When a 53-year-old guy walking by, minding his own business, was speared by a falling shard of glass, well, you’d think enough was enough. After all, it was the fifth time in two years that sort of thing had happened with the same, soaring 65-storey building. But it took a pane of patio door glass exploding and falling on to morning commuter traffic three weeks ago for officials to react.
So now the City of Toronto has ordered protective scaffolding erected around the base of the condo-hotel edifice known as Shangri-La, so pedestrians are spared a hideous death. Meanwhile the building’s developer has been told to wrap all those tempered-glass balconies in protective netting, while condo owners have been banned from stepping out onto their own terraces.
Welcome to Misery Week, part 4.
And imagine how miserable you’d be had you just purchased unit 2105, a two-bed, two-bath condo listed for $1 million, or $925 per foot, with monthly strata fees of $635 and annual taxes just shy of $4,000. Suddenly your balcony would feel like the wrong side of a lobster trap. Not exactly the elegance you expected from a building names after a mythical Himalayan utopia full of happy, geriatric nymphs.
The Shangri-La killer balcony issue is a nice reminder of the misery that probably lies in the future of tens of thousands of people who have lately moved into soaring glass towers in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal. This could also be a pivotal factor in the troubled future of residential real estate, even if mortgage rates never increased or Boomers failed to ossify and bail out of their homes.
Virtually all new condo towers thrown up in the past decade have used the window wall system of construction to separate the inside (where you live) from the outside. It’s cheap (as opposed to a masonry exterior), easy to install and quick. The downsides, however, are immense. Walls made out of windows suck at energy efficiency. They’re less durable and the seals always become permeable. Moisture inevitably finds its way in or around. Compared to punched windows (where openings in a brick or block wall are made), these exteriors are flimsy and over time prone to air and water leakage.
And this could be the silent killer of the housing market. No, not just condos. All housing.
I know this because of Ted Kesik. He’s a professor of building science at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto. Developers hate him. Condo salesguys would happily drive their Panameras and A7s over his toes. And all those horny little hipsters gobbling 500-square-foot units with great views of the next building from their floor-to-ceiling windows should first devour his work.
This week I was in touch with the prof.
“Most of these buildings are going to have serious problems in the next ten years,” he says. “First owners will get special assessments for $15,000 or $25,000 delivered to them, which they have to pay by law, to fix these air and water problems. But that’s only a bandaid solution for five or ten years. Then it all comes back.”
Eventually, says Kesik, all these glass condo buildings will have to be reskinned, which not only costs w-a-y more than the recaulking and sealing process, but requires they have to be evacuated. Even if done on a floor-by-floor basis, condo owners will have to move themselves and their stuff out for at least a month.
And this is the easy part. Worse is the financial hit.
“The best case scenario for these owners is that they would, over time, maybe get their money back,” the professor says. “But more likely, values will spiral lower since nobody wants to buy leaky units. So when people can’t sell, they’ll start to rent them out, and that’s when the spiral really begins. I tell my students these are the places their grandkids will be going to buy crack.”
And what will the impact be on society? How could something as ubiquitous as glass walls come to impact everybody?
“We’ve taken the prime portions of our cities and filled them with this typology, which will certainly lead us into this kind of spiral. This is where things start to get really ugly. I keep trying to tell people this, but the way euphoria works, they forget that somewhere in the future there’s a reef.”
And, of course, it’s not just about condos, but rather the property ladder.
“My Baby Boomer colleagues with houses think this doesn’t affect them,” Kesik told me. “But the simple fact is these young people in condos won’t be able to move up, because there’ll be no appreciation in their units as values fall. So, you know what I tell my friends? I tell them, if you’re ever gonna sell, then sell now. There won’t be a generation coming along to buy them out, and prices will collapse. In fact, this is something that is going to seriously affect two generations.”
Did I mention this was Misery Week?
Professor Kesik has written something to give your horny children. Seriously. Here it is.
And from now on, if you walk downtown, wear a hat.