Design With Cause

PROJECT Rsidences Jean-Placide-Desrosiers, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECT Lapointe Magne et associs

PROJECT Les habitations joseph-le caron, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECT Affleck + de la Riva architectes, martin Brire Architectes, en Consortium

TEXT Odile Hnault

In 2001, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) launched a new program called the Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI) with the specific goal of increasing the number of affordable housing units across Canada. A grant of $1 billion was committed to this initiative for a five-year period. Provinces as well as municipalities, and other non-profit organizations were expected to match the federal money. Quebec was earmarked for $236 million.

In Montreal, three client groups were targeted: low-income families, seniors requiring some assistance, and special cases (battered women and other vulnerable groups). At the launch of the program, the Office municipal d’habitation de Montral (OMHM)–Montreal’s municipal housing authority, responsible for building and managing social housing in Montreal for decades, was given the mandate to plan the seniors’ residences and the family housing. The City of Montreal contributed 15% of the construction cost while the federal and provincial governments provided 60%. The balance was obtained from lending institutions.

At the end of December 2006, the OMHM had built, thanks to the federal program, five seniors’ residences for a total of 583 units, and an additional 674 units were being built or in the design stages. As far as families are concerned, ten buildings had been built for a total of 243 units while another 237 more units were either under construction or in the planning process. What is particularly significant with this new wave of social housing is that it seems to have brought on a major shift in attitude, particularly on the part of the architects, who, despite extremely low budgets–oscillating around $115 a square foot–are managing to construct remarkable buildings. The results could not be more removed from the stigmatized image long associated with subsidized housing.

Finally, it is important to stress here that the architects could never have reached this level of excellence without the dedication of a few enlightened civil servants and their staff at the OMHM. It is definitely worth mentioning, in this case, Fabien Cournoyer, OMHM director, as well as architects Mario Roy, in charge of development, and Louis-Paul Lemieux, both of whom have since left for private practice.

The two projects shown here correspond to the types of buildings targeted by the CMHC program. They are quite different from one another but both show strong commitment on the part of the architects and OMHM staff. The Rsidences Jean-Placide-Desrosiers, for seniors, is in the southwest of Montreal near the historic Lachine Canal, and the Habitations Joseph-Le Caron for low-income families lies in the northeast of the city: both areas contrast completely in character.

Rsidences Jean-Placide-Desrosiers

This seniors’ residence is located in Ville St-Pierre, a former “city” of roughly 5,000 inhabitants which, at the beginning of the 20th century, benefited from its close proximity to water and rail. The arrival of the trucking industry, however, was to signal the end of Ville St-Pierre’s manufacturing industry and the beginning of its decline. Today, the two-square-kilometre enclave, now part of Montreal, remains a relatively homogeneous French-Canadian community, very much anchored to its working-class roots. When the parish Catholic Church, Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, burnt down in 2000, the community was devastated.

A few years before the church disappeared, a residence for the elderly had been erected next to it on Ouellette Street where the social life of this aging community seems to be concentrated. It therefore became obvious that the land where the church once stood should be used for affordable housing. Two projects were developed: a co-operative building for families, and a residence for seniors with reduced autonomy. Lapointe Magne Architects, well known in Montreal for their subtle interventions and twice winners of the 2006 Governor General’s Awards program, were selected by the OMHM to design the seniors’ residence.

An important element to be integrated into the design of this building was the presbytery which, having escaped the flames that ravaged the church, had taken on even more sentimental value for the community. After replacing its wood structure with steel, the architects turned the presbytery into a communal dining room, kitchen and multi-purpose area. The presbytery’s old stone and brick faade was left exposed as much as possible for the residents to enjoy.

The building was sited at an almost 90-degree angle in relationship to the railway tracks so that tenants would get eastern or western exposure and would not be disturbed by the noise of freight cars. Local planning authorities requested from the architects that they design a roof line that would create a transition between the existing six-storey residence to the west and the three-storey co-operative to the east. The building was split down the middle, five levels on one side and four levels on the other, which turned out to be a real bonus for the top-floor tenants who now enjoy not only great views of downtown Montreal, but also a sunlit hallway. The use of the same brick for the seniors’ and the co-operative housing projects and the preservation of mature trees on the site further enhanced the residential qualities of Ouellette Street.

With amazingly low budgets–$107 a square foot–there was little room for the architects to manoeuvre. The main structure is a steel and prefabricated hollow-core concrete slab system used to lower costs and facilitate winter construction. The plans for these 83 small, mostly one-bedroom units are straightforward but do include a modest spatial device of an entrance closet on one side and kitchen storage on the other, which helps to define the living area. The architects allowed themselves a little more freedom in the hallways with entrance alcoves painted in bright colours.

On the exterior of the building, the architects were able to play with the volumes thanks to a metal grid of balconies superimposed over the main faades of brick and fibre-cement panelling. This grid is made of galvanized metal panels–normally used as stair treads for industrial projects–which are installed vertically allowing each of the balconies a level of privacy. There is no predetermined pattern: some units have three or four of these screens, while others just have one or two. The balconies are suspended thanks to diagonal tension elements anchored in the steel structure, thus avoiding thermal bridging through the slab.

Les Habitations Joseph-Le Caron

At the opposite end of the city, the Habitations Joseph-Le Caron exist in an environment which is totally different from Ville St-Pierre. When it became a “city” in 1915, the Ville de Montral-Nord only had about 1,000 inhabitants. Development was slow during the first half of the 20th century; visitors were attracted to the beautiful shores of Rivire des Prairies where they could board a small ferry to le Jsus–now Laval. The ferry was eventually replaced by a bridge built during the recession. By 1950, the population was still only 12,000, but the postwar years were about to have a major impact on the destinies of Montral-Nord. Residential buildings appeared everywhere accommodating a rapidly growing population, featuring an especially strong Italian community. In the last few years, Montral-Nord has become home to a large population of Haitian immigrants. The 11-square-kilometre area now hosts approximately 84,000 people and, as is too often the case with visible minorities, numerous families with low incomes.

The site slated for this 19-unit family-oriented projec
t was an odd-shaped piece of land in close proximity to one of the neighbourhood’s oldest streets, L’Archevque Street, which still retains a few “heritage” houses. Lger Boulevard, however, a rather sterile artery lined with nondescript buildings, seems to be painfully in search of its identity. Affleck de la Riva Brire, in consortium, were selected by the OMHM to attempt reconciling the old urban pattern with the more contemporary gestures inherited from the 20th century. As with Lapointe Magne et associs, they belong to a new breed of keen and enthusiastic designers that have patiently built a solid reputation for themselves in Montreal.

The building height was determined by the type of structure–wood in this case–adopted for budgetary reasons: it meant a maximum of four storeys to comply with the National Building Code. In order to fully utilize the site, the architects chose to sink the ground floor by half a level. They also sank the access to the parking area behind, thus diminishing the impact of the opening on the boulevard and creating a porte cochre effect, characteristic of Montreal’s traditional architecture.

The shallowness of the site also made it impossible to have a typical double-loaded corridor, which meant the architects opted for transversal apartments with generous interiors, all slightly different one from one another because of the building’s geometry. The shape of the building and the unit plans were dictated by the site but also by a strange request on the part of the OMHM to avoid triangular spaces. It generated the idea of a faade that would step back from the street, from one unit to the next.

The absence of common hallways on each level of the building meant separate entries on the Lger Boulevard faade and a flurry of metal stairs in the back serving as emergency exits from the apartments. The front entrances, placed at a slight angle to the street, are a reminder of the long narrow lots typical of the rural pattern found all over the island of Montreal at one time. The only “frill” allowed on the faade of this project is the introduction of anthracite brick inserts perpendicular to the windows. Stucco had first been planned for reasons of budget, but the Montral-Nord authorities, tired of decades of mediocre building practices on their territory, insisted on a better material. Additional funds to pay for the anthracite brick were found and stucco was limited to discreet placement on the faade. The masonry work is exquisite, the visual effect is interesting, and, amazingly, budgets were kept at $115 per square foot.

Away from the iconographic or signature architecture which seems to attract so much media attention today, the two projects shown here and others already built or being built in Montreal beautifully manage to reconcile the word “design” with the word “cause”. The architects’ willingness and ability to work on shoestring budgets is proof of their immense talent and resilience. In this case, the complicity of the Office municipal d’habitation de Montral should be particularly commended.

An architectural critic since the beginning of the 1980s, Odile Hnault spent a number of years abroad before moving back to Montreal in 2003. She works as a writer, professional advisor and occasionally teaches at the Universit du Qubec Montral (UQM).

CLIENT Office municipal d’habitation de Montral

ARCHITECT TEAM Robert Magne, Benoit Chaput, Marc Choquette, Vincent Coraini, Cyril Charron, Christian Desmarais, Frdric Dub, Laure Giordani, Patrick Morand, Yves Proulx

STRUCTURAL Les consultants Gemec Inc.



CONTRACTOR Consortium M.R. Canada lte

AREA 7,735 m2




CLIENT Office municipal d’habitation de Montral

ARCHITECT TEAM Richard de la Riva, Martin Brire, Gavin Affleck, Ren-Luc Desjardins, Melinda Hart, Guillaume Fortier, Jacqueline Lorange, Michelle Mallette, Nicolas Marier, Francis Vanasse

STRUCTURAL Structoarte Consultants Inc.


LANDSCAPE Planex Consultants

CONTRACTOR Construction Pierre Bourdon

AREA 531 m2

BUDGET $2.31 M

COMPLETION fall 2005