Sustainability from the ground up

Locally-inspired architecture with a global reach

This is the first of two articles featuring the work of emerging practices from across the country, whose vision of sustainability embraces holistic solutions implemented at a small scale. The work gives physical form to the emerging culture of cooperation and collaboration that is the foundation of social sustainability. Local in its inspiration, this work nonetheless illustrates the
transformative power of architecture, and plants the seeds of civic ecologies whose principles are global in scope.

By Jim Taggart, SABMag editor

Marianne Amodio Architecture Studio, Vancouver

Marianne Amodio Architecture Studio is a practice that focuses on housing alternatives that strive to create economic and social sustainability. We believe that architecture is a political act; it not only reflects our values as a culture but it creates those values. As Winston Churchill put it, ”We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This is true everywhere, but we feel this strongly in Vancouver because we are in the midst of a cultural shift that is not yet reflected clearly in our urban fabric.

Our current planning and zoning policies were based on certain values, and many of them are now decades old. For the first time in a long time, a significant shift in ideology is taking place - the things that used to be important to us are no longer as meaningful and other values: such as community, cooperation and sharing have become more important. We believe that there is an exciting opportunity for this shift to be more clearly reflected in our policies and thus in our urban fabric.

Important to us also, is how architecture is innately about problem solving and about the creation of opportunity. Every project is a problem that requires a solution: we hold great faith in the power of architecture to respond creatively to any issue and to find the opportunity in each scenario. In the case of housing affordability, we see creativity as an avenue to support social sustainability.

APT 1125 West 12th Avenue
This project involved the renovation of a 12-storey micro-unit building in Vancouver, called APT. The new owners wanted to explore how to modernize this former seniors’ residence, with exceptionally small units. The challenge was to demonstrate how living in a small space can be highly desirable; that this could be a positive lifestyle choice not only in terms of affordability, but also in response to environmental and social concerns. These include the creation of community, and the consideration of what an individual really needs when living in a dense urban environment. How could we make people want to live there?

The owners understood that in order for someone to reside in a small unit, a culture of sharing would have to be created. Therefore the two lowermost storeys, comprising approximately 10,000 square feet were renovated to provide shared amenity space, including gym areas, art studios and workshops, a laundry and much-needed storage rooms. There are also TV and communal gathering spaces, ping pong tables and free wifi everywhere, as well as a private lounge and full size kitchen that can be reserved by residents. The generous outdoor gardens include a communal bbq, swimming pool and hot tub.

The design supports community living: there are regular yoga classes, ping pong tournaments and movie nights scheduled. This allows single residents to come together as a whole, countering the loneliness often faced by those who reside in high-rise towers. This renovation crystallized the idea that at APT, the entire building is the home of each and every resident and their smaller unit is simply their private space. By sharing the living areas and catalyzing community, this becomes a desirable choice.

MADHouse
The challenge for this project was to design a house on a standard Vancouver lot for an older couple, their three grown children and their children’s partners. The Owners immediately christened it the “MADhouse” or, multi-adult dwelling. Similar to the ubiquitous Vancouver Special of a generation ago, the Owners saw the project as a prototype for contemporary living.
Conceived as something akin to a dormitory, the owners wanted the shared spaces to be large and spacious and the private spaces small and functional. The 2,700 square foot building is thus divided into four smaller private zones, where each adult couple has a suite made up of a bedroom and bathroom; one large public zone, where the family comes together for meals and relaxation, several smaller public outdoor zones at the two roof decks and rear yard, and a few nooks and crannies that serve the need for privacy.
The organization of this building can be considered as a prototype for multi-generational family living and is not only functional but also expresses the spirit of the individual families. We not only devised a plan that worked to accommodate eight adults on a single family lot, but we had a delightful time doing it, a process that reflected the joyous cacophony that is now this family’s everyday life.

Jervis
This project comprises a renovation and addition to an existing 1957 3-1/2 storey apartment building in Vancouver’s West End. Currently in this area, re-zonings may not exceed the existing FSR. This policy was created in response to the “renovictions” faced by many residents of the West End, and at the same time, provides a mechanism to control rental rates. The unfortunate consequence of this City policy is that many buildings of this era continue to deteriorate and no longer meet current standards for life and fire safety.

Our initial proposal was to add three storeys to the building, so that the rental rates of the exist-ing units could remain unchanged. This proposal was rejected by the City, however, we did dis-cover that the existing building was smaller than the permissible FSR, allowing us to build addi-tional units to offset the cost of the renovation and pass on the savings to the residents.

This strategy should be more widely adopted, as it provides a path to affordability, one that promotes social continuity in local communities, while having a smaller carbon footprint than build-ing new. Working with the City on a case by case basis could identify the optimal solution for each project. The creation of additional floor space can facilitate the required energy and fire safety code upgrades to the existing structure.

Strategies used on the Jervis project that support affordability and social sustainability include: a modular concept based on the existing structural grid and unit layouts, including modular window types, modular cladding panels and modular balconies; these last creating a new outdoor amenity, previously lacking in the neighbourhood, as well as providing an opportunity to create a playful and engaging architecture.

The common threads running through these projects include the idea of sharing - sharing small things makes them seem bigger; the accommodation of emerging household structures that can change the way we think about our single-family neighbourhoods; and a focus on creating beauty - something that we know to be spiritually uplifting, yet which is too often neglected.

All the projects promote densification which, when done well, creates a greater sense of community, a greater sense of place and belonging, and a stronger sense of well being. In such places, we walk more, we meet all different kinds of people; we make friends - and our environ-mental footprint is smaller. In our quest to be more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, densification is of the highest order. living smaller and sharing in what is, in fact, our great wealth is the key.

5468796 Architecture, Winnipeg

The sub-million cities of the world are expanding at a faster rate than ever before. Within these cities, often confronted with challenging economic constraints, architects must find and harness opportunities for innovation to address questions of social responsibility and community identity while providing unique models of sustainability applicable on a global scale.

Having emerged from this condition, 5468796 Architecture, established in Winnipeg in 2007, practices with the belief that limitations can become the catalyst to creating critically relevant work. We have learned that the architect’s approach to sustainability must be holistic, recognizing that striking the right balance between environmental and social concerns, while satisfying our client’s economic goals, is vital to the success of architecture today and into the future.

Reaching beyond sustainable building systems and materials, we firmly believe that rich urban and social concepts centring on spatial efficiencies and robust, durable, and flexible design have the potential to create highly functional and enlivened living spaces within the city. Considering the average home in Canada is 1,948 square feet, ranking third among developed countries on a per capita basis  - one of our biggest challenges is adjusting public perception of how much space we really need.

Buildings account for 40% of the global energy consumption.  Reducing the size of the spaces that we occupy is therefore more effective than the application of ‘green’ technology in reducing our collective ecological footprint. In order to do so, individuals need to see the benefits, not only for the environment – but perhaps as a more acute outcome – in their own quality of life. We see great potential in downsizing square footage while upsizing the quality of the urban condition through intelligent design.

Each of our projects considers the utilization of leftover spaces to employ concepts such as public courtyards as an extension of private space, a ground-oriented pedestrian scale to increase human comfort, and a mix of uses to encourage activity daily and throughout the year.

These architectural responses compliment smaller than average living spaces by creating vibrant social spaces and producing outdoor microclimates that allow for an extension of the shoulder seasons and protection from a harsh winter climate.

Centre Village
Serving underprivileged families, Winnipeg’s Centre Village housing cooperative helps revitalize a neglected inner-city neighbourhood. The site was an abandoned lot zoned for six single-family houses. Instead, the project established a micro village of 25 dwellings within six, three-storey blocks. The blocks’ arrangement both defines and animates two public spaces - a through-street and a shared courtyard - that weave the city into the project and provide amenities for residents and neighbours. Each dwelling has its own entrance at grade or up an exterior staircase, reducing internal circulation and prompting residents to get to know one another.

The units have rich and playful compositions made from simple, compact and easy-to-build 8’x12’ modules and cantilevered 14’x12’ modules for larger living areas. Modules are then stacked and interlocked to create diverse unit configurations distributed over several floors. A typical residence has eight or more windows on at least two sides of the building, providing ample and varied access to daylight and cross-ventilation. Deeply set, vibrant orange cowlings around the windows modulate privacy and views into the units, granting Centre Village a distinct identity in the city.

youCUBE
youCUBE is an 18-unit housing development that explores the potential for density and affordability on a narrow, 264’ x 63’ urban lot. Located on the north end of Waterfront Drive, the project occupies a seemingly unremarkable site with limited visibility of the nearby river and neglected, industrial surroundings.

With a modest budget and a background in custom home building, the developer needed a design that could be built using standard residential construction methods. In response, the project challenges conventional multi-family housing design with a modular and more affordable configuration of individual dwellings that goes beyond the brief to include extensive outdoor space and inspired architectural interiors.

The final composition clusters three- and four-storey townhouses together on an elevated plaza, which provides access to all of the suite entrances and shelters parking below. Neighbours are also encouraged to interact with one another at the rooftop level where private patios nestle in close proximity with visual access from one to the other.
Inside, the suites are defined by an architectural ‘wrap’, a design element that sculpts the interior into a fluid sequence of open-plan rooms within a spacious, light-filled volume.

Marianne Amodio, Principal, Marianne Amodio Architecture Studio, and Johanna Herme, Principal, 5468796 architecture.
In the next issue [spring, 2017] of SABMag, we will feature the work of KANVA of Montreal and Acre Architects of Saint John.

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