Editorial: Pocket Suites

Developed by Cohlmeyer Architecture as alternatives to rooming houses, Pocket Suites include eight autonomous units, each with separate entrances.
Developed by Cohlmeyer Architecture as alternatives to rooming houses, Pocket Suites include eight autonomous units, each with separate entrances.

At 20 square metres in size, Mary Lou’s apartment in downtown Winnipeg is compact, but it’s home. There’s room for her single bed, a bath­room with shower, a mini kitchen, a small closet for hanging her clothes, and a tiny table where she likes to paint. She especially likes the paint-by-numbers kits from the Dollar Store, which are easy to follow, and affordable on the tight budget of a welfare recipient.

Cohlmeyer Architecture designed the building where she lives as a pilot initiative to provide modestly priced rentals for poor and disadvantaged adults. “Rooming houses have been disappearing in Winnipeg as the market has become stronger,” explains principal Stephen Cohlmeyer, FRAIC. The firm worked closely with Paul McNeil (at the time a project manager with MMM Group), who consulted with social housing groups and the community-at-large to develop the concept, and  approached SAM Management and Cohlmeyer architecture to take on the project. The team found they could do better than simply replicating rooming houses, whose shared spaces tend to become rowdy party areas.

The solution they developed—which McNeil dubbed Pocket Suites—groups eight self-contained units in a single structure with a contemporary residential look. Each unit has its own front door and a big window, facing a long view at either the front or back of the property. Intentionally, there are no shared vestibules, corridors or stairs where residents might encounter neighbours that they don’t get along with. There are two handicapped accessible units in each building. “It’s a geometric puzzle,” says Cohlmeyer.

“What our clients like best is the secure, private door,” says Sue Crielaard, who has helped manage the projects over the past decade since the first one was built. Many of the residents face mental health challenges, and especially appreciate the ability to isolate themselves and to feel secure in their own space.

To make the project financially self-sustaining, construction costs were kept extremely low. The rents—which at about $475 are targeted to be low enough for those on welfare and the working poor—go towards paying mortgage and maintenance costs. The City of Winnipeg donated small urban lots that had defaulted on property taxes, and the Suites were designed to fit the narrowest of these. Each site plan also squeezes in four parking spaces, meeting zoning requirements and generating additional revenue.

Cohlmeyer Architecture has built four Pocket Suites in Winnipeg and one in Regina. The designers have learned from the first ones: they no longer use all-in-one kitchen units, which were difficult to maintain, and they now install damage-proof drywall. The Regina unit also uses a concrete-topped wood-framed floor that contains in-floor heating coils, avoiding the need to replace broken radiators. These hard-wearing features provide amenity while helping protect the apartments from their often street-tough residents.

Other cities across Canada—from Hamilton to Whitehorse—have approached Cohlmeyer to explore building Pocket Suites in their cities. And the firm is currently in discussions with a pre-fab company, which they hope will facilitate spreading the model.

The clientele for the projects have few means, and many are coming out of shelters or from jail. The thoughtful design, which makes the most of its small footprint, contributes much towards the liveability of the Pocket Suites.

“There’s some units that will always be turning over,” says Crielaard. “But there’s also a lot of people who have settled here—it’s affordable, it’s safe, and they like it here.” She adds, “Because of that, we’re going to wind up needing more.”