per site," Gaglardi said.

"There are tangible benefits to the city.”

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