Putting Housing in Context

Dockside Live/Work Building and Lore Krill Housing Co-op,

Vancouver, British Columbia

Henriquez Partners Architects

With copious new housing developments being built on former industrial sites, the threat of losing swathes of Vancouver’s historic urban fabric is real. More than a decade ago Henriquez Partners produced a study for Coal Harbour’s Bayshore Lands near Stanley Park. They proposed replicating the original survey for the railway terminus–narrow slices of land perpendicular to the water’s edge–and rather than master plan the site chose six prominent architects to develop the parcels incrementally, working straight from survey to architecture. The idea was to keep the original texture of the city’s development intact but, unfortunately, the client dismissed the scheme and in its place today is the type of generic podium and tower development that the firm’s study sought to avoid.

Undeterred by this setback Richard Henriquez continued to “poke at the edges” of convention with another project in Coal Harbour at a more modest scale: the Dockside Live/Work Building. The 17 metre by 80 metre site on West Hastings Street was part of the CPR right-of-way along what had been the original waterfront. When Marathon Developments re-zoned the area the site was left outside of the development parcel due to its diminutive size. No developer could see its potential so the sliver of real estate remained on the market for ten years.

After discussions with city planners, a new zoning category was approved and Dockside was to be the demonstration project for Vancouver’s flexible zoning designation. The appellation permits the units in question to be used in any combination of residential, office, or live/work, but the design must conform to the most stringent codes of all allowable uses–office. With 46 units ranging from 500 to 1,500 square feet over seven storeys, the Dockside is allowed flexible use for the first and second floor townhomes and the seventh storey units, but the floors sandwiched between can only be residential.

The play of windows across the building’s single-loaded corridors animate the south wall together with painted concrete panels and steel angles designed to conceal air vents. The wall is set back from the rear property line to create one half of a tree-lined mews; the other half will be completed when the adjacent properties are developed. Relying on more than just good faith, the city has created a bylaw to enforce the setback.

At only 52,000 square feet Dockside is refreshingly idiosyncratic within the otherwise monotonous development of Coal Harbour. The proportions of the building suggest both ship and rail; its elongated form replicates the physical movement once present along the site. The streamlined elevator housing is formally similar to the cylindrical steel ventilation shafts of the city’s pump station. This corner space, designed by Busby + Associates Architects, is integrated seamlessly into the Dockside’s east end and supplies some breathing space for an otherwise tight urban site.

Establishing a formal relationship between their work and the immediate context is essential to the design approach of Henriquez Partners Architects. Another recent project by the firm in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district records the history of the surrounding area and, like the Dockside Live/Work, also pushes against preconceived notions of housing categories–this time for a non-market co-operative.

Henriquez Partners were hired by the Woodward’s Co-op to evaluate alternate sites for its 200-unit B.C. Housing allocation after ten years of failed development initiatives for the former department store. The Chicago Style Woodward’s building is a Vancouver icon, but when the Lore Krill Housing Co-op was in the design stage its demolition seemed imminent. Located one block away on Cordova Street, the new building is linked in many ways to Woodward’s and to the Downtown Eastside’s troubled recent history. Named in honour of Lore Krill, the late activist who worked tirelessly for the area’s residents, the co-op’s street faade creates a fictional history that subtly mimics the phased growth of the department store. The “basket weave,” as Gregory Henriquez terms it, is comprised of barely discernible differences in brick colour and detailing; coupled as it is with slight shifts in sill heights, window sizes, and column widths, it acknowledges Woodward’s massing and unifies the scale of its neighbours.

The building’s flat-slab concrete construction uses brick veneer backed up by concrete block for the main faade, a substantial wall section that will last as long as the adjacent 19th century buildings. The Trounce Alley elevation introduces concrete fins that echo a nearby modernist parkade which has subsequently been torn down; the fins provide an angled view down the narrow alleyway for the rear units.

One criterion that came up in the design workshops was that the building needed to be able to adapt as residents age. For this reason, half of the units can become accessible, if need be; a much higher percentage than the average project. The multi-level courtyard carves the building into two slightly bowed concrete-clad sections connected by a ground floor podium and two galvanized steel bridges. The bridges ensure accessibility on their respective levels in the event of repairs to the single elevator in each tower; they also add colour and texture to the space–together with the courtyard’s balconies and planting. The inclusion of two rooftop vegetable gardens was another response to discussions with future residents. The gardens, along with numerous other indoor and outdoor communal spaces (one in the building’s Cordova storefront), set up a dynamic series of vistas and views within the project and beyond.

To ensure that the residents would have a home, and not just housing, each unit was reduced in area by 10% and the resultant savings of space and money were put into amenities and towards the construction of and finishes for the building. A mix of 86 non-market and only 20 market units from 365 to 750 square feet are divided into bachelors, one and two bedrooms; space is saved with Murphy beds in the bachelor suites and storage tucked into every available pocket to make the small apartments feel surprisingly generous. Although fitting within B.C. Housing’s allotted budget, the project had to fight against enforced modesty criteria that dictate “appropriate” levels of luxury for non-market housing. All the same, the finishes in the lobby and communal spaces include built-in maple furnishings and slate tiles–durable finishes that represent long-range savings in maintenance–but quickly change to marmoleum and plastic laminate in the colourful corridors.

By providing the greatest number of units for the benefit of a maximum number of residents, the design of the housing co-op exhibits a high level of thought and care; the project takes a tiny step toward resolving social and economic challenges for a blighted area of Vancouver. Why is it that similar design considerations for quality of life cannot be achieved in larger market housing projects? Undoubtedly, I blame the ubiquitous pre-sale for driving down the standard in the housing market. Unit designs are reduced to nothing more than a real estate listing, thus valorizing finishes, views, and ceiling heights over aspects less tangible to the average buyer like favourable, or at least habitable, space. The result is a housing formula which benefits the financial investors of a project rather than the residents. Perhaps part of the success of the two Henriquez Partners projects were the challenges within their sites which, due to their size and local politics respectively, did not allow for easy resolution into formulaic models. Their architecture instead considers the city’s history and its future to the benefit of its residents.

Helena Grdadolnik, M.Arch, MRAIC has recently returned to Canada from the UK where she worked for the Manifesto Foundation for Architecture at Napier University.

Client: Lo
re Krill Housing Co-op

Architect team: Gregory Henriquez, Shawn Strasman, Jaime Dejo, Fred Markowsky

Structural: Glotman Simpson Structural Engineers

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: Arnold Nemetz & Associates Ltd.

Landscape: Perry + Associates

Contractor: Haebler Construction

Area: 100, 000 sq. ft.

Budget: $11 million

Completion: May 2002

Photography: Derek Lepper unless noted