Home Away From Home

Project Centre Village, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Architects 5468796 architecture inc. and Cohlmeyer Architecture Ltd.
Text Terri Fuglem
Photos 5468796 Architecture Inc. 

In downtown Winnipeg, in an area notorious for its high crime rates and visible poverty, a remarkable housing project has sprung up. Sandwiched between Balmoral and Kennedy Streets on a tiny plot of land, a 25-unit apartment complex offers affordable rental housing to recent immigrants and low-income patrons. Several features distinguish this project: first and foremost, the cheery minimalist design; the tiny size of the units; the abundance of windows; the private exterior entry to each apartment; and the attention to outdoor amenity space, both communal and private. In many respects, the project bears resemblance to contemporary European standards and sensibilities as opposed to what is typically found in North America. Its location in Winnipeg Centre, the second-poorest federal electoral district (the poorest is Vancouver East) in Canada makes its appearance here all the more noteworthy.

Perhaps this is not surprising as the two founding partners of 5468796 architecture inc. are themselves immigrants: Sasa Radulovic, a political refugee from Sarajevo and Johanna Hurme, an émigré from Helsinki. The two have staked their faith in Winnipeg’s downtown by residing, locating their office, and constructing many of their projects here. Winners of the Emerging Architecture Award from the London-based Architectural Review magazine and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for their CUBE project in Old Market Square, Radulovic and Hurme have already offered a substantial international perspective to Winnipeg. Steve Cohlmeyer, of Cohlmeyer Architecture Ltd., an equal partner in the design and completion of the Centre Village, is similarly multilingual. In addition to his work in Winnipeg, he has recently designed projects in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile and San José, Costa Rica.

This optimism can be attributed to not only an emergence of recent architectural talent, but also the behind-the-scenes efforts by community groups, concerned citizens, and municipal initiatives. Centre Village began as a joint discussion between the Knox Centre, a community outreach organization of the nearby Knox United Church, and CentreVenture Development Corporation, an arm’s-length public-private downtown development authority established under the aegis of the former mayor Glen Murray in 1999 to revitalize the languishing city centre. Knox United Church is a vital player in the community development of the Central Park district, a neighbourhood within the riding of Winnipeg Centre–bounded on its west side by Balmoral Street–which attracts 70% of all refugees moving to Winnipeg. As the most densely populated district in the city, Central Park accommodates a diverse and lively population of largely African, but also Arab, Vietnamese, Chinese, Ojibway and Filipino extraction. With a municipal vacancy rate of just 0.9% in 2009, the housing shortage for immigrants and refugees is especially acute. 

After community meetings at the Knox Centre to discuss the possibility of a cooperative housing project and after a series of land swaps, CentreVenture was able to amalgamate eight residential lots. Central to the success of the project were the concerted efforts of development coordinator Phil Dlot (pronounced, appropriately, as “fill de lot”) of Hold Zone Inc., who worked diligently to calculate the minimum number of units for the project’s feasibility and to secure the grants, and the architects who performed endless permutations and combinations of apartment configurations to squeeze 25 units onto a small piece of land that was thought to hold a more reasonable 18 residences. After $1.65 million in contributions by the Canada-Manitoba Affordable Housing Program, Manitoba Housing’s HOMEWorks! program and the City of Winnipeg, ownership was assigned to CentreVenture. The cooperative ownership structure has been postponed indefinitely.

Critical to the economic feasibility of the project were the number of units and floor area. Communal corridors and entrance lobbies were eliminated, thereby saving substantial land, construction and maintenance costs. Since the project was to be built with standard dimensional lumber, an intricate algorithm of 8-, 12- and 14-foot minimum dimensions for various room types ensures a formal consistency to the project where no two conditions repeat themselves. Floor cantilevers of six feet extend the available space of the upper units, thereby minimizing the footprint at grade and providing solar shading and rain protection. 

The resulting rental-unit complex assumes a playful, almost organic, configuration that was initially determined by designing the rooms first, then recombining them as if they were Lego blocks. The form is an intimate assemblage of six separate buildings on an L-shaped lot that creates a well-protected communal courtyard and a lane that links Balmoral and Kennedy Streets. The limiting height of the buildings is three storeys and many units occupy three floors, while others are one and two storeys respectively. Every unit is unique: the smallest one-bedroom unit is 375 square feet on the ground floor, and the largest four-bedroom units comprise slightly less than 1,000 square feet over three floors. Each unit enjoys a private grade-level deck, a balcony and/or a roof deck. The most striking feature is the fenestration pattern; its composition and variety enliven the façades. The window openings are elaborated with an engine-inspired “cowling” of 1/8-inch welded aluminum of varying depths, powder-coated in bright orange paint in order to bounce warm, vibrant hues into the units. Units possess an astonishing eight to ten windows (most developer-built one-bedroom rentals in Winnipeg offer two, or at most three, windows per unit) that not only extend the space of the tiny units with light and views, but also enhance the defensible space of the street, courtyard and lane. With 16 units looking onto the courtyard and over 200 carefully placed windows, friendly surveillance of the property by the inhabitants is ensured. A series of external staircases to the upper-level apartments also serves to animate the laneway and courtyard while extending more semi-private spaces for the upper units. Since amenities such as groceries, daycare, medical clinics, public transportation and schools are within walking distance, only six parking stalls were necessary, allowing for more outdoor social space in the lane and courtyard. 

Construction was completed in the fall of 2010, and 5468796 architecture inc. have since continued to work with CentreVenture to provide post-occupancy guidance. The architects are watching closely to see how well their experiment with high-density, high-design housing serves newcomers to Canada, and what the activities of the inhabitants themselves will add to the communality of their little village. CA

Terri Fuglem is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

Client CentreVenture Development Corporation
Architect Team 5468796 architecture inc: Sharon Ackerman, Mandy Aldcorn, Ken Borton, Michelle Heath, Aynslee Hurdal, Johanna Hurme, Grant Labossière, Colin Neufeld, Zach Pauls, Sasa Radulovic, Shannon Wiebe. Cohlmeyer Architecture Ltd: Steve Cohlmeyer, Stephanie Aastrom, Daniel Enns. 
Landscape Cynthia Cohlmeyer Landscape Architect Ltd.
Structural Lavergne Draward & Associates Inc.
Development Coordinator Phil Dlot, Hold Zone Inc.
Contractor Capstone Construction (1998) Ltd.
Area 10,600 ft2 
Budget $3.7 M (including land, construction, professional fees, fit-up)
Completion Fall 2010