Lush Life

PROJECT The Keefer, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Gair Williamson Architect Inc.
TEXT Ian Chodikoff

Vancouverites are particularly adept at rediscovering parts of the city that were once–or still are–dodgy and decrepit. For instance, when the restaurant Campagnolo opened on Main Street several years ago, people commented on the ethical judgement of locating a trendy establishment in an area where clients literally must step over the downtrodden to enjoy a delicious plate of BC mussel risotto. The phenomenon of upscale enterprises moving into such neighbourhoods has been recently repeated elsewhere in the city, much like The Keefer at the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown. But who are we to criticize those who serve bottles of expensive champagne to a stylish clientele while the less fortunate stumble by, glimpsing lavish interiors and multi-coloured cocktails in the process?

The Keefer is a mere two blocks from Main and Hastings Streets, the epicentre of this country’s most economically depressed and troubled neighbourhood where homelessness, drugs and prostitution continue to pose significant social problems. Originally a warehouse, the building was recently transformed into a lounge and four-unit boutique hotel, where rooms cost $700 a night. Once upon a time, the masonry and exposed-timber building was located on the shores of False Creek. But with decades of infill, the building no longer faces the water and now sits at the gateway to Vancouver’s Chinatown with the famous Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens as its neighbour. Cam Watt, a detail-oriented entrepreneur in his late 40s who once owned Canadian Springs, a company specializing in bottled water and water filtration systems, purchased the property several years ago. Watt decided to enter into the real estate development business by transforming this abandoned building, which was originally constructed in 1910 for the Vancouver Gas Company by the well-known local architecture firm of Sharp & Thompson.

Known for his ability to sensitively transform historic buildings into vibrant and relevant components of contemporary urban life, Gair Williamson Architect Inc. has received praise for such projects as the minimally appointed Salt Cellar (2008) and the recently completed Judas Goat (2010), both of which are located in Gastown’s Blood Alley. Gair Williamson only takes on a couple of projects every year to evolve a practice he founded in 2002. He is also very generous in nurturing the talents of his young staff, such as Chris Woodford, the lead project architect for The Keefer. Woodford is a native Newfoundlander who ventured west in search of new professional frontiers after finishing his architecture degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He worked for a few firms before joining Williamson soon after The Keefer’s conceptual design was completed. The project allowed Woodford to not only cut his teeth on a building of reasonable complexity, but it gave him the necessary professional experience that allowed him to become a licensed architect.

The building’s reconstruction included the overhaul of the ground floor to accommodate a 1,200-square-foot lounge designed by David Battersby of Battersby Howat, which was later filled with artwork by Douglas Coupland. Since Williamson’s firm is effectively a two-person operation, with Woodford handling much of the technical requirements for the project, it was decided early on that designing a commercially viable lounge was better left to Battersby.

Above the lounge, three full-floor suites at 2,400 square feet each were created within the building’s existing shell. The outer masonry walls were in fairly good condition but some of the existing timbers were either rotten or split and had to be strengthened, modified or otherwise partially replaced. This micro-design strategy saved the client a considerable amount of money but required site visits nearly every day. Custom components to reinforce and alter the existing structure were designed to preserve the aesthetic of the building’s industrial legacy while avoiding excessive amounts of building materials being sent to the dump.

The addition of a new 2,200-square-foot penthouse is situated beneath a dramatic rooftop terrace spanning the entire length of the building. The most spectacular feature of the rooftop is the 8′ x 40′ lap pool. Set within a complex steel structure, the bottom and one of the sides of this dramatic pool is comprised of transparent acrylic, thereby allowing precious West Coast daylight to filter into the dining room of the penthouse suite below.

As it was initially designed, the warehouse building would have likely been able to support the new loads placed upon its structure. However, modern codes and new design features required structural and seismic upgrading. Other technical challenges to overcome included a new elevator core and the removal of existing glazing for a light well on the east faade to create infill balconies that can be configured into various positions–a seamless extension of the suite, a completely enclosed room, or a balcony separated from rest of the unit. Notwithstanding a few months’ worth of structural remediation, roughly 12 months had elapsed from the time Woodford began drawing up the $6.5-million project to reaching completion.

The entire project would not have been possible were it not for financial incentives offered by the City of Vancouver. A 10-year property tax exemption along with the Heritage Building Rehabilitation Program (HBRP) established by the City in 2003 contributed to Watt’s ability to make the project a reality. The HBRP allowed the transfer of density to heritage properties for the purpose of providing developers with incentives to rehabilitate historic buildings. The redevelopment of The Keefer was one of the last of the projects to benefit from the HBRP before it ended in 2008. The City also insisted that the contemporary design aesthetic of new spandrels, doors and mullions at the ground level must not conflict with the heritage aesthetic of the original building. The overall results certainly benefited from these requirements.

While the owner had originally envisioned the building as a hotel, the three suites will eventually be sold off as condominiums, leaving the penthouse for Watt’s private use. Amongst its many accolades, the project won a 2010 Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia Award in Architecture. While one could debate the merits of introducing this type of exclusive development to such a low-income neighbourhood, The Keefer is a wonderful project that respectfully and stylishly rehabilitates a historic building, one that remains an important part of Vancouver’s complex urban fabric. CA

Client Cam Watt
Architect Team Chris Woodford, Gair Williamson, Tiphaine Maisonneuve-Lebrec, Elizabeth Powell
Structural John Bryson & Partners
Mechanical Jade West Engineering Co. Ltd.
Electrical SML Consultants Group Ltd.
Geotechnical GeoPacific Consultants Ltd.
Builder Heatherbrae Builders
Code Gage Babcock & Associates Ltd.
Building Envelope BC Building Science Partnership
Acoustics Brown Strachan & Associates
Area 12,100 ft2
Budget $6.5 M
Completion December 2009