With wood on the rise, it's time to bring back the Euroloaf

St. Lawrence
Public Domain City of Toronto Archives

Back in the 1970s a remarkable housing project was built in Toronto; The St. Lawrence neighbourhood has been described by journalist Dave LeBlanc as the “best example of a mixed-income, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, sensitively scaled, densely populated community ever built in the province”. Designed around principles espoused by Jane Jacobs (some even claim she had a hand in designing it; she didn't), it was a mix of low street facing townhouses and long mid-rise apartment blocks of a relatively consistent height. They looked a lot like buildings from Paris or Scandinavia and were nicknamed “Euroloaf” because they are kind of shaped like loaves of bread.

Ataratiri modelAtaratiri model/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I was reminded of this after seeing a tweet from an urban planner that discussed another unbuilt project in Toronto.

Coincidentally, I was working on a post about Swedish prefab and looking at all their Euroloaves, still pretty much the standard typology.

development© Lindbäcks Group AB, Sweden

Right now wood is having a renaissance, and the point man is Vancouver's Michael Green, with his Tall Wood, which makes sense since the predominant building form there is the point tower. But perhaps he is trying to push a square wood peg into a round hole; perhaps it's the wrong planning model for wood, where the Euroloaf is probably more appropriate.

I have been arguing for Euroloaf planning for years without calling it that. I called it the Goldilocks Density,

…dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

That’s what the Euroloaves are. The trouble with them is that developers like to build tall and thin; better views, (especially in Michael Green's Vancouver) more repetition of elements vertically and cheaper costs per square foot (because of things like one plumbing stack serving more units).

When those Toronto developments were proposed in the seventies, the codes limited wood to three floors and they were built out of concrete. But now, building codes are changing to allow for six storey wood buildings. This changes the economics changes making low rise construction more affordable. Suddenly Euroloaves make a lot more sense.

For those who say it isn’t dense enough, Paris, Montreal and New York demonstrate that you can get really high densities in midrise buildings done right. As planner Brent Todorian has noted:

Height and density have a relationship, one that can be over-simplified or mischaracterized, but it’s important to note that they aren’t the same thing. You can have density without height, and yes, you can have height without density.

And Kaid Benfield has noted the urban design benefits:

I’m not going to argue that we should never build above five or six stories (although some architects do). I can go higher, especially in the right context. But I do think that, in their passion for the highest possible densities as an antidote to low-density sprawl, too many urbanist advocates overlook the considerable benefits of still-relatively-high city density at a human scale.

euroloafsBrown and Storey drawing of Ataratiri/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In fact, with the renaissance of wood construction it is also time for a renaissance of the Euroloaf planning typology; they were made for each other. Usually urban planners are agnostic about building materials, but it now really makes sense to plan neighborhoods and main streets around that six storey height limit that works so well with wood.

No doubt there is a place for tall wood, but it probably makes more sense to promote a building type that really suits the material, and that’s the Euroloaf.

Related Content on Treehugger.com