Shell Game: Focal on Third, Vancouver, BC

An expressive structure raises the bar for spec office buildings in Vancouver.

Focal on Third’s strong visual identity was developed within a volume heavily constrained by zoning requirements.

PROJECT Focal on Third, Vancouver, BC

ARCHITECT ph5 architecture inc.

TEXT Bruce Haden

PHOTOS Graham Handford

It can feel oddly refreshing when a good architecture practice is not focused on slick marketing. PH5 is one such firm. The work and life partnership of Peeroj Thakre and Henning Knoetzele has been quietly producing thoughtful work in Vancouver for many years. Their care and attention to detail for the type of projects that often don’t have ambitious design agendas (or plump budgets) is a consequential contribution to the city. 

This is especially evident in PH5’s most recently completed building, an office block named Focal on Third. My previous office was a close neighbour to this project, and I watched its construction with curiosity and appreciation. The building is at the southern edge of the developing North Mount Pleasant tech area, a zone anchored by Hootsuite’s offices, with many smaller-scale technology and design firms located nearby. In this neighbourhood of new corporate builds deploying multiple up-to-the-minute architectural strategies—some good, some not so good—the craft and confidence of Focal on Third stands out.

The façade includes two shades of terracotta panels.

The strong presence of this small building was hard-won by PH5 on a site with many limitations. Architecture can be thought of as created in the tension between external massing strategies and internal program needs. In this context, Focal on Third is an especially difficult challenge. First, the massing strategies were dictated to the centimetre by City requirements for setbacks and height limits on a constrained site. Accordingly, the massing of Focal on Third is a result of external proscription, not creativity. And the as-yet unoccupied program of speculative office shell space creates no real pressures for internal forms that are distinctive or special in a way that can set the stage for moments of architectural identity.

This means that for this particular building type, on this particular site, the range of possible expressions was very narrow. Once massing and program are excised, all that is left is the design of the shell to produce identity and character. 

Extended vertical mullions lend a pleasing shadow play to the façades. The building acts as a visual anchor for the southern edge of the North Mount Pleasant district, an area that has attracted many tech and design firms.

Fortunately, in the hands of PH5, the shell is masterful, giving the neighbourhood a textured icon. The material palette is limited but expressive: in addition to the necessary glass, two earth tones of terracotta cladding panels are crisply bracketed by sharp chocolate-brown mullions, with the vertical mullions dominant. This colour combination creates a richness that is exceptional for Vancouver, where new towers are often cloaked in a nearly monotone dark blue-and-grey—a too-dull palette in a climate where the sky is often dull. In contrast, the warmth of Focal on Third’s terracotta creates a sense of solidity and permanence, while avoiding the trap of using splashes of bright colour as an appliqué to lend life to an otherwise drab building. The extended verticals provide a pleasing shadow play, further enhancing the texture and movement of the façade.

The framed blocks of terracotta are oriented vertically, allowing the building to further stand out: the concrete residential towers that dominate Vancouver’s skylines have a ubiquitous horizontal expression. This choice of orientation, combined with the pixelation of the panels, creates a rich proportion and rhythm on the façade. And although pixelated facades are becoming more common, the strategy also provides variety in the interior, and a contrast to the rigid five-feet-on-centre grid that dominates the design of office façades.

Focal on Third is a bit like PH5 itself: neither the building nor the practice seek out attention, but both deserve it.

Vancouver-based architect Bruce Haden, MRAIC, is principal of FLUID Architecture. 

CLIENT Tradeglobe Consulting Ltd. | ARCHITECT TEAM Henning Knoetzele, Peeroj Thakre, Aitziber Altuna Iztueta, Mike Knauer | STRUCTURAL Wicke Herfst Maver | MECHANICAL Yoneda & Associates | ELECTRICAL Nemetz & Associates | LANDSCAPE Durante Kreuk Ltd. | CODE Celerity Engineering | ENVELOPE Aqua-Coast Engineering | GEOTECH GeoPacific Consultants | TRANSPORTATION Bunt & Associates Engineering | ENVIRONMENTAL Keystone Engineering | CONTRACTOR Ventana Construction | PREFAB FAÇADE Phoenix Glass Inc. | AREA 2,787 m2 | BUDGET $15.3 M | COMPLETION summer 2022