Add via Edit: A Decade of Housing by 5468796 Architecture

Setting up 5468796 over 11 years ago, we decided that until we could articulate what our work might be about, it would be better to remain silent. It was more important for us to simply get to work.

Over the first decade, our work has focused on the “missing middle” of multi-family housing in its many forms and ownership models, from refugee and social housing to market rate condominiums. We didn’t actively pursue this type of work, but rather, it was a result of our choice to stay in Winnipeg at a time when many of our colleagues left for greener architectural pastures. Our location in a “parochial second city” provided a quick feedback loop—from design to construction to response to critique—a context to visibly stand out or fail in. Serendipity and connections certainly played a role. Like most architects starting out, we have been shaped by the type of work we have been given, before we could shape it.

5468796, 62M
Named after its street address on 62 MacDonald Avenue, 62M is a housing development that makes use of a residual urban site beside a freeway. Elevating the building on 35-foot-high stilts allows it to capture views beyond the immediate setting. The building contains 40 pie-shaped units, as well as a luxurious glass-box penthouse perched atop its elevator core

From this perspective, it is easy to be skeptical about the narrow definition or field in which capital ‘A’ architecture operates in Canada today. Houses for the 1% and the luxury towers shaping the ever-expanding skylines of Canadian metropolises do not meet the growing need for well-built and planned cities. Nor do they provide access to carefully considered and designed places for the vast majority of the population.

The multi-family housing typology is the one area of architecture that has the most impact on the lives of “ordinary people” going about their everyday lives. With the condominium boom taking hold across the country, the number of residential units passing across an architect’s desk is unprecedented. And as a result of the typology’s inherent repetition, and potentially banal programme—as well as the private sector’s pursuit of profit at the expense of quality and livability—the margin in which architecture can operate is incredibly narrow. It seems therefore incredibly important that as architects we should respond to the challenges of this typology with the rigour that it deserves. Given the dramatic shift towards smaller family units in North America, and the adoption of multi-family housing as an acceptable form of living, the opportunity to do so is now.5468796, 62M

This multi-faceted challenge demands that the definition of architecture (and an architect) be broadened to that of a strategy (and a strategist). The role of a strategist is not limited to skillful form-making, technical achievement, or satisfying the client’s financial targets.

It also includes concern for making good spaces for people both inside and outside of the program; weaving the project into the existing city fabric; being environmentally sustainable; finding the right partners and partnerships; operating in political and financial realms; and meeting the challenge of affordability—all while keeping the project on time and on budget. To date we have succeeded and failed at each one of these objectives. Unpacking our past ten years of experience in multi-family housing has allowed us to reflect on the lessons learned that guide the way we conceive of architecture.

Photo by James Florio.
Photo by James Florio.

[Critical Opportunism]: The vast majority of housing in Canada is built by the private sector. The market-driven formula for success tends to be limited. In the world of private development, architecture is a commodity that is expected to bend to the pressures of net-to-gross floor area ratios. All too often, the results fail to impress: fat floor plates with deep, tunnel-like units off double-loaded corridors, no cross-ventilation, and a single narrow window face at the perimeter. As members of a profession founded on creative thought, innovation and concern for the greater good, we have to do better. It falls on the architect to broaden these parameters—early on and without additional expense.5468796, 62M

In several of our projects this has involved breaking a simple block into parts that begin to define the “in-between,” shared outdoor spaces where life can happen. In a three-storey walk-up project like youCube or CentreVillage the formula is simple: individual doors at grade result in a 100% buildable-to-sellable efficiency ratio, with no space or cost devoted to indoor public corridors or exit stairs. As a trade-off, developers are able to re-allocate a portion of the budget towards the outdoor public realm—a shared space that allows life to extend beyond the confines of individual suites. This communal space also becomes part of the network of public spaces in the city. With mid-rise buildings, the inclusion of skip-stop corridors (Courtyard 33 + OZ + Pumphouse) or the redefinition of budget priorities (62M + Avenue Building) have allowed us to re-invest a portion of our client’s budget, and incorporate public spaces or civic presence into the project’s pro forma.

[Clarity]: Taking time and making an effort to define the parameters early on in the design process allows us to distill a project to its fundamental core. This creates a roadmap that establishes the right hierarchy of design ideas and priorities for the duration of the project. Regardless of the turbulence that inevitably follows as a project matures and external pressures increase, this roadmap encourages us to hang on to what we have collectively deemed to be the most important aspects of each project. With this clarity, we can respond to changes without losing sight of the whole.

[Robustness]: Working in Winnipeg teaches us that architectural ideas will always be vetted through the lens of more conventional or cheaper alternatives. In order to survive in this context, every design decision must be essential. This leads to an innate frugality of our interventions, shaving off the excess in order to create projects that do not depend on extraneous or decorative elements. Efficiency of means results in more robust projects that can resist the inevitable value engineering process, to the service of the client and user—and ultimately to the benefit of the architectural outcome for all.5468796, 62M

[Openness + Maturing]: For us, one sign of a great project is when the final outcome is far removed from our initial inclinations. This does not mean that we suppress intuition. Rather, we engage in an iterative, open-ended and flexible process that allows our ideas to evolve as we react to various contexts, conditions, clients and end-users. Letting go of preconceived notions creates room for innovation, or even true invention. Flexibility is necessary to allow projects to mature and improve with each obstacle, as opposed to eroding as issues arise. Our more successful projects are ones that have transformed from their original diagram into a detailed narrative that directly supports their core architectural values.

[Relentlessness]: Architectural projects are inevitably influenced by outside forces not present during the initial design phases. This is especially true with our most common client type: the single entity owner-developer-builder who can decide to change any element of a project at any time, and has the means to implement changes without further scrutiny. Remaining open to this evolution means treating each request as an opportunity to learn and improve. The inevitability of this process requires courage to adapt, and the conviction to pursue improvements at all stages of the project. The design process is liberating when allowed to evolve—details get tighter, concepts get leaner and projects get better.

Each new challenge requires growth. Members of the team develop individual strengths, that when brought together, enable 5468796 to innovate and challenge presupposed solutions with intelligence rather than responding with obstinance. The power of our collaborative partnership is our greatest resource. With more knowledge, we are more open to embracing change and reacting in a way that improves the project outcomes.

Today, we are an office of 20 working around a single table towards shared goals. While by no means do we feel that we have all the answers, our experience has armed us with certain opinions and convictions about the particular realities that contribute to our pursuits. After 10 years, our first inclination of getting to work remains true and more focused, thanks to the principles that we have discovered along the way. Through this quest for conceptual clarity and robustness, we strive to remain nimble, curious and open, and to recognize the opportunities that unlock a project’s potential beyond a profit line. Ultimately, we hope that in the next 10 years, we are able to realize architecture that is neither more nor less what it needs to be.

CENTRE VILLAGE designed by 5468796 in joint venture with Cohlmeyer Architecture, Centre Village is a three-storey walk-up organized around two public spaces: a central courtyard and a shared vehicular-pedestrian laneway. It was originally conceived as an affordable housing co-op, but shifted to a conventional social housing project midway through construction. From its inception, a primary goal was to explore the notion of compact living, with units that are 25% to 35% smaller than standard market sizes.

Photo by 5468796.
Photo by 5468796.

As a proof of concept, 5468796 furnished one of the units as a show suite, illustrating its liveability. But once these units were occupied, we discovered that many low-income families are reliant on hand-me-downs—which often have enormous proportions. It would be very unlikely for these residents to acquire compact furniture, or to live with relatively few possessions.

STRADBROOK A shingled, mirrored glass façade was the defining aspect of this project. As designed and constructed, it provides the project with texture, richness, and reflectivity which contribute to the quality of the neighbourhood. However, as the project progressed, we became concerned that the client might decide to edit out the façade’s mirrored finish altogether. We realized first-hand the inherent risks of relying on the “luxury” of a single element in a design.

youCUBE The no-frills exterior of this project contrasts with its complex interior geometry, with circulation elements that are non-intuitive, exciting and unique. However, the interior’s strict adherence to a concept was at times heavy-handed, and the effort required to execute it precisely could have been used to better effect in other areas. We have since asked ourselves if the project would have been just as successful with a more economical and controlled gypsum board pony-wall strategy instead of custom aluminum guardrails.

YouCube interior
YouCube interior.

OZ The financial feasibility of OZ is predicated on maximizing the sellable area on a site heavily constrained by bulk zoning regulations. We were able to achieve this while also keeping circulation spaces at a minimum by stacking a series of two-storey interlocking units with skip-stop corridors over top of ground-oriented townhouses; maximizing mezzanine configurations; and implementing a number of unconventional exiting scenarios. The building was constructed using steel structure with precast hollow-core floor planks. In hindsight, this choice of materials resulted in a series of complicated construction details, and the project may have been more easily built in concrete or masonry.

62M The project was built at a time when the Canadian dollar lost much of its value relative to US currency, and commodity prices skyrocketed in the local market. This resulted in a need to change the exterior envelope in its entirety. The raised structure’s mirrored soffit and cladding, a high-end mesh guardrail, and extruded aluminum fins camouflaging the faceted façade were all at risk of being eliminated. We replaced each of these elements with more economical—and consequently, more robust—alternatives.

Instead of the reflective soffit, matte black metal shingles give the building a sense of weight. The cladding is made from weathering steel whose velvety patina conceals the typical oil-canning of light-gauge metal. The mesh was distilled to a tightly woven off-the-shelf chain link. Finally, the fins were built by folding layers of pre-finished flashing into rigid forms. To us, the resulting building is more straightforward, robust and rigorous. It gives us clues on how to go about designing in the future.

AVENUE The Avenue Building has had a long and important history along Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. But in the 15 years prior to redevelopment, the building was vacant and extremely neglected. It became a poster child for the plight of Winnipeg’s downtown. The task of rebranding the building and overcoming the stigma surrounding it demanded a major shift on a minor budget. The completed project featured mirror-finished balconies and a projecting canopy, as well as an undulating ground-floor façade that enlarges the sidewalk for pedestrian comfort. Convincing the client builder-developer to invest into these elements—in lieu of recladding the century-old office building with more conventional materials—resulted in a building that engages the city in an active, effective way.

BLOC_10 In Bloc_10, each suite is a unique configuration of three modules, staggered across three floors to enable cross ventilation and views. Eight of the ten units reach to the corners. The project was also an experiment for the DIY generation—units were left unfinished, and each of the modules has a “wet wall” allowing for kitchens and bathrooms on any floor. The end results varied: some have conventional layouts, while other owners took full advantage of the opportunity to test the system with unconventional layouts, living patterns and aesthetics.

Photos by James Brittain, except as indicated.