Why one’s own outdoor space may soon be a luxury in Canadian condos

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Some condominium developers in Canada are considering what was once unthinkable: getting rid of balconies

Published on March 03, 2023Last updated 2 days ago5 minutes read

Balconies enclose a residential tower Balconies enclose a residential tower in Mississauga, Ontario, west of Toronto. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/Financial Post

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Rising construction costs and a new emphasis on building carbon footprints are forcing some housing developers in Canada to consider what was once unthinkable: getting rid of balconies.

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While many view an outdoor space as an integral part of high-rise living, Ben Myers, president and owner of Toronto-based real estate consulting firm Bullpen Research & Consulting Inc., said he’s more often asked about the value proposition behind balconies with developers with an eye on either the dropping the costly advantage or converting the less lucrative square footage to indoors whenever possible.

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“Every developer is looking for ways to do what they call ‘value engineering’ on their projects,” Myers said in an interview, noting that cost inflation and supply chain issues are changing the calculus for builders.

“They are doing their due diligence. That doesn’t mean every developer will come up with projects without balconies, but they’re definitely investigating whether it makes sense to do it on a few suites or try it on an entire building and see what the results are.”

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Toronto-based Lanterra Developments is one company committed to this idea. His development at 50 Scollard St., a 41-story, 133-unit condominium in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood, includes no balconies, instead opting for a handful of private patios and Juliet windows.

Lanterra Developments is getting rid of balconies at its condominium development at 50 Scollard Street in Toronto's Yorkville neighborhood. Lanterra Developments is getting rid of balconies in its condominium at 50 Scollard in Yorkville. Photo by Lanterra Developments

Christopher Wein, Lanterra’s chief operating officer and president of construction management, said cost was part of their decision, but not the only factor.

“The cost of these balconies is very high, and ultimately, as you know, the cost is borne by the buyers,” Wein said.

However, Wein also pointed out problems that balconies pose in terms of energy efficiency due to the thermal breaks in the building structure required to insert doors.

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“To make a building more energy efficient, you have to have less permeation,” Wein said. “Like a boat. The more holes there are in a boat, the greater the likelihood that the boat will leak.”

According to the federal government, buildings alone were the third largest source of emissions nationwide in 2020, behind the oil and gas industry and transport.

In 2021, Canada adopted a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and obtaining certifications such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) — issued by the Canada Green Building Council — is encouraged at all levels of government.

For development companies with their own net zero goals, achieving LEED status is an integral part of their overall plan.

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“By eliminating balconies, your building is much greener,” said Wein.

Rather than private outdoor spaces for each unit at 50 Scollard, Lanterra designed large, shared terraces at the podium level, a feature Wein says has become standard in their projects.

Instead of private outdoor spaces for each unit at 50 Scollard, Lanterra designed large, shared terraces on the podium level. Instead of private outdoor spaces for each unit at 50 Scollard, Lanterra designed large, shared terraces on the podium level. Photo by Lanterra Developments

“The residents of the building can still enjoy the indoor and outdoor space, but it’s made so that we all share it with each other. We’re basically creating parks in the sky or on the podium that serve as the beautiful outdoor space that people want,” he said.

The magnitude of the cost savings from cutting balconies will vary by development and size. Myers’ company calculated that the average balcony on a 670-square-foot unit is 72 square feet.

According to Marlon Bray, a cost consultant at Altus Group, a global real estate software and consulting firm, a balcony developer can run anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 per unit to be built — with additional costs for maintenance and eventual replacement.

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“Balconies are expensive to build and, frankly, most balconies aren’t used year-round,” Bray said in an interview.

That question — how much use balconies have, especially in a cold-weather country like Canada, and how willing people are to forgo them — is the subject of some debate.

Like Bray, Lanterra’s Wein believes that most balconies are underutilized.

“If you look at most buildings and you see a three-foot-deep balcony, you can’t do anything with it,” he said. “You don’t eat there, BBQ’s aren’t allowed on balconies due to building codes… It ends up being a sort of auxiliary space that doesn’t really add value to either the dwelling unit or a person’s lifestyle. However, compared to the cost of the building, this is a significant cost.”

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The magnitude of the cost savings from cutting balconies will vary by development and size. The magnitude of the cost savings from cutting balconies will vary by development and size. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Others argue that living without them can be hard.

“Imagine being locked up because of the pandemic, age or a medical condition,” Ted Kesik, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, said in an email. “Their only convenient access to the outdoors would be a balcony, and under the circumstances it would probably be considered priceless.”

However, even Kesik noted that practicality is an issue, especially on higher floors where they may not be comfortable.

Kesik compared the Canadian market to Scandinavia, where balconies often feature a retractable glazing system large enough to comfortably accommodate a dining table and chairs for the whole family.

“The occupants are protected from wind, rain and snow and when closed provide a safe place for children and pets, no matter how high up in a building they are. Surveys of high-rise residents show that a significant proportion are afraid of heights and find the balcony environment uncomfortable most of the time,” he said.

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Myers said he looks at what the buyer values.

“People with their wallets decide whether an apartment with a balcony is worth it for them or not,” he says. “I think in every market there are always certain people who appreciate different things. Some people might say, “If the cost of an apartment without a balcony is $30,000 less, I’ll definitely take that.”

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On a global scale, losing the balcony is something of a rite of passage.

“In mature markets like New York City, Manhattan, Hong Kong, London, etc., you see all these beautiful buildings and there are no balconies at all,” Wein said.

He wants to be a pioneer in Canada.

“It’s a trend that Lanterra will continue,” he said.

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