Garden City

Project Mole Hill Housing Co-Operative, Vancouver, Bc

Architects Sean Mcewan and Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects

Text Helena Grdadolnik

A century ago the West End of Vancouver consisted largely of Edwardian and Victorian housing, but most of these homes were torn down in the ’40s and ’50s to make way for small modernist apartment buildings and in the ’60s and ’70s for larger apartment complexes. Walk through the West End today and you will still discover pockets of turn-of-the-century housing; some of the buildings have been restored and others are left in disrepair. The largest concentration of these historic homes, a block now known as Mole Hill, is made up of over 30 homes built between 1888 and 1942, an apartment building from 1910 and the Dr. Peter Centre (CA, February 2004) built in 2003. Most of the buildings in Mole Hill were bought up by the City in the 1950s and came close to demolition in the 1990s to make way for an expanded Nelson Park.

Local residents questioned the need for an enlarged park since there is no lack of outdoor amenity space in the area. A ten-minute walk either north or south will take you to the seawall and the extensive park system adjacent to it; a longer walk to the west and residents will find themselves in Stanley Park. What the area does lack is sufficient low-income housing. Due to a grassroots community initiative, the buildings were preserved and they were renovated into co-operative housing.

In Vancouver, heritage preservation is often no more than a faade; there is a project in the South Granville neighbourhood that is selling its units under the banner of “heritage homes” when all that is preserved is the old street elevation applied like a veneer to a new condominium. At Mole Hill this was not the case, as the forms were not the only aspect of the heritage buildings kept intact; the present function of the housing is also historically consistent with its original use. Most of the 28 homes in the redevelopment had been built as boarding houses for labourers who came to Vancouver in search of work in the late 19th and early 20th century. Fast forward 100 years later and the Mole Hill Housing Co-operative provides 168 rental units for low- to medium-income residents.

The Mole Hill redevelopment is exemplary because it combines heritage conservation, social housing, urban planning and the latest in sustainable development. The variety of interests may at first seem incompatible; restoring heritage buildings is an expensive task and the Mole Hill Housing Co-operative, like most publicly funded non-profit housing, did not have a large budget. To meet the budget, the architects needed to prioritize: emphasis was placed on preserving the period interiors of the main level’s principal rooms, hallway and stairwell where trim, wood floors, fireplace fronts and mantles were restored.

The urban fabric of a century before has also been kept with fully intact Victorian streetscapes that reveal the variety of architectural features from the age. Heritage consultants did some forensic work on the buildings to determine the initial paint colours of the homes. Vibrant reds and blues were discovered along with cream-coloured trim. Further research went into determining which alterations were unsympathetic to the original streetscape. Much of the newer additions were removed and period detail was restored to the exterior.

It is easy to merely discuss the historic restoration of Mole Hill, but there is more to this project than heritage preservation. The architects, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden and Sean McEwan, used necessary code upgrades to add another dimension to the urban fabric of this block. There is a marked distinction between the heritage buildings and the new work; necessary railing heights are achieved by the addition of black-painted tubular steel that adds another layer of history and simultaneously disappears against the bright building faades. The same steel is used for fire escapes with wood decking added to the landing and treads. Each landing is deeper than the building code requires. This way, the space ends up not only acting as a second means of egress, but also extends the living area of the small apartment units with a generous back porch overlooking the lane. These porches contribute to the lively mid-block section–what Norm Hotson describes as a “living lane.”

The lane was the final piece of the redevelopment to be completed. It includes 28 parking stalls but is oriented primarily to pedestrians. Barriers were recently erected at each end of the lane to slow down traffic flow, and the asphalt switches to brick pavers in the heart of the block where the shared workshops, laundries, community garden plots and bench seating are found. The square is located at the junction of the lane and a new greenway that was formed from two existing empty lots that had long been used by pedestrians as a shortcut through the block.

Two City planning decisions were passed to allow for the community gardens. The first was to relax the parking requirements; this was at least partially achieved by minimizing the needs of residents to own their own vehicles by reserving four stalls for Vancouver’s Co-operative Auto Network. The second was to make a provision in the block plan whereby the travelled portion between Bute and Thurlow Streets was reduced from 33 to 20 feet to allow the Mole Hill residents passive use for six-and-a-half feet of the lane on each side.

The redevelopment of Mole Hill was driven by community values, so a natural concern in the project was to use sustainable practices wherever possible. For this reason the design incorporates storm-water retention, landscape preservation and the reuse of existing materials. The project also uses the relatively new technology of geothermal heating. Mole Hill is the first social housing project in North America with ground source heating. The system’s up-front costs are prohibitive, but the long-term savings in operating costs have been estimated at six to ten million over the term of the 60-year lease the City has given the co-operative.

On top of the 28 homes owned and renovated for this project by the City of Vancouver, there are five more homes on this block that had been privately owned. One measure of the success of the revitalization of this area is that by the time the last phase of landscaping was complete, two of these houses had been restored and sold off as market townhomes with one more presently under construction. This is just another example of how not-for-profit housing in Vancouver is consistently more progressive than the frequently formulaic market housing in the current booming real estate climate.

Helena Grdadolnik, MArch, MRAIC instructs design history at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and is a founding member of SPACEAGENCY.

Client Mole Hill Community Housing Society, BC Housing, City of Vancouver

Architect Team Norm Hotson, Sean Mcewen, Don Kasko, Sandra Korpan, Deryk Whitehead, Kate Gerson, Eileen Albang, Julian Wang, Stephane Laroye, Paul Kimczak, Peeroj Thakre, Ali Stiles, James Coverdale, Andreas Boschitz

Development Consultant Terra Housing Consultants Ltd.

Landscape Durante Kreuk Ltd. Landscape Architects

Structural C.A. Boom Engineering Ltd.

Mechanical Versacon Consultants Inc., Alexander Boome Consulting Engineering Ltd.

Electrical Mahanti Chu Engineering Ltd.

Interiors Hotson Bakker / S.R. Mcewen, Associated Architects

Contractor Kindred Construction Ltd.

Building Envelope BC Building Science & Engineering Ltd.

Civil Webster Engineering Ltd.

Code Locke Mackinnon Domingo Gibson & Associates Ltd.

Costing Quoin Project and Cost Management Ltd.

Hobbs Winter & Macdonald Surveys Ltd.

Budget $21.2m

Completion September 2003

Photography Raef Grohne