Fewer houses, more models

Intrepid local reporter Christopher Cheung, a former student of mine who now often walks the housing beat in Vancouver, has a new piece in the Vancouver Courier on the local scale model building industry. It’s fun! And he came to me for some quotes, so I’m mentioned in there too. Why? Because the model industry has taken off in no small part due to Vancouver’s move away from the standardized single-family detached house.

The model-building industry is important precisely because of its role in providing tangible evidence for what new developments will look like – from the wide-angle view of a towering and all-powerful giant. Fortunately, this point of view is appreciated by developers, by financiers, by city officials, planners and regulators, and even by angry NIMBY neighbors. But let’s set aside for a moment how model-builders further stoke ego-inflation. What’s also key, I think, is understanding their role in almost totemically reducing the enormous uncertainties involved in development across a wide range of parties. As revealed in an earlier (and also quite good) piece on model builders in Vancouver, by Jesse Donaldson, this includes the set of pre-sale buyers increasingly needed to make a go of condo development.

In an early draft of my forthcoming book on the single-family house in Vancouver, I actually used a brief discussion of the model-building industry’s role within the complicated development industry as an entry into describing the very limited traction we get with rational choice and related rent gap models that assume everything can be costed out ahead of time in urban development. It can’t. It’s messy. There’s just way too much uncertainty involved (see, for instance, Shelley Kimelberg‘s great stuff for more on this). And in that sense, it’s often quite different from the more highly standardized detached house building industry.

Lots to play around with here, and hopefully some day I’ll get back to it! (I had to cut out about a third of my early manuscript, which really was WAY too long).  In the meantime it’s great that people keep writing about this stuff. And it’s also worth reading both articles on model-builders, in part because it’s just awesome that B&B Scale Models (profiled in the earlier Donaldson piece) has found its fiercest competitor in AB Scale Models (profiled in the Cheung piece).  Here I wish Chris had been just a little more hard-hitting in his reporting. What I want to know is:

Did AB Scale Models really choose its name just get under the skin of B&B Scale Models (and appear earlier in the phone book)? And are there secret scale model wars that take place between the two companies on the city streets at night? If so, who wins?

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