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Defending Switzerland

In case you wonder how Switzerland has kept itself from being invaded over the years, here is how.

McPhee points to small moments of "fake stonework, concealing the artillery behind [them]," that dot Switzerland’s Alpine geology, little doors that will pop open to reveal internal cannons that will then blast the country’s roads to smithereens. Later, passing under a mountain bridge, McPhee notices "small steel doors in one pier" hinting that the bridge "was ready to blow. It had been superceded, however, by an even higher bridge, which leaped through the sky above—a part of the new road to Simplon. In an extreme emergency, the midspan of the new bridge would no doubt drop on the old one."

It’s a strange kind of national infrastructure, one that is at its most rigorously functional—one that truly fulfills its promises—when in a state of cascading self-imposed collapse.
I could easily over-quote my way to the end of my internet service here, but it’s a story worth reading. There are, for instance, hidden bomb shelters everywhere in an extraordinary application of dual-use construction. "All over Switzerland," according to McPhee, "in relatively spacious and quiet towns, are sophisticated underground parking garages with automatic machines that offer tickets like tongues and imply a level of commerce that is somewhere else. In a nuclear emergency, huge doors would slide closed with the town’s population inside."

Describing titanic underground fortresses—"networks of tunnels, caverns, bunkers, and surface installations, each spread through many tens of square miles"—McPhee briefly relates the story of a military reconnaissance mission on which he was able to tag along, involving a hydroelectric power station built inside a mountain, accessible by ladders and stairs; the battalion tasked with climbing down into it thus learns "that if a company of soldiers had to do it they could climb the mountain on the inside."

In any case, the book‘s vision of the Alps as a massively constructed—or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified—terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.

Rethinking Le Plateau-Mont-Royal (and how to do municipal politics)

A good article on Luc Fernandez, Montreal city councillor and mayor of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal

Luc Ferrandez’s last bicycle was a Kona, a sturdy model with thick tires, ideal for hauling heavy loads. During his 2009 campaign as the Projet Montréal candidate for the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, he would hook it to a trailer piled with a laptop, a projector, a collapsible screen, and (this being Montreal) a couple of bottles of rosé. After setting up his equipment next to a café terrace, he would distribute paper cups and launch a PowerPoint slide show of streets and squares in Copenhagen, Paris, and Madrid, as well as historical photos of local boulevards, all unencumbered by traffic. He figures it was these partys de trottoir, or sidewalk parties—during which he made the case that Montreal could be as clean, green, and safe as any place in Europe—that won him the mayoralty of the city’s most populous district. His mountain bike, alas, didn’t survive the campaign.

“I was having a discussion with a citizen,” recalls Ferrandez. “I left my bike against a wall, unlocked. When I came back an hour later, it was gone.” These days, his main mode of transportation is an Opus, which has the upright handlebars and broad saddle of a bike you would expect to find leaning against a canal-side railing in Amsterdam.

I like his philosophy

“I accept that some people think I’m the devil!” Ferrandez shouted over his shoulder, making a right onto rue de Brébeuf. “For them, the Plateau doesn’t exist. It is just a place to be driven through. I don’t give a shit about these people. They’ve abandoned the idea that humans can live together.”

Ferrandez’s vision of what the borough is, and could be, seems almost exalted. “The Plateau is an Italian cathedral. It’s a forest. It’s something to protect, something sacred. I don’t want it to become a place where people come to live in a condo with triple-glazed windows for a couple of years. This has to be a place where people can be comfortable walking to the bakery, walking to school, walking to the park—where they want to stay to raise a family.”

Design for the homeless

The Atlantic Cities has a fantastic post about excellent design and homeless shelters.

Sometimes when Theresa Hwang is visiting a project site, maybe the 102-unit Michael Maltzan apartments rising from the corner of East 6th Street and Maple Avenue on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, pedestrians will stop and gawk and inquire about what’s coming.

"What are you building?" they invariably want to know.

"It’s housing."

"Can we move in?"

"Well," Hwang then responds, "are you formerly homeless?"

And this always throws people for a loop. Hwang’s organization, the Skid Row Housing Trust, has been renovating and providing permanent supportive housing for the city’s homeless for more than 20 years. But more recently, dating back to a first collaboration with Maltzan about eight years ago, the Trust has been building its own developments that remarkably mimic market-rate condos. Really striking market-rate condos.

The strategy is built on the idea that high design matters for the homeless, too, because it changes the dynamic between these buildings and their residents – and between both of them and the communities in which they’re located. Nothing can deflate the NIMBYism that inevitably accompanies social housing quite like a building that looks like this:

Homeless shelter in Skid Row

Compare this to how we build shelters in Saskatoon and the rest of Canada.  Design makes a difference in mental health and these designs are spectacular.

Hope Mission Buttons

Hope Mission Buttons

I was on Pinterest for the first time today and I saw this fundraising idea by Hope Mission and it absolutely made my day.  I want my own set. 

They actually inspired me so much I went out and bought my own button maker.

The Lighthouse’s new website

The Lighthouse Supported Living's website

Today The Lighthouse launched a new website at  It was the first site I have ever outsourced the design for and we hired Chris Enns.  We hired Chris for a couple of reasons:

  1. He came highly recommended
  2. I liked his design of Lemon Productions.  As I was looking at Lemon Productions website, I was thinking to myself, I need a website like this.
  3. His work on Ranger Lake Bible Camp came highly recommended.
  4. I follow him on Twitter.

The end result from a design perspective was quite satisfying.  Chris took a WordPress theme and pounded it into shape for us, made a lot of changes, and helped me understand the potential that the site could become.  That part was a lot of fun.

The not so fun part was writing almost 100 pages of content from scratch.  That was my job and it was a bigger job than you can imagine.  There was the writing, the editing, the hyperlinking, the changing the site structure so the links all broke, fixing all of the links, finding spelling mistakes along the way, finding photos and video, being harassed for being too long winded, and trying to decide if I should sell my soul and write content that is more SEO friendly (ummm, no).  So yeah, it was like writing 100 columns.  I am glad it is done and we are happy how the project turned out.  Of course the depressing part of it is that everyone else is like, “umm, we have a website?” which makes the process a little depressing but I’ll try not to think about that.

There are a couple of things that I would love to point out.

  • Our blog: I imported in the entries from our old blog by hand which was a lot of work.  That being said I am glad that no one liked the old blog software and never used it as it would have meant a lot more work if they did.
  • A staff directory with pages for each of the executive staff:  Each staff page will feature content particular to them and their job responsibilities over the next couple of months.
  • The Housing Plus page offers an overview of our housing options.  From emergency shelter beds for men and women, the Complex Needs Wing and the The Harbour of Hope
  • With the Affordable Housing tower getting so much attention, there is a page and FAQ dedicated to the project.
  • I put together a History of The Lighthouse which has some fun photos and facts from the time that the hotel was The Empire Hotel.
  • For those of you who want to be kept up-to-date with what is happening around The Lighthouse, sign up for our email newsletter, RSS, or follow us on Twitter.

Now that the framework is there, look for it to be added to over the next couple of years.  We have a lot of content, stories, and information that we want to add.  Thanks to Chris Enns for making it happen.

How great ideas are communicated

Wonderful talk by Nancy Duarte

Mobile healthcare clinic for $15,000 and it can be ordered “to-go”

Fast Company interviews it’s founders

FC: In early 2011, seed money enabled you to get your company, G3Box, off the ground. How is it progressing?

Susanna Young: Right now we’re making a template to give to construction firms. It costs $15,000 to $18,000 to build a clinic. Our goal is to produce one in two to four weeks. We’ll start taking orders in August.

Gabrielle Palermo: We’re also finding shipping partners to haul the boxes to ports in Los Angeles for distribution.

This reminded me of a Seattle group that is using shipping containers to bring grocery stores to Seattle’s food dessert

Using a shipping container as a grocery store in Seattle
Using a shipping container as a grocery store in Seattle
Using a shipping container as a grocery store in Seattle

A group of Seattle entrepreneurs has come up with one solution to the urban food desert problem, and it doesn’t involve adding traditional supermarkets to underserved areas. Their new venture, Stockbox Grocers, is taking the favorite building block of the green-building movement—the shipping container—and adapting it into a miniature food emporium, packed from floor to roof with fresh produce and other staples.

"Our goal is to bring food back to communities, and focus on communities that don’t currently have good access to food and are heavily dependent on public transportation," says founder and owner Carrie Ferrence. This week, Stockbox celebrates the opening of a 160-square-foot prototype store in a parking lot in a neighborhood where corner stores are the only source of food. Up to five customers can shop at once, said Ferrence, and only one person is needed to staff the operation.

Should Saskatoon save the Study Stone Centre?

In New York, a battle rages on what to do with brutalist architecture. Should it be saved?

As Modernist buildings reach middle age, many of the stark structures that once represented the architectural vanguard are showing signs of wear, setting off debates around the country between preservationists, who see them as historic landmarks, and the many people who just see them as eyesores.

The conflict has come in recent months to this quaint village 60 miles north of New York City — with its historic harness-racing track, picturesque Main Street and Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian houses — where the blocky concrete county government center designed by the celebrated Modernist architect Paul Rudolph has always been something of a misfit.

“I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.”

Completed in 1967, the building has long been plagued by a leaky roof and faulty ventilation system and, more recently, by mold; it was closed last year after it was damaged by storms, including Tropical Storm Irene.

Edward A. Diana, the Orange County executive, wants to demolish it, an idea that has delighted many residents but alarmed preservationists, local and national, who say the building should be saved. The county legislature is expected to decide whether to demolish or renovate it next month.

Those who want to save it call it a prime example of an architectural style called Brutalism that rejected efforts to prettify buildings in favor of displaying the raw power of simple forms and undisguised building materials, like the center’s textured facade.

“Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things,” said Mark Wigley, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “It’s about saving those objects that are an important part of our history and whose value is always going to be a subject of debate.”

The article does have one great quote that describes both the Sturdy Stone Centre and the Education Building at the University of Saskatchewan.

In an interview Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about the architecture of Le Corbusier, described Brutalist buildings as “absolutely hideous, like scouring pads on the retina.”

That sounds about right.

Closet conversions


Am kind of digging this idea for The Lighthouse.  You can see more home upgrades for under $100 here.

Dueling Ice Hotels

I had a similar idea but for a temporary homeless shelter.

On a recent crisp afternoon, chainsaw-wielding ice sculptors repaired a giant elephant in the bar of Snow Village—home to one of just two ice hotels in North America.

At the other, Hotel de Glace, 160 miles north in Quebec City, crews pushed mini-snow blowers through the hallways, while monitoring a massive ice chandelier hanging in the lobby.

For the past 12 years, Hotel de Glace enjoyed a monopoly in ice tourism on the continent. But this winter, after upstart Snow Village opened its doors, both are scrambling to distinguish themselves in this super-niche market.

Tammy Peddle, a Snow Village spokeswoman, plays down any rivalry. There is "no conflict" between the two, she says in an email. "We have an entire village where you can eat, sleep, visit, play…they have a hotel."

"We are the standard," says Hotel de Glace founder and president Jacques Desbois.

Both tout the uniqueness of spending a night in a cold, dark room entirely made of ice and snow, with no electricity. It is generally not a market with a lot of repeat customers.

"A must do," wrote Martin and Tonia from Spain, in the guest book of the Hotel de Glace. "Once."

"What we’re selling is not accommodation," says Snow Village proprietor Guy Belanger. "It’s an experience."

Magic Igloo MakerBack to my idea.  I was reading about igloo makers and after talking to friends who have gone ice camping and stayed quite warm with just a candle and body heat that guys in the shelter would probably prefer their own igloo to living in a dorm.  I remember joking about the idea with guys in the shelter and as long as we could run extension cords for a television and they had access to showers, they actually thought it was a good idea. 

Of course I was only kidding but they were not, it is one of the reasons why when the weather warms up in spring, why people are moving back out to the encampments along the tracks and along the river.  It isn’t that they want to stay outside it is for them preferable to sleeping in a warm bed but in a congregate setting.

One of the things that I am thrilled that The Lighthouse did is with the new women’s emergency shelter, it is still congregate settings but with three times the space as the old women’s dorm, they are only adding three new beds and using room dividers.  Being homeless is hard enough and in an emergency, there will at least be a nice place to stay.

IKEA, now in Saskatoon

You can purchase stuff from IKEA on

2012 Ford Focus

So last week I had a great offer to test drive a 2012 Ford Focus.  Here are my thoughts.

Design means something at Ford again.  It’s just not the exterior, it’s everything.  I was watching a CNBC program on Ford a couple of years ago and the engineer was talking about how important it was to get the small things right which is something that for a long time, the Big Three wasn’t getting right.  Initial quality wasn’t that great and their cars didn’t look that great outside of their trucks and SUVs.  Who was passionate and excited about a 2002 Ford Taurus?

Somewhere during the financial crisis, instead of begging for bailouts, Ford decided to design cars.  Looking back at it, it was the right move as the styling on the Ford Focus actually inspired some emotion out of me, despite being an entry level sedan. Maybe the reason that the car is actually German engineered but whatever reason, I loved to get up in the morning, look out and see the Focus there.  It’s that nice looking.

The Exterior

The car was silver, slight tint on the rear window and the SEL version.  It looks exactly like the Ford Focus in the photo except that car is on a gorgeous background and finding something nice as a background in Saskatchewan during February was a hard challenge.  There just was no way to get it inside the Mendel’s Conservatory.  So just envision it slightly dirty and on a grey background with a guy that looks like me wishing he was in a warmer climate.


While design is so subjective, it is a similar size to the Chevrolet Cruz while it offers up a lot more refinement and finish.  The styling looks original and fresh, which is something that you can’t say about many other American automakers.  Like I said, Ford found it’s design chops.

The Interior

The car as reviewed had cloth seats and if I owned the car, I would buy car seat covers on it since I have two boys, two sloppy boys.

I am 6’4 tall and I don’t have a slight build so room is an issue.  My 1993 Ford Escort wagon was way to short for me while my beloved 1993 Ford Festiva was more than adequate so I was quite curious how the Ford Focus was going to fit.  To my surprise there was more than enough room for me and more than enough room for me to put my seat too far back.  I think anyone under 6’8 would fit comfortably in the car.  If Dave King was a little closer I would test out my theory that both of us could fit in the car comfortably.  My thanks for Ford for hiring taller engineers.  My back, neck, and shoulders thank you.  We did take it for lunch and there were no complaints from my co-workers in the backseat.

As for the family, Mark (11 years) old and Oliver had a lot of room.  I never thought about it but Mark was the one that sat behind me and he never complained about room and I never felt his knees in my back.  The trunk was impressive and had more than enough room to hold a couple of coolers and duffle bags for a weekend trip if we had headed to the the cabin.

Of course the big marketing point of Ford cars was Ford Sync.  I got into the car and immediately gave it an order.  Nothing.  Gave it another order.  Nothing.  Tried again and again.  Not a single response.  Looked for a manual, none was in the car.  I looked around and finally found the Ford Sync paddle that was on the steering wheel.  After feeling like an idiot, the Sync helped me figure it out.  We had some good trips together and some that I struggled a bit with.

Well I finally got it.  Once I got used to it, the Sync was actually quite useful, especially when sync’d up to my phone or iPod.  I never took it on a long road trip but if I had, it would have been even more useful.  Since I don’t use a hands free, I ignore my phone when in a car (it can wait).  To have it connected to Sync and use it to take calls easily and safely was well worth the money for it.  The one thing the video does show is the fun of my family trying to confuse the Sync and ask it a series of question on the meaning of life.  It controls the temperature well but could use some refinement in answering existential questions.

As for the GPS, I have never ever needed to use a GPS, even when in strange cities (it’s called a map folks, study it).  It was a neat feature but not one that I needed.  That being said, I have friends who can’t find their bathroom without one so there is a market for it.

The heated seats were a nice feature, especially their control which made it easy to discreetly turn up the heated seats on Wendy without her noticing I did it.  Yes I am that childish.

It has a backup camera.  Having never backed into anything, it wasn’t really a needed feature but again, Ford did a nice thing with this.  It projects the path of your car which lets you know if you are going to make it out of that spot.  For a feature that I never thought I would need, I liked it.

Off Road Performance

I did the kind of take the Ford Focus off-roading.  I took it down the ungraded side streets of Mayfair and Caswell Hill.  The ruts are worse than anything you will ever see a SUV drive through on television.  While the ride was rough, the car held together, something that can’t be said for some cars driving to and from work on Saskatoon streets.  Actually the car took the worst that Saskatoon streets could toss at it and handled it quite well.  The traction control was great on Saskatoon’s icy streets and the anti-lock breaks worked as expected in a variety of slippery road conditions.

The other test you will never see in a magazine is the parking at The Lighthouse test.  In the back our parking spots are elevated on  a slope and often icy.  The traction control got me up the slope and parked.  It succeeded where more than one SUV has had to be kicked into four wheel drive to park.

Highway Performance

This is the one area that the car didn’t impress me much.  In accelerating quickly on the highway, the transmission shifted up so many times that it really impacted acceleration.  Not only that but I found it quite disorientating.  While my Mazda Protégé is a standard, I am not one to over-rev it but the Focus seemed to be shifting at way too low of RPM and didn’t seem to realize that I was trying to go fast, not save fuel efficiency.  This was the one thing that I didn’t really like about the car which was brought up in a couple of reviews, the transmission does seem a little odd.

The good news is that it is a firm ride which I have always liked.  On a winding road, the Ford is enjoyable and pleasant to drive.  It doesn’t sway in corners and features responsive steering.  I liked how to felt to drive, both in town and out of town.  With it’s sunroof, it would be a great vacation car, a car that you wanted to take on a long summer road trip.

Wendy’s thoughts on the Ford Focus can be found here.


Would I buy one?  Yes I would but I would get the six speed manual transmission.  I prefer a standard but other than that, there wasn’t anything on the car that I didn’t like.  I took a Cruz and Camry out out for a test drive this week and of the three, the Focus gave the nicest ride and overall experience.  It’s worth checking out if you are in the market for a new vehicle.  It also gives me faith in Ford’s long term survival if these are the cars that it is making now.

Mike Holmes: Stop building junk on reserves

From the CBC

"Let’s look at the building technology," says Holmes, whose ideal First Nations home would be about 1,100 square feet and built with wood and other materials that won’t burn or be susceptible to mould.

"I don’t care if you want a box. I don’t care if you want it off the ground. I don’t care if you want a foundation. It’s using all the products that make sense, nothing but mould-free, nothing but zero VOCs [volatile organic compounds]. This is not hard."

Holmes, who is also an adviser on a 90-unit affordable housing project for seniors in Edmonton that is a partnership involving the city and the Métis Capital Housing Corporation, has no patience for any argument that his ideas will cost too much.

Sure, mould-free drywall might cost 50 cents or $1 more per sheet than standard drywall, Holmes concedes, but will pay off in the long term, especially considering the number of homes on First Nations reserves that need renovation only a few years after being built. More than 40 per cent of the existing homes on reserves need major repairs, compared with seven per cent off reserve, according to a government-commissioned assessment of First Nations housing.

"Look at the cost of taking it down and doing it again," Holmes said. "There’s no comparison."

For Holmes, helping First Nations improve their housing stock extends far beyond choosing the right wood and drywall or hammering nails.

"The smartest thing we can do is to teach the First Nations how to do it," says Holmes. "When they do it themselves, they have pride, and they care, and that’s what I think is the missing link, not to mention just using the wrong products and building foolishly."

Another way to get a bridge built

In Saskatoon bridges cost hundreds of millions of dollars, deeply divide the city, and then tend to fall down because they haven’t been properly maintained.  The locals of Nongriat in Meghalaya, India have a different approach to infrastructure, they grow it.

Another way to get a bridge built 
Another way to get a bridge built 
Another way to get a bridge built

They have been doing this for the past 500 years. Some of the bridges are 100 feet long and can hold up to 50 people (which is more than the Traffic Bridge can hold at this time).

Architecture as a force to deal with poverty?

As Paris is finding, it may be overestimating the power of architecture

Balzac has now been emptied, though, and a spidery mechanical arm tears away at it each day. The towering wall of stained concrete and tile, once 600 feet long and 16 stories high, is to be replaced by a cluster of smaller units, part of a $60 billion nationwide plan to refurbish France’s roughest neighborhoods.

It is hardly the first time such efforts have come to the 4000. Governments have been razing and rebuilding in this neighborhood for 25 years, hopeful that new architecture and new theories about how best to house the poor will solve the problems here. Residents and local officials, though, have few expectations that new walls and fresh pavement, whatever their configuration, can drive a deeper renewal.

“They’re not building shopping centers, they’re not creating jobs for young people,” said Soraya, 42, who was raised in Balzac and now lives nearby, requesting that her last name be withheld for fear of retribution by local thugs. “This will solve none of our problems.”

Balzac will be the fifth tower she has seen fall. Her current residence sits on what was once the site of the Renoir tower, destroyed in 2000. Ravel and Presov came down in 2004. A first tower, Debussy, was dynamited in 1986; the event was broadcast on national television and heralded as the start of a broad urban renewal.

Erected in the 1960s, the 4000 was meant as a utopia, an experiment in social engineering that would rationalize the lives of the immigrant workers it would house.

The theory of the day, drawing on the architectural philosophy of Le Corbusier, held that residential areas ought to remain separate from roads and the workplace, and so the cluster was built as a sort of island; residents trudged across a muddy field to reach the adjacent train station. Each airy apartment was equipped with a bathroom, a relative rarity in Paris at the time. The complex was deemed revolutionary.

A model of the 4000 was exhibited at the Grand Palais in 1961.

Government after government has since pledged to undo the damage they say these structures have done. In 1973, an official directive halted the construction of such housing clusters, deploring their “homogeneity” and “monotony,” and the “social segregation” they imposed.

And yet, while the particular philosophy underlying the 4000 has been disavowed, few French officials have jettisoned a belief in the primacy of architecture in shaping social outcomes, said Marie-Christine Vatov, the editor in chief at Innovapresse, a media group specializing in architecture and urban planning.

“Mixing” and “openness” have replaced “separation” and “uniformity” as the watchwords of the day. But the central lesson of the past decades, Ms. Vatov said, has been the error of such faith in the power of architecture.

“It’s not enough to build in a certain way,” she said, especially without more pointed efforts to improve education and employment.