Edmonton’s Missing Middle

“People are excited about the future of design and city building in Edmonton—they’re all in for architecture,” says Kalen Anderson.

As Director of Edmonton’s new City Plan, Anderson and her team have been working for the last two years to harness the energy and enthusiasm for, among other things, good design in Edmonton.

Edmonton has been undergoing a transformation in the last decade in the design of the public realm and public institutions. No longer is the city satisfied with allowing a haphazard approach to architecture and design, which reached such levels of mediocrity in the early 2000s that it prompted one former mayor to declare, “Our tolerance for crap is now zero.”

That impetus has continued through all levels of local government: this article is co-authored by a City of Edmonton councillor who trained in fine arts, and an architecture-trained senior planner for the City. Both of us believe in the value of good design, and are seeing constituents respond with enthusiasm to Edmonton’s architectural initiatives.

Studio North, Gravity Architecture and Part & Parcel have won a competition to construct missing middle housing in Edmonton.

“Edmontonians from all walks of life are advocating for improved public and private spaces,” explains Anderson. ”Our City is showing its ambition and creativity in redeveloping its plans, from the City Plan to the Zoning Bylaw Review, to better understand the choices that need to be made to make Edmonton a healthy, attractive, urban, and climate-resilient city of two million people. More and more, we’re adopting a civic confidence that’s all about putting our money where our mouth is, to help spur greater design and enjoyment throughout our built environment.”

Edmonton is also the last major city in Canada to retain the civic role of the City Architect. Traditionally, the City Architect would have been responsible for the design of civic buildings, but Edmonton’s City Architect has taken on an additional role—of advocacy and the promotion of excellence in civic architectural design, with the understanding that if a municipal government leads by example, others will follow.

“Edmonton’s design language is becoming more sophisticated,” says City Architect Carol Belanger. “Our urban fabric is seeing a hopeful and optimistic renewal with residents, politicians, city administrators, city builders and city visionaries, all beginning to articulate the necessity for design that supports positive outcomes in the realms of community health, quality of life and aesthetic enjoyment.”

Recently, the Borden Park Pavilion, designed by gh3, won a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture—the first time Edmonton has been recognized by the awards since 1992.

Many studies have shown that the design of our public realm and urban fabric directly affects the quality of life and overall well-being of citizens. This is especially true within the residential context. The two of us have been involved in pushing for Edmonton to increase its density through well-designed infill housing, as a means to address livability, affordability and the efficient use of existing infrastructure.

Our efforts were part of the impetus for this year’s Missing Middle Infill Design Competition, which announced its winners this summer. It asked: What could economically feasible, “missing middle” density developments look like?

The competition was unique in that the City was not the client. Instead, it invited architects to partner with developers, forming teams that would be willing to purchase the competition site on Spruce Avenue and finance the project. This would provide some certainty for all parties around the project actually being constructed.

Our planning department faced challenges on how to solicit submissions. The requirements to submit were unconventionally tough; designs needed to be sufficiently resolved beyond the concept stage and technical issues such as stormwater and servicing were required to be addressed at a high level. Further, a pro forma was required, which would be vetted by the City’s internal technical committee.

Residents of the community where the linked parcels of land are situated played a significant role in defining key criteria and values for the designs to respond to.

These stringent requirements were critical in attracting serious applicants, says Jason Syvixay, Principal Planner with the City of Edmonton, who managed the competition.

“Soliciting ideas that could be financed and ultimately built was a message that we wanted to resonate loud and clear for interested teams,” says Syvixay. “The competition helped nurture relationships between builders, developers and architects, who developed proposals that pushed the envelope for design and building creativity, while applying a healthy reality check to support financial viability for missing middle housing forms. Local, national and international interest—from applicant teams to media and industry and architectural associations—helped elevate the conversation around design in the City of Edmonton.”

He adds, “As new plans and policy initiatives begin to contemplate the types of urban spaces and places that are needed to help people live prosperous lives, competitions like the Missing Middle Infill Design Competition offer a good place for urbanists, city visionaries, builders, architects and developers to start.”

Nearly 100 renderings and 30 pro formas were received from across Canada. After two days of extensive conversation and debate, the national jury chose their top designs.

“The winning submissions had very clear urban ideas. Row houses, courts, alleyways, porches and pocket parks created identity and gave unity to a missing middle neighbourhood,” says Talbot Sweetapple, one of the jurors. “The fact that this was an ideas competition that would ultimately be built by their team led to conceptual, clear and viable schemes.”

The winning proposal, named The Goodweather, is designed to bring together different demographics and generations with a variety of typologies grouped around a central communal courtyard.

“The more successful projects paid special attention to the scale of the streetscape, provided great urban connectivity and embraced the idea of community,” he adds.

The designers behind the winning submission, The Goodweather, hail from Calgary, Alberta. Matthew Kennedy and Mark Erickson are the founding principals for Studio North, which teamed with Part + Parcel and Gravity Architecture to clinch the prize.

Damon Hayes Couture, creative director for Studio North, describes how the project encourages a paradigm shift away from the status quo. “The Goodweather is an intentionally intergenerational community. Transitioning from the typical North American housing model that prioritizes independence to one that encourages interdependence, our ambition was to create an arrangement that will benefit everyone in their own unique way,” says Hayes Couture. “Young families benefit from the care and supervision that elderly residents can provide. The elderly, on the other hand, become part of a vibrant community—rather than being in retirement homes that can be really isolating.”

The winning submission builds on the notion of equitability in design: Excellence in design should reflect a democratic sensibility, and not be limited to the highest earners. The design proposes a series of modular units that can be configured in various ways, from studios up to three-bedroom units for larger households. The units at grade are barrier-free and accessible to persons with mobility challenges.

All of the site’s ground-level dwellings are accessible and barrier-free, making them well-suited for seniors.

For the Spruce Avenue site, the modules are combined into a 56-unit complex with a density comparable to a four-storey apartment, while maintaining the contextually sensitive massing of a two-and-a-half-storey townhouse development. There were a number of key factors in accomplishing this feat.

First, the proposal contemplated a creative solution to the parking configuration, as well as an overall reduction in parking stalls—a possibility because of a nearby Light Rail Transit station. Parking is restricted to the eastern edge of the site in attached at-grade garages that can only be accessed from the back alley, greatly increasing the amount of usable space on the site.

Second, classic design gestures create the illusion of spaciousness while maintaining modest square footage. This includes vaulted ceilings, generous amounts of glazing and lighter colour schemes for the interiors.

Along the east side of the property, compact units with a upper loft are intended to appeal to students attending the nearby campus, and to young professionals taking the LRT downtown for work.

Last, efforts were made to ensure that most circulation spaces were charged with some form of secondary programming. On the interior, there are no pinching hallways. The studio and barrier-free units use the hallway as a kitchen. On the exterior, the circulation space between buildings doubles as communal courtyard amenity space.

“We felt a responsibility to create vibrant social spaces, so, from the start we knew that the development had to be focused around a common courtyard,” says Mark Erickson of Studio North. “We wanted it to be a beautiful space that residents of the community would feel proud of and want to spend time in, extending their living space and making an outdoor living room. Just like Edmonton’s storied river valley that cuts through the downtown, the courtyard
of The Goodweather is a meandering, forested path flanked by terraced dwellings on either side.”

Discussions with Part + Parcel, Studio North and Gravity Architecture are well underway, with a sales agreement, rezoning and development permit in progress. The finished development will be used to inspire what’s possible for missing middle housing in other parts of the city, helping to realize a key goal in Edmonton’s 2018 Infill Roadmap.

At the Art Gallery of Alberta late in May, awards were presented to the winners and the top two runners up. Bricolage by Leckie Studio Architecture + Design received the second-place award for its twist on classic urbanism, through a marriage of high quality, durable materials and simple, elegant shapes. Spectrum by SPECTACLE and RedBrick Group of Companies placed third for its innovative approach to site layout—distributing densities and amenity spaces through a checkerboard development pattern. City of Edmonton departments are already reviewing these, along with other highly ranked submissions, for their merits and transferability to other surplus city-owned sites.

The second-place submission by Leckie Studio Architecture + Design is a variation on the stacked townhouse typology.

The Missing Middle Infill Design Competition was a way to stimulate conversation around well-designed and economically feasible medium-density housing. By encouraging missing middle housing forms, Edmonton can support a growing population by welcoming new people and new homes into our mature neighbourhoods—creating complete communities with a variety of housing options for people at every stage of life and income.

With winning designs and plenty of ideas in tow, Edmonton is ready and eager to get started on this important housing goal, while raising the bar on city-building and design.

A checkerboard proposal designed by SPECTACLE with RedBrick won third place.

Sarah Hamilton, a City of Edmonton councillor, is leading the creation of a design initiative to enhance the function and aesthetics of city spaces, and sees the value of infill as part of a modern, compact and efficient city. Prior to serving on council, Councillor Hamilton worked as an educator, journalist and small business owner, and holds a Master of Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Christian Lee is the Senior Planner for the Strategic Initiatives and Infill Liaison Team with the City of Edmonton, and is a graduate of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. Christian worked in a private architecture firm in Toronto as well as in the City of Cambridge planning department prior to moving to Edmonton in 2013.

For more information on the competition and to view all of the submissions, visit edmontoninfilldesign.ca.