Back to the Future
PROJECT Union Street ECOheritage, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT SHAPE Architecture Inc.
TEXT Courtney Healey
PHOTOS Eric Scott
Density is something of an obsession around Vancouver as the metro region prepares for an influx of over one million new residents in the next 25 years. Preparation thus far has been largely limited to massive podium-tower developments for which public opinion has soured in recent years. Vancouverites are demanding different forms of density, but many new proposals draw heavy neighbourhood opposition. This process usually creates a stalemate between two unworkable outcomes: the total destruction of neighbourhoods, or stagnation. It’s a particular issue in older neighbourhoods near the downtown core, flush with heritage homes that are charming but energy-sucking hogs—leaving density on the table and driving up the cost of housing for everyone.
If we Vancouverites are opposed to generic redevelopments, at another level, we also crave the sense of connectedness that can result from increased density. The Vancouver Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the country, recently spent two years surveying local residents, community leaders and charitable organizations to determine the most pressing issue facing the city. To their surprise, the overwhelming response was isolation and disconnection. Residents of this world-class city feel lonely and find it difficult to make friends. The report found that people increasingly live in silos separated by culture, language, income and age. Respondents followed up with hard questions: “How can we begin to tackle complex issues like poverty and homelessness if people are disconnected, isolated and indifferent? How can we make people care about community issues if their concern stops at their front yard?”
One front yard in Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, Strathcona, was the starting place for grassroots developers Dick Hellofs and Karli Gillespie who, along with SHAPE Architecture, have eked out a small pocket of difference in this disaffected city. Their Union Street ECOheritage project also reimagines the often fraught relationship between development and heritage preservation. For SHAPE, the term ECOheritage is shorthand for grafting super-efficient new construction onto underperforming housing stock to bring overall energy use down, while retaining the cultural value of heritage-listed buildings. On Union Street, this was no small accomplishment. The project took five years to complete and went through many rounds of city approvals and public consultations owing to conflicting civic policies and neighbourhood concerns over densification.
Houses in Strathcona were built around the turn of the last century for labourers from the nearby Hastings Mill. It is a neighbourhood of unremarkable clapboard houses, its charm residing in the pleasing scale of its streets and higgledy-piggledyness of its structures. Strathcona, like Manhattan, experienced its peak density sometime around 1910. At that time, 662 and 666 Union Street were home to about 14 people. Residents were likely families with four or five kids, a grandparent or two, maybe an uncle or cousin working in a nearby factory.
We’ve long ceased to live in large multigenerational households. When Dick and Karli bought the houses five years ago, there were four people living between them. The challenge they brought to SHAPE Architecture was to recreate the level of density and affordability found in Strathcona a hundred years ago, while working within the neighbourhood’s context to create something relevant for today.
Aggregating lots to build multi-family housing is nothing new: in fact, it is a trend across North America, where 70% of new home construction is multi-family and 30% is single-family (40 years ago, those numbers were reversed). What sets the Union Street project apart stems from SHAPE’s thoughtful study of neighbourhood development patterns over time. By preserving the footprint and massing typical of the surrounding neighbourhood, they have created a new prototype for densification.
Today, there are over a dozen people living at 662-666 Union Street, only now they comprise seven distinct households on a stratified property. Each of the existing houses was raised and positioned to receive both a compact one-bedroom unit below and a one- or two-bedroom multi-level unit to the rear. A new freestanding lanehouse for Dick and Karli completes the ensemble. The new residents are owners and renters from toddlers to retirees; they are singletons, couples and families. What they share is the desire for community and the need for affordable space in the city.
The first thing you notice when walking down Union street is how the concrete sidewalk simply widens right into the ECOheritage site. It may not sound like much, but the lack of barrier onto a private residential property belies a “welcome in my backyard” attitude found throughout the project. This is not to say that one is whisked from the street into the living room. From the informal sidewalk court, a steep concrete stair runs up parallel to the street toward a central pathway between the houses. The front porch of each heritage house is removed a few steps further up. The path provides access to rear and lower-level units before opening onto a patch of lawn at the heart of the site—a green roof over a sunken mechanical room, forming a de facto shared courtyard. The path turns past the front door and patio of the lane house, branching to access a bike-storage shed and vegetable patch on one side, and the sunken forecourt of a rear-facing unit on the other.
There are no broad strokes to the plan and no one-size-fits-all solutions, noteworthy for what was essentially spec housing. Each square foot is designed with considered respect to the next. This might sound tedious, but the results are worth the effort. SHAPE works with existing topography and creates sectional variations to great effect across the tight site. Units are relatively small but the interior volumes are generous. Each unit, in its siting and prospect, feels private yet connected. Front doors and individual outdoor spaces are all located at different elevation points—whether a few feet or a full storey up or down from the adjacent grade.
Recognizing that views are tight, the architects mine Vancouver’s bright grey sky for all it’s worth, employing numerous skylights and clerestories to throw a surprising amount of light into the units. Open a door off the covered central walkway into a rear-facing unit, and you enter a narrow slot of foyer and stair: there is no immediate view but the space is bathed in light from two levels above. At 500 square feet spread over two floors, the planning in this unit is nimble, and even with two separate stairs, little space feels wasted with circulation.
The successful design of the new units becomes even more evident when contrasted with the heritage house interiors. While SHAPE has carefully restored the homes, the original structures remain largely intact, save a widened doorway here or a half-bath there. It is noticeable, then, how much space is given over to hall and stair and how the light enters predictably from straightforward openings in the centre of walls or facing onto a covered porch. The design team has improved this condition with skylights and dormers on the upper floors.
Overall, there is a give and take between the old and new structures. The quirkiness of the site plan and the eccentricities of the heritage buildings temper a tendency toward flat minimalism in the new units. At the same time, the simple and economical approaches to material details in the renovations and additions keep the heritage elements from feeling too fussy.
The old houses form the basis for an inventive urban design solution that builds density into an existing neighbourhood. Standing at the centre of the site, it is easy to imagine spreading this kind of quasi-invisible density over the entire neighbourhood. But density itself does not create community, just as green products alone do not create sustainable developments. SHAPE understands this: they’ve used the basic tools of architecture to manipulate space and light and to choreograph movement across the site. In doing so, they’ve elevated their client’s vision and the city’s potential to the next level.
The project’s success has been swiftly and widely recognized. The Union Street project meets LEED Platinum targets and achieves an EnerGuide score of 89. The architects and their clients were awarded two of the City of Vancouver’s inaugural Urban Design Awards. Neighbouring municipalities are studying the project to inform their community plans and design guidelines. The project has also begun to attract like-minded would-be developers, who wend their way to Dick and Karli’s front door for advice on how to develop their own eco-urban utopias.
Dick and Karli talk about the project’s success in less quantifiable terms. They point to Karli’s mother who, in early planning stages, had stressed her need for absolute privacy and seclusion from neighbours. But after downsizing from her traditional single-family house and moving to Union Street a year ago, she can now be found out on the front steps every day of the week, chatting with neighbours and making new friends. Happiness might seem like a hokey metric for evaluating a city—but feeling good about where we live, feeling connected to our neighbours, and feeling part of a community are imperative to a well-functioning democracy of engaged and empathetic citizens.
Courtney Healey is the Director of Lodge Think Tank and an intern architect at PUBLIC in Vancouver.
Client Karli Gillespie and Dick Hellofs | Architect Team Nick Sully, Nathaniel Funk, Hannah Teicher, Matt Traub, Evan Hauptmann, Scott Keck | Funding Partner Super Efficient New Construction (SENC)/Livesmart Program | Structural Wicke Herfst Maver Consulting Inc. | Mechanical Terra Mechanical Ltd. | Geotechnical Braun Geotechnical Ltd. | Building Envelope Spratt Emanuel Engineering Ltd. | Electrical Superior West Electric | Landscape Claire Kennedy Design Ltd. | Interiors Karli Gillespie & Dick Hellofs | Contractor Natural Balance | Sustainability E3 EcoGroup | Civil MPT Engineering Ltd. | Legal Landmark Law Group | Code Pioneer Engineering Consultants Ltd. | Area 6,500 ft2 | Budget Withheld | Completion December 2013