As apartments become increasingly smaller, it is important to make the best possible use of every square foot of space. However, anyone looking down from a drone flying above Metro Vancouver will observe a significant portion of many apartments is often completely wasted. I refer, of course, to the balcony.Derived from the Italian ‘balcone’, meaning scaffold, the earliest balconies date back to ancient Greece when they addressed purely functional needs such as increasing air circulation or modulating natural light into a building’s interior.Prior to the 1960s, few Vancouver buildings included balconies since they were generally included in the building area calculation, also known as floor space ratio or FSR. However, to encourage developers to construct balconies, Vancouver City Council in 1964 introduced an FSR exemption for residential open balconies to a maximum of eight per cent of the gross floor area. As a result, new apartment building designs throughout British Columbia began to incorporate balconies.Unfortunately, many of these balconies were not used. Consequently, in 1985, Vancouver City Council adopted Balcony Enclosure Guidelines to allow balconies in existing buildings to be enclosed with glass windows and walls. Council subsequently permitted the enclosure of balconies in new construction, provided the space continued to be separate and distinct from the interior of the dwelling.As written in the 1985 guidelines, “the purpose of an enclosed balcony is to afford an occupant the year-round enjoyment of those uses to which an open balcony normally would be used in fair and warm weather.”To address exterior design, the guidelines stated that “careful attention should be given to preserving the design integrity of facades…through a distinctive shape and a predominance of clear glass.”Unfortunately, it did not take long before some developers were enclosing all the balconies to increase saleable area. As a result, buildings became bulkier and less attractive. Consequently, in 1995, council amended the balcony enclosure policy to restrict enclosed balconies to no more than 50 per cent of the permitted balcony area. North-facing balconies and those along busy streets were often enclosed, while others remained open.Today, Vancouver allows balconies up to 12 per cent of the building area to be excluded from the FSR, but new enclosed balconies are generally included in the FSR. Other municipalities continue to allow open balconies up to eight per cent of the total building area, without counting in the FSR area calculation.Over the years, throughout Metro, individual condominium owners have often enclosed their balconies. Sometimes this was done with the formal approval of the strata council and the requisite municipal permits. However, in other cases, no approvals were obtained.I recently became aware of one Vancouver building where 11 owners who enclosed their balconies decades ago without permits are now being asked to remove their enclosures. No doubt many others could soon find themselves in a similar position.To address complaints about the lack of variety in highrise building design, increasingly architects are using balconies to add articulation and interest to building facades. One of my favourite examples is architect Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower, an 82-storey mixed-use building in Chicago. Its curvilinear balconies vary in dept from 2 to 12 feet, resulting in wave-like forms on all sides of the building. The effect is marvellous.Other equally creative solutions are beginning to appear around Vancouver.While these balconies will certainly improve building appearance, often they too will remain unused, especially those in taller buildings where wind buffeting can be so extreme one can hardly leave anything on a balcony without the risk of the wind sucking it off.While many apartment owners do not use their balconies, they insist on having them because they want to be able to get outside without riding the elevator or because they’re afraid their unit will be harder to sell without a balcony.One Toronto realtor compared the balcony to the architectural equivalent of the NordicTrack machine. “You buy it because you want to see yourself using it, but seldom do; though at least an exercise machine is usable in winter.”A few years ago, while travelling through Europe, I saw an elegant, transparent, retractable glass system that made balconies more usable year round without fully enclosing them. It consisted of sliding glass panels that could be completely opened and folded against the wall. When it started to rain, the panels could be quickly closed.Since the glass was frameless, the exterior design of the building was not really altered. Furthermore, since there was a small air gap at the top and bottom and between the glass panels, the balcony was not completely sealed off like it would be with an enclosed balcony.Several European companies are manufacturing these systems. They include Solarlux, (solarlux.com) a German company, and Airclos (airclos.com) based in Spain.Perhaps the best known is Lumon (lumon.com), a Finnish company that has set up a manufacturing plant in Canada. It claims its glass-panel system can result in 34-per-cent energy savings and significantly reduce noise levels. It also prevents premature balcony degradation by keeping rain, snow, wind, dust and birds away from the balcony.Architects and developers in several Metro municipalities are starting to incorporate retractable balcony glass into their upcoming multi-family projects. It is a trend that I expect to become increasingly popular with prospective apartment buyers and renters.However, while the Lumon system can now be installed in new buildings in Abbotsford, Langley City and Langley Township without counting in the building area calculation, to have wider application in B.C., it will be necessary for all municipalities to update their zoning bylaws.The reality is, when these bylaws were drafted, balconies could either be open and excluded from FSR calculations, or fully enclosed and included in FSR.No one expected that one day a system would be designed that allows balconies to be both completely open or partially closed and evolve into a more sensible and useful space.But then again, we weren’t expecting Amazon’s Alexa, Uber or autonomous cars either.Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, developer and educator. He is an adjunct professor at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.