Benny Farm Redevelopment – Maintaining Community While Greening Affordable Housing
Case Study prepared by James Goldie, Carleton University
As a case study, the Benny Farm housing project is a complex story spanning almost 70 years. Programmatically it has changed slightly; established as social housing for veterans, the nature of those serviced expanded to include single-parent and low-income families, seniors and physically disabled individuals. In 2004, it became the location of a large, award‑winning, green urbanism project. This case study focuses on that large-scale redevelopment from uncertain conversations in 1998 to construction between 2004 and 2007. As architect Daniel Pearl (2015) refers to Benny Farm as “the world’s first government‑subsidized, large-scale, community-driven neighborhood renewal project combining affordability, green building technologies, rehabilitation, and new construction,” (p. 13) this case study focuses on two key themes: environmental sustainability and social sustainability.
In utilizing some of the extant buildings, Benny Farm stands as a strong example of the effectiveness of adaptive reuse and material reclamation in mitigating the waste generated through development. It is also important to note that Benny farm illustrates the impact integrated renewable energy systems can make on the economic viability and sustainability of a project.
As important as the environmental considerations are, maintaining a strong community has played a key role in the ongoing survival of Benny Farm. Community groups like Heart and Hands have been operating in the community since the 1970s and members were instrumental in developing the contemporary coop programs like Coopérative d’Habitation Benny Farm/ Benny Farm non-profit housing cooperative, Coopérative d’Habitation ZOO (Zone of Opportunity)/ZOO Non-Profit Housing Cooperative and Chez Soi that operate on the site today. These community groups as well as others from the surrounding neighborhoods were directly involved in the planning of this redevelopment. This illustrates the effectiveness of community activism and initiatives but also illuminates the features that residents see as increasing the livability and sustainability of their communities, including community gardens and low-speed, heavily treed streetscapes.
Finally, a community or resident perspective helps offer a more robust assessment of the effectiveness of a project surrounded with sensationalized and overly positive media attention and discourse. The community shows that award‑winning planning does not always translate to award‑winning execution.
Benny Farm is a 7.3-hectare (18 acre) housing property in Montreal’s west-end Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce before 2002) municipality. Designed by architect Harold James Doran, it was developed beginning in 1944 and constructed in 1946 to house veterans returning from World War II. Originally on the outskirts of Montreal, as the city grew, the site found itself on a much more desirable and valuable piece of land (Baker, 1998, p. 28) which has made the development of the property highly contentious and often political.
Through the 1990s while under the ownership of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC), at least three redevelopment proposals were undertaken, with scopes ranging from a complete demolition of all buildings on site in 1992, to a plan that proposed the complete conservation of all existing buildings introduced by the architectural firm L’OEUF in 1994. Finally, in 1998, while still under CMHC ownership, permission was granted to demolish the entire site (Baker, 1998, p. 28). This permission and date also marks the beginning of this case study’s focus. In 1998, in response to the demolition approval architect and community activist Joseph Baker wrote,
Scandal is not too strong a word for the unjustifiable and imminent destruction of a valuable public resource. To date the Federal Minister responsible for the CMHC has turned a deaf ear to all representation, while the Quebec government has lent a sympathetic one but is powerless to intervene in a jurisdiction not yet its own.” (p. 29)
Ownership changed hands the following year with the site being purchased by the Canada Lands Company (CLC). Discussions were undertaken between the CLC and local organizations as the Benny Farm Round Table with a community group, the Fond Foncier Communautaire Benny Farm (FFCBF)/Community Land Trust Benny Farm emerging from these meetings. After a questionable (Baker, 2003, p.1), failed deal (van Drimmelen, 2007, p. 6) with the newly formed Land Trust, CLC undertook a site redevelopment plan with themselves as the principal developer (Baker, 2003, p 1). In 2002 after more than a decade of citizen advocacy and in service of a more participatory design process, CLC formed a task force of representatives from variety of stakeholder groups. (Yilmaz, 2008, p. 1370). After a design competition was held, a plan was chosen that retained 40% of the original buildings along Cavendish Blvd. and created 60% new construction.
Beginning in 2004, this project relied on a combination of multiple construction approaches and the installation of innovative green systems to provide dense, affordable but ultimately safe and comfortable rental units for at least three co-operative organizations. These three organizations and their corresponding three buildings occupy the east side of Cavendish Blvd. as can be seen in the illustration below.
- 1838 – property purchased by Scottish manufacturer Walter Benny (Silver, 2008, p. 3)
- 1944 – property purchased by Minister of Pensions and National Health (Fish 65); first sketches of the proposed development appear in Montreal publication ‘The Monitor’
- 1946 – Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation created, purchases the property
- 1947 – Benny Farm built at a cost of $3 million, designed by architect Harold J. Doran; 4000 applications to inhabit by April, and first tenants moved in by May
- 1954 – Benny Farm Charter published
- 1970 – Head and Hands Support Group founded
- 1983 – government attempts to sell units to the inhabitants
- 1990/91 – CMHC discloses plan to raze site, relocate tenants (Silver, 2008, p. 6)
- 1991 – CMHC proposal by Gauthier Guité Daoust Architectes (100% new construction) (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 1)
- 1992 – Montreal’s ‘Master Plan’ released (Benny Farm area blank “as an indication that the project has no heritage value” (Fish, 1994, p. 2)
- 1992 – L’OEUF founded by Mark Poddubiuk and Daniel Pearl
- 1994 – land rezoned, six-storey buildings permitted on site; ‘counter project” proposed by L’OEUF (100% Conservation) (1992-1994). This plan was not adopted but it strongly influenced the redevelopment plan that was ultimately realized on the site (Pearl, p. 29); Gauthier Guité Daoust Architectes (GDA) New Proposal (36% Conservation)
- 1995-1997 – demolition begins according to the GDA plan; first Gauthier GDA building constructed; 2 six-storey apartments built, approximately 90 residents of the old buildings relocated
- 1997 – CMHC pushes again to relocate residents and demolish the 1940s structures
- 1998 – CMHC given permission to demolish the site (Silver, 2008, p. 6), zoning changed again. The effort was delayed, half-executed, resulting in what Michael Fish argued in 1998 to be “the worst demolition in the city in the last 10 years” (Silver, 2008, p. 6)
- 1998 – CMHC Proposal by Saia Barbarese Architectes (SBA) (100% new construction); 2 new buildings from the SBA plan are built
- 1998 – CMHC sells property to Canada Lands Company (CLC)
- 1998 – Community Land Trust Benny Farm (CLTBF) founded, with an objective to purchase the remaining property on the site. CLTBF given 6 months to raise $5.7 million (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 4)
- 1998 – CLC refuses to sell to CLTBF
- 1999 – round table organized by CLC prior to hosting design competition. Representatives include L’OEUF, veterans, the CLSC, YMCA, neighbours and future residents. A program is developed with mixed use buildings, mixed revenues, renovation, new construction, densification and affordable/low income housing
- 2000 – Zone of Opportunity (ZOO) Co-op founded – emerged from the Young Parents Program offered by the Head and Hands Support group
- 2001 – Fond Foncier Communautaure Benny Farm/Benny Farm Community Land Trust (FFCBF) in conjunction with L’OEUF, signed a “protocol agreement” with CLC for 6 months to acquire the site – L’OEUF Proposal (100% Consevation)
- September – plan submitted to district council proposing to keep all remaining original buildings (Silver, 2008, p. 8)
- October – CLC opted to not extend the agreement and put forward a new development plan (Silver, 2008, p. 8)
- 2002 – task force put in place to draw up the plan (Silver, 2008, p. 8)
- 2002 – CLC Design Alternative (proposals by L’OEUF, Daoust Lestage, Atelier BRAQ, Saia Barbarèse)
- Invited design alternative competition hosted by CLC. L’OEUF in collaboration with landscape architects NIP prepared an urban strategy including: mixed use buildings, mixed revenues, renovation and new construction, densification and affordable / low income housing. (LOEUF, 2007)
- 2002 – Governor General’s Medal in Architecture (Saia and Barbarese and Laverdière + Giguère)
- 2003 – development plan presented to the Task Force (Jan)/ Borough of CDN/NDG (Feb) residents (Feb & Apr) Final version validated September 10, 2003 (Silver, 2008, p. 8)
- 2003 – CLC Design Alternatives L’OEUF (88% conservation)
- 2003 – master Plan Saia Barbarese Topouzanov Architectes (34% conservation)
- 2003 – renovation viability study conducted by L’OEUF, Jan Vrana – structural engineer
- 2004 – Green Municipality Fund (GMF) application begins for a sustainable infrastructure project, approved by March
- 2005 – Green Energy plan implemented, GMF contract signed. Construction begins
- 2005 – Urban Development Institute of Quebec Award of Excellence
- 2005 – Real Property Institute of Canada Award for Comprehensive Planning
- 2005 – Gold regional Holcim Award “Greening the Infrastructure at Benny Farm”
- 2006 – community- run utility company Green Energy Benny Farm begins operation
- 2006 – Bronze Holcim Global Award
- 2007 – properties including those associated with Chez Soi, ZOO and Habitations Communautaires NDG sold to Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal
- Architects and Critics (Joseph Baker, Phyllis Lambert, Michael Fish)
- Benny Farm Tenants Association Incorporated – Benny Farm Residents (veterans, seniors, mixed-income, physically disabled)
- Coopérative d’Habitation Benny Farm/ Benny Farm non-profit housing cooperative
- Coopérative d’Habitation ZOO (Zone of Opportunity)/ZOO Non-Profit Housing Cooperative
- Fond Foncier Communautaure Benny Farm (FFCBF)/Benny Farm Community Land Trust
- Green Energy Benny Farm (GEBF) – non-profit, community-run utility owns and manages the energy infrastructure as well as continued re-investment in sustainable construction for this infrastructure
- Habitations Communautaires NDG (Collaboration Société d’Habitation et de Développment de Montrél) – community-housing organization. Instrumental in providing affordable housing in Montreal’s west end
- Les Habitations Adaptees et Accessibles Tango: Subsidized and supported housing for people with disabilities
- Les Maisons Transitionnelles “03” – http://www.o3onourown.com/ – On Our Own (03) subsidized and supported housing for young families at risk
- Monkland Community Centre
- NDG Association of Concerned Residents & Taxpayers
- NDG Community Council Housing committee – http://www.ndg.ca/en/who-we-are/ndgcc-history
- Prevention NDG-CDN (Tandem and Eco-quarter) – community programming to minimize crime and violence (Tandem) and keep Benny Farm and the surrounding community clean and green (Eco-quarter)
- Project Chance – subsidized housing for single mothers who are returning to post-secondary education
- Sherbrooke Forest Housing – local non-profit in housing
Redevelopment Task Force
- Metu Belatchew – Community Organizer, CLSC NDG/Montreal-West
- Rosemary Bradley – Benny Farm Veterans’ and Associates and Benny Farm Tenants Association
- Ken Briscoe – Benny Street Resident, Member of NDG Association of Concerned Residents & Taxpayers
- Miriam Green – Resident of NDG, Past President of the Fond Foncier Communautaire Benny Farm
- Needet Kendir – President, Sherbrooke Street West Merchants’ Association
- Zane Korytkyo – Executive Director, YMCA-NDG
- Ghilaine Prata – Executive Director, Constance-Lethbridge Rehabilitation Centre
- Canada Lands Company (CLC) (1998-2007)
- Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) (1946-1998)
- Chez Soi
- City of Montreal/Ville de Montreal Administration
- Federation of Canadian Municipalities (Green Municipal Fund)
- Fonds en Efficacité Energétique
- Gaz Metro
- Government of Canada
- Government of Quebec
- Hydro Quebec
- Office of Energy Efficiency/Natural Resources Canada – Commercial Building Incentive Program (CBIP)
- Société d’Habitation du Québec – Affordable Housing Quebec
- Claude Cormier and Associés – landscape architecture
- Consortium M.R. – General Contractor
- Edilbec Construction
- Gauthier Guité Daoust Architectes
- L’OEUF – architectural firm
- Martin Roy et Associes – engineering firm
- Saia Barbarèse (Topouzanov) Architectes
- TEKNIKA HBA – water treatment engineer
Benny Farm has, in the past, been touted as having little or no historical or heritage value (Fish, 1994, p.2; Baker, 1998, p.29). In 1992, coinciding with the early CMHC attempt to demolish the site, Montreal’s “Master Plan” was released. The plan’s maps highlighted neighborhoods and areas that held varying levels of heritage value, Benny Farm was left entirely blank (Fish, 1994, p. 2). Near the end of the 1990s when CMHC was once again pushing to demolish, their heritage consultant wrote, “the Benny Farm buildings are not of sufficient historical, architectural, urbanistic or environmental interest to justify conservation as a heritage property.” (Baker, 1998, p. 29) This opinion of an absence of heritage value arose again with Montreal’s 2002 “Master Plan,” and once again, though bordered to the east and west by areas of “exceptional value,” Benny Farm remained entirely blank (Benny Farm site circled for the purpose of this case study).
Architects like Joseph Baker have contradicted this idea of no heritage, citing Benny Farm as being an “expression of our society,” (Baker, 1998, p. 29) also noting that “Perhaps it would serve to remember, with more than poppies on our lapels each November, how we faced up to our responsibilities to those who served.” (Baker, 1998, p. 29) Baker identifies the connection between Benny Farms original social housing purpose and Canada’s involvement in WWII as the “cultural context of our built stock,” an idea proposed by historian and planner Jean-Claude Marsan (Baker, 1998, p. 29).
Benny Farm’s built environment has ties to the Amsterdam School style of architecture (Baker, 1998, p. 29) that emerged in the Netherlands in the early twentieth century through the humble, but expertly applied art deco-styled brickwork and the artistic use of glass blocks. The urban planning was inspired by the “Garden City Movement” (Baker, 1998, p. 29) theorized by Ebenezer Howard in his 1898 book To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. Baker (2003) wrote on these ideals saying, “in this tradition it was a brave vision that offered the returning servicemen, a healthy, spacious environment in which to raise their families (p. 2).
Benny Farm’s contribution to Montreal’s exemplary built heritage is embodied in these ties to Canada’s militaristic history and in the well-constructed buildings holding deeper ties to a wider architectural discourse. It is also easy to see how these ideas were maintained in the Benny Farm redevelopment expanded on below.
“The redevelopment of Benny Farm represents a significant step forward in bringing sustainable energy efficient design to affordable housing in Canada.” (Market Wired, 2006)
Materials: The building strategy behind Benny Farm addressed environmental sustainability concerns in several ways. First, through the materiality. The project involved the reconditioning and reuse of some of the original 1940s building stock, the project capitalized on the high-quality materials used in the original project including the plank hardwood floors, thick spruce sub-flooring, pine doors and cabinets and interior double layer gypsum board partitions (baker). The amount of waste generated by the partial demolition and subsequent renovation of several of the buildings on site was also mitigated by the reclamation and reuse of materials. During work on the building envelopes, dismantled brickwork was sorted by condition and potential usefulness, later utilized in the new building construction as well as in the repair of any degraded early facades that were being retained. (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 2) The original cast-iron radiators were saved as it was discovered that they would be compatible with the planned geothermal heating system (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 2). Glass blocks that were originally used to allow light into the building’s central stair-wells were used as partitions between individual unit’s entry foyers (CMHC, 2006, p. 1). New materials included the use of fibreglass framed, double-glazed, low-e, argon-filled, insulated glass units (innovative building) and the utilization of insulated steel doors for the entries (CHMC, 2006, p.1). Many other construction materials were chosen for their recycled content (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 2).
Renewable Energy: Starting at their core, the renovated buildings were to receive structural upgrades to accommodate the proposed new loads of a green roof, but also to future proof for later adjustment and expansion. This involved stripping roofs down to their rafters and installing rigid insulation and an air barrier to improve the building’s overall thermal performance. The process of conversion to a green roof was scrapped due to both technological and financial limitations (CMHC, 2006, p.2).
Benny farm utilizes both geothermal and solar energy in its heating system. This includes roof mounted evacuated tube solar panels and a solar wall; it also involves geothermal wells bored on the property to a depth of about 200m. (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 4; Pearl, p. 43). This energy is then transported through all three buildings through an integrated community energy system. To run the operation, a non-profit, community-run utility company called Green Energy Benny farm was developed (Pearl, p. 41).
Finally, water is also a finite resource considered in the development. Aside from all fixtures being replaced with efficient, low-flow heads and taps (innovative building), and toilets, with low-flow units (CMHC, 2006, p. 1), there were also sustainable water systems installed on the property. These included a storm water retention system, percolation beds for the extensive gardens and grey water retention (Lafarge Holcim, 2006, p. 4; Pearl, p. 43).
Benny Farm and residents of the larger NDG neighbourhood have a lengthy history with the green landscape and the act of community gardening. Many of the young mothers living in Benny Farm in the 1990s were participating in the community-run Friendship Garden behind NDG’s Wesley United Church (Moatasim, 2005, p. 76-77). Community gardens foster a sense of community and facilitate friendships (Moatasim, p. 77). Hence, a community garden became an integral feature of Benny Farm’s redevelopment and landscape design. The gardens and green-spaces were created by landscape architecture firm Claude Cormier and Associates and retained many of the original Garden City ideals by creating large, lush, green common areas and many tree-lined, bench populated walkways. Within the general objectives of the CLC redevelopment plan, there were several considerations developed entirely in service of livability and social sustainability. Housing distribution was planned in a way that located seniors and veteran’s homes together to promote a quite zone and sharing of services. (CLC, 2003, p. 8) There were also conditions put in place to respect the neighbourhood by placing height limits on the buildings that faced the smaller residential lots on the streets surrounding Benny Farm.
A key factor in Benny Farm’s social sustainability is in its continued support of social housing. Over 200 of the units in the redevelopment are operated co-operatives and other non-profits that target groups who are most vulnerable in relation to shelter and other services. (CLC, 2003, p. 9)
The Lafarge Holcim Foundation is an organization created in 2003 that seeks out, contributes to and helps facilitate sustainable construction practices. They do so through publications but most notably through their regional and international sustainable construction competitions. In 2005, the “Greening the Infrastructure at Benny Farm” project won gold at Holcim’s regional level, later taking bronze in the global competition. The criteria Lafarge Holcim uses to assess competition entrants also offers a framework for measuring the effectiveness of Benny Farm’s sustainability efforts. The selection criteria are broken down into five pairs, though many sections interrelate or overlap, including “Innovation and Transferability”, “Ethical Standards and Social Inclusion”, “Resource and Environmental”, “Economic Viability and Compatibility” and finally, “Contextual and Aesthetic Impact”. Lafarge Holcim refers to these five sections as: progress, people, planet, prosperity and place.
- Innovation and Transferability – Progress: To fulfil the Innovation and Transferability criteria, there must be evidence of not only sustainable development, but innovation and exploratory work in service of said sustainable development. There is also an aspect of flexibility, as “breakthroughs and trend-setting discoveries must be transferable to a range of other applications.” (Lafarge Holcim)
- The Benny Farm project meets the Innovation and Transferability criteria through its material use and reclamation, its renewable and interconnected energy systems, its empathetic landscape design and through the documentation and publication of the project through online and print publications.
- Ethical Standards and Social Inclusion – People: Considered projects must adhere it high ethical standards and “promote social inclusion at all stages of construction, […]” There must be evidence that the project has or will impact the community in a positive manner. (Lafarge Holcim) On the matter of Benny Farm, architect Phyllis Lambert wrote,
My first and primary concern is the social approach adopted. Benny Farms as originally constituted by the CMHC had a social purpose. The rare commodity – social responsiveness, is of the greatest importance to the well being of all Montrealers. (Lambert, 2003)
- Ethical Standards and Social Inclusion was an aspect previously neglected in Benny Farm plans but embraced a little more emphatically in the Benny Farm redevelopment project. This was achieved at a conception and design level through the creation of the advisory task force by CLC in 2002. This task force was composed of ten members meant to represent the various interest groups and perspectives on the project. It featured a range of local community and municipality representatives along side those representing the land owner, included in the task force were (CLC, 2003, p. 25):
After the contentious plans of the 1990s under the CMHC, CLC wanted to ensure the new plan contributed to an inclusive and integrated community while also retaining as much of the historical as was feasible.
- Resource and Environmental Performance – Planet: These criteria appealed to the Green Benny Farm project’s strengths as it’s emphasis was on the “sensible use of material and resources” (Lafarge Holcim). As mentioned earlier in the Environmental Sustainability section, Benny Farm utilized and rejuvenated portions of the site’s built fabric to reduce the generation of emissions and waste. New products were chosen based on environmental impacts and many older materials were used rather than having all new items manufactured and shipped to site. The Lafarge Holcim award also uses water and land reclamation as an indicator of a projects effectiveness. The Benny Farm redevelopment of course put a heavy emphasis on the green areas, and developed a simple but effective community water system.
- Economic Viability and Compatibility – Prosperity: To achieve Economic Viability and Compatibility, projects must be, “economically feasible and able to secure financing.” (Lafarge Holcim)
- There is less documentation on the specific means CLC utilized in financing the Benny Farm project, though as a “self-funding, arms-length, ‘non-agent’, federal Crown corporation,” (CLC, 2003, p. 2) whose purpose is to purchase, improve and manage or sell government properties, there were probably many funding resources available to them. The project itself maintained economic viability by driving down construction and waste costs, and seeking to generate their own energy, thus driving down operation costs.
- Contextual and Aesthetic Impact – Place For Contextual and Aesthetic Impact, the project is required to have extremely high standards of architectural quality. Space, form and aesthetic impact are weighed heavily, as well as the projects ability to “make a positive and lasting contribution to the physical, human and cultural environment.” (Lafarge Holcim)
- The Benny Farm redevelopment project made improvements to the overall context of the project through upgraded landscape design that not only retained the Garden City ideals of the past but improved accessibility for the aging and vulnerable residents. This design was combined with the “sensitive restoration” (Lafarge Holcim) of at least some of the existing building stock and through the reuse of those structures that may not have been able to be saved.
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Lefarge Holcim Foundation (n.d.-a) Ethical standards and social inclusion – People.
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Baker, J. (2003, November 26). Benny Farm Redevelopment [Letter]. Retrieved from http://ocpm.qc.ca/sites/ocpm.qc.ca/files/pdf/P05/15b.pdf
Lambert, P. (2003, November 25). Comments by Phyllis Lambert on the Proposed Master Plan for Benny Farm of 26 September 2003 [Letter]. Retrieved from http://ocpm.qc.ca/sites/ocpm.qc.ca/files/pdf/P05/14d.pdf
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