Rarefied Prefab

ARCHITECT LWPAC–Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux unless otherwise noted

The design brief of MONAD is one that has bedevilled city planners and politicians since the invention of zoning bylaws. Pure and simple living space, roomy enough to raise a family and flexible enough to expand, contract or divide at will. In Vancouver’s leafy established neighbourhoods, the detached house has done this a little more efficiently than its critics have charged–but life is changing, and room is running out. MONAD’s single retail and four residential units are configured handsomely within the confines of a standard 33-foot x 113-foot lot–smaller than many standard single-family lots. The project, its creators and fans assert, is an effective alternative to that land-gobbling, energy-wasting paradigm. 

Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture (LWPAC) is a dynamic young firm that prides itself on the extensive research undertaken for each project. Led by Oliver Lang and Cynthia Wilson, LWPAC won its first major acclaim in 2006 with ROAR_one, a 10-unit housing complex a few blocks away from their latest project. On a micro-scale, MONAD continues the evolution started with ROAR, which was designed in collaboration with Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden (now DIALOG). Despite its well-earned Governor General’s Award, ROAR was a bit of a first draft, its architectural shell left intentionally rough inside and out. As Lang puts it, the project was “all architecture rather than interior.” A renegade project by Vancouver standards, ROAR faced many hurdles at City Hall for its extra height and density. That project helped pave the way for this one, and Lang and Wilson exemplified the transition by moving their own personal residence from ROAR to MONAD, which is also the current location of their office. “We’re test-driving our own buildings,” comments Lang. “But in MONAD, we hope to stay.” 

LWPAC’s latest project name suggests a highly ambitious branding: the term “monad” denotes the basic indivisible and indestructible building-block unit of the universe, according to the metaphysical doctrine of Leibniz. “We borrowed this term because it’s about creating efficiencies,” says Lang. Located in the far west of Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, MONAD stands out as a gem embedded in a banal arterial strip of mixed-use low-rise buildings. As the stock of glass towers and squat monster homes continues to swell, the potential for building at in-between scales remains largely untapped. Patrick Condon, a senior researcher at the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, points out that the all-or-nothing argument of high-rise proponents can be self-defeating when it comes to increasing density in the city. “It would be a huge mistake to overlook densifying the arterials on a small-height level,” says Condon. “When you consider the neighbourhood animosity that those density bombs produce, you can see that the smaller-scale projects like MONAD are much more sustainable.” 

In its refinement and level of nuanced design, MONAD is a kind of ROAR _two. The complex is a conflation of streetfront retail space and four residential units ranging from 850 to 2,000 square feet, with the larger units boasting sufficient bedrooms, flex zones and outdoor space to serve as comfortable family residences. Prior to its construction, an unremarkable medical office and yoga studio stood on the lot. 

On its front façade, MONAD’s floor-to-ceiling glazing projects an elegant street presence and floods the residential units with natural light. The four units are configured around a central atrium, which serves as a lightwell, circulation zone, and common outdoor space. The elevator’s glass wall offers a sublime view of the neighbourhood’s roofs and treetops; its doors open not to a dark interior corridor but to a life-affirming open-air space. All that beautiful glass imparts a price to pay in terms of conventional privacy. One steps into that outdoor corridor-atrium to behold, here and there, close-up views of the neighbours astride in their homes. By night, the neighbourly vignettes shift into a more cinematic mood, infused with the golden hue of potlights and veiled by glare on the floor-to-ceiling glass. 

The configuration seemed strikingly non-private to this visiting reporter. However, the concept of the private realm is, to a large extent, a social construction. As Lang points out, single-family houses tend to be built with the same setbacks front and back, so that when people barbecue and dine al fresco, they often stand literally a few feet from their next-door neighbours, with not a shred of privacy for either party. As for the city’s vaunted townhouse-tower combinations, the street-level windows are usually sheathed in blinds, night and day. Asks Lang, “the idea of the great view cones of Vancouver–where is it now, when your curtains are always drawn?” The two MONAD penthouse residences jointly share the landscaped rooftop, but its common stairway bisects that expanse of outdoor space, generating a natural sense of property division even as they appropriate each other’s expansive views. 

Urbanites consign themselves to a tacit collective agreement upon entering a public space: we keep a certain distance, we feign a certain diffidence and keep our voyeurism in check. But to challenge the status quo of urban housing, we will have to rethink the concept of private space as well. Familiarity serves to normalize what would otherwise seem jarring. Over the course of a 90-minute visit, I found that the initially distracting view of the next-door neighbours fixing dinner devolved to peripheral, almost phantomesque activity. No doubt that, after a year or a decade, their visual presence would vanish by sheer familiarity, the way goldfish fade into the background.

LWPAC’s design employs strategic gestures that also facilitate some semblance of privacy for the fish tanks. The kitchens, which were adjacent in ROAR, are deliberately placed at alternate ends of the plan for the two heavily glazed top-floor units. “It’s a cross-plan rather than an aligned plan,” notes Lang. “When you have so much transparency in a building, the alternating program of the building is important to help manage privacy.” 

MONAD’s prefabricated elements were made by Controlled Architectural Systems Assembly, a joint-venture between Intelligent City Research and Development–LWPAC’s research arm–and Preform Construction Ltd., a manufacturing operation based in nearby Surrey. Founded by architect Tony Robins three years ago, Preform was itself an attempt at overhauling the high-end modular-home industry. It would seem like a perfect partnership for establishing a critical mass for the production line of an emerging genre–“precision prefab,” if you like. But perfection is elusive.

Devising a set of standardized modules and building them off-site should, in theory, make such housing both replicable and relatively affordable. The LWPAC/Intelligent City information backgrounder describes the impetus for MONAD as the urgent need for “a systematic and holistic approach to make multi-storey urban living beautiful, desirable, sustainable and affordable.” Have they succeeded? Certainly it’s beautiful, with its deftly proportioned metal-framed glass façade, precise detailing and wide-angle views. It’s desirable enough, if you measure that by the ease with which the developers found buyers for the units. Sustainable? Though not officially certified, LWPAC asserts that
it’s the equivalent of LEED Gold. Affordable? Maybe, if you compare each unit to the price of a single-family house of equal square footage; not so if one expects to attract the average Vancouver family with its $67,000 annual income. Each MONAD unit entered the market at a price point of over $600 a square foot, and not even the designers expect that price tag to fall significantly for future projects of similar quality.

Where MONAD truly excels is in its rethinking of high-end living. The designers have strategically configured the units to a zero-lot-line, while setting back only the basement to avoid complications with excavation permits. The large-span open spaces and front-and-back glazing help maximize natural light in all corners of the homes. Storage rooms for seasonal possessions are smartly sequestered underground, rather than consuming precious space inside the units. 

The project detailing alone is of a quality and precision that would challenge most Vancouver contractors. At this level of quality, explains Robins, a replicable pre-fab costs the same as a conventional construction, but takes significantly less time to produce. “You can save eight months or even a year in terms of turnaround time,” he notes, which reduces financing costs and boosts marketing flexibility. But to make projects like MONAD truly replicable on a wide scale, says Robins, each module must be almost identical, with no customizing on a module-by-module basis. Lang’s adjustment of the lengths and window specs of some units would make mass replication more complicated. Robins sees MONAD as an important benchmark and prototype, but maintains that greater homogenization of the units will be required to make such projects truly replicable on a meaningful scale. 

For his part, Lang is keen on sticking with the approach he refers to as mass customization. What might seem like an oxymoron is actually a different mode of thinking about individuality within a replicated framework, says Lang, citing sources from Gilles Deleuze (“there is no difference without repetition”) to the individual choices of apps on a mass-produced smartphone. “We had to rethink the old idea of standardization,” says Lang. Even two such projects a year, he says, would suffice to make this a viable approach. “It’s not so much a question of how many we make as it is about continuity.” 

These days, LWPAC is looking forward to greater monadic heights. A current proposal envisions a mid-rise complex, as intricately detailed as MONAD. “At eight storeys, it can make things work out more efficiently since there are more ways to offset the costs,” says Lang. Perhaps enough kinks will be smoothed out that ROAR_three will become Vancouver’s first architecturally significant prefab mid-rise. Until then, one can appreciate the rarefied design of MONAD. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.

Client Intelligent City R&D
Architect Team Oliver Lang, Cynthia Wilson, Matt Beall, Thomas Bocahut, Don Chan, Eitaro Hirota, Clayton Blackman
Structural Fast + Epp
Mechanical Perez
Electrical Cobalt
Landscape space2place
Building Envelope JRS
Sustainability Recollective
Geotechnical Geopacific
Prefab-Contractor Controlled Architectural Systems Assembly
Area 12,500 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion January 2012