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Calgary architect’s homes on stilts face a tide of resistance

Floods are the most common natural disasters in Canada, the most costly to homeowners and the most devastating to communities. None more so than the June, 2013, floods which ravaged central and southern Alberta: more than 80,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Calgary alone.

Spring thaw combined with heavy rainfall raised the water level of the Bow River in the heart of the city by more than 125 per cent, devastating 26 riverside communities in its path.

Now one Calgary architect, Kishan Gajjar, is planning a flood-proof showhome to showcase innovative architectural design built to withstand rising water levels.

Mr. Gajjar’s interest in flood-proof architecture began in the wake of the 2013 floods when he helped his friend Jerry Schwartz clear up the aftermath of his flooded home in the community of Riverdale.

“We were talking about what Jerry could do with his house and I said we could rebuild it on stilts. A third of Jerry’s lot was in the floodway but I’ve seen homes built in the floodway in other parts of the world; it’s not unusual. So we drew up some plans.”

Conceptual drawings of 1334 Riverdale Ave., Calgary. (Kishan Gajjar)

Mr Gajjar’s design involved circular stilts reaching 20ft into the ground and 10ft above with a wooden framed house on top. The home’s living quarters would have been located on the second and third floors while the ground level provided a garage or route for water in the occurrence of a flood.

“Twenty homes along a riverside can create as much as 30,000 square feet of resistance to water. It’s like building a dam. The footprint of stilt homes is much smaller so collectively they create far less water resistance.”

The plans were submitted and subsequently rejected in a letter from the Minister for Municipal Affairs. The letter stated that while the design was “innovative” it “may have imposed a precedent upon the City of Calgary.”

Due to the age of Mr. Schwartz’s home, he would have been permitted to rebuild it exactly as it was, though un-insurable, however he wouldn’t have been allowed to rebuild it in a way that would ensure it’s survival in another flood.

Consequently, Mr. Schwartz’s property was bought by the province and the 84-year-old was forced to leave the home he and his late wife and their family had loved for 23 years.

“It was a really special place,” says Mr. Schwartz fondly. “I still go back sometimes with the dog to take a look at it. It’s sad to see it lying empty.”

Conceptual drawings. 1334 Riverdale Ave., Calgary. (Kishan Gajjar)

The former engineer remains frustrated at what he sees as a lack of vision on the part of the province.

“We need creative solutions, you can’t just hit it with a sledgehammer. They said ’this is not a normal house, we’d need extensive study to determine if it’s feasible.’ It’s all policy people and no solutions people. If we don’t have a concept of innovation, what hope do we have?”

Demonstrating that innovation on a smaller scale is possible, Ranger Homes recently rebuilt a home in the flood fringe in Bowness on stilts 6ft above ground. Covering the stilts with skirting means the end result looks just like any other home.

“This is the first project of its kind in Calgary” says Andy Kolaczek, owner of Ranger Homes “but I don’t think it’ll be the last. It’s definitely something people are considering. People want to stay in the riverside communities they love and they’re looking for ways to adapt how they live to achieve that.”

While Mr. Gajjar agrees it’s a step in the right direction, and is currently working on a similar project for a family home on the Elbow river, he maintains it’s not enough.

Conceptual drawings of 1334 Riverdale Ave., Calgary. Proposed structure vs. 2013 flood levels. (Kishan Gajjar)

“When you have homes that straddle flood fringe and floodway, owners need to, and should, be able to build on both. Architectural design has to adapt to climate change and policy and bylaws need to be brought up to date to let us put it into practice in Alberta.”

In October last year, the Alberta government pledged to spend $447-million on flood mitigation including a controversial off-stream reservoir at Springbank. A strategy which Mr. Gajjar believes “will only serve to further weaken the urban fabric of our riverside communities.”

Mr. Gajjar believes the solution must lie, at least in part, in residential architectural adaption.

“Flooding costs homeowners millions, it’s costing the government millions and yet nothing is being spent on researching residential adaption or supporting homeowners to rebuild their homes in a way that works for a riverside environment.”

Seventy-nine flood-damaged Alberta homes were bought for more than $100-million by the province back in 2013, many are now pegged for demolition as they’ve fallen into further disrepair, leaving a checkerboard of unsightly empty lots and a depleted tax base.

Conceptual drawings of 1334 Riverdale Ave., Calgary, compared to 2013 flood levels. (Kishan Gajjar)

Mr. Gajjar believes a better solution would have been to allow and support homeowners to rebuild using proven architectural solutions for flooding. He completed his undergraduate degree in England, where sea tides regularly cause rivers to swell up to 10ft.

“Homes along riversides in Lincolnshire for example are prone to flooding so they’re elevated. There’s millions of homes like it all over the world, even in Halifax. This may be new in Calgary, but it’s not new in other parts of the world. Alberta needs to create a new typology for homes.”

Mr. Gajjar believes this new typology will only be accepted with education and exposure to new types of architecture. This is why he’s planning to bring his own brand of disaster proof architecture to life in the form of a showhome in 2016.

“It’s early days, but I believe it’s the only way to broaden people’s minds. Calgary and Alberta are land locked and exposure to different ways to build isn’t common. Alberta only has one way to build and so consumers aren’t exposed to different architectural solutions.

“In Canmore, people building on slopes above a certain grade have to build a slope-adapted house – why not the same for flood adaption?”

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