United Colours of Richmond

PROJECT 60 Richmond Housing Co-op, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Teeple Architects Inc.
TEXT Elsa Lam

Chalk up one more for Toronto’s architectural renaissance tally. The latest addition to the downtown core, a social housing co-operative, defies Hogtown’s conservative reputation. Designed by Teeple Architects, 60 Richmond East is a boldly contemporary highrise with sculpted lines and splashes of colour, as well as a compelling blend of social, environmental, and urban aspirations.

One block east of the historic Hudson’s Bay Company building, the city-donated lot once housed a land registry building–the place where newcomers in another era would have laid stake to a homestead. The 11-storey structure that now stands on the site, commissioned by Toronto Community Housing, offers the modern equivalent: a mix of subsidized and affordable units for low- to moderate-income residents, including new immigrants.

At the outset, over half of the apartments–which range all the way up to family-sized three-, four-, and five-bedroom units–were reserved for relocated tenants from the Regent Park revitalization project. The City of Toronto team, including project manager Leslie Gash, realized that many prospective tenants were members of the hospitality workers’ union Unite Here. As a result, they refined 60 Richmond’s mandate: drawing from the union model, the building would be self-administered as a co-op, and would cater to residents employed in the hospitality and restaurant industries.

The downtown location was a perfect fit. “It’s a fabulous site for Unite Here [members], because it’s close to all the hotels where they work,” says Gash. Other program elements reflect the collaboration of Unite Here from the early planning stages. The sidewalk is bordered by a double-height glass-walled storefront planned to open as a restaurant and training facility this fall. The street-level space will put future bartenders, baristas, cooks and servers in the limelight. By training residents along with other union members, the public face of 60 Richmond is poised to become a community hub.

Inspired by the theme of food, Teeple Architects incorporated a series of kitchen gardens into the core of the structure. A generous outdoor terrace on the sixth floor includes two elevated garden plots that will be irrigated by storm water from the roofs and nourished with composted kitchen waste. The architects describe the gardens as part of what they call an “urban permaculture” cycle–a full ecosystem in miniature.

As with any new landscape, it takes some imagination to envisage the garden areas flourishing with lettuce and tomatoes, and grape vines snaking up the multi-storey grow-wall trellis. However, what’s already obvious is the generosity of the courtyard spaces themselves. The garden terrace occupies nearly a quarter of the floorplate; floors above and below project into the space without detracting from its voluminous, open feel. On the third floor, a more intimate courtyard adorned by a delicate Japanese maple adjoins a community room.

On each floor, window-equipped hallways ring the openings, bringing natural light and air into corridors that are more typically landlocked. “Every time you move through the hallways, you get a reference to this common social space,” says architect Stephen Teeple. “You’re always reminded that it’s there.” The reverse is also true–from the courtyard, residents can glimpse their neighbours moving through the building. When I toured, we spied a young boy serenely rollerblading through the seventh-floor hallway.

Wisely, there’s no street access to the light-filled courtyards and hallways–they remain a secret hideaway for residents to enjoy. However, glimpses into these spaces appear on the faades, an interlocking play of volumes. Conceived as a sculpted mass, the corner block is a departure from the ordinary–a studied weave of perimeter, terraces, and courtyard punctuated by an irregular pattern of windows. The whimsical composition and injections of bright colour might not appeal to everyone, but they succeed in escaping the blandness endemic to downtown infill. “There’s a tendency for street-wall buildings to be seen as complete background–especially in Toronto,” comments Teeple. “We were trying to prove that you can be a good citizen urbanistically, without being boring.”

By using glazing selectively rather than opting for the familiar trope of an all-glass condo, the architects foresee significant energy savings in the future. Also directed towards that end, the entire building is wrapped in an insulated rainscreen cladding that eliminates thermal bridging, with high-end fibreglass window frames to complete the envelope. Other sustainable measures include a sophisticated mechanical system that transfers heat from the warm side of the structure to its cold side, and in-suite heat recovery systems. Together, these put 60 Richmond on track to achieve a LEED Gold rating.

As with all projects, 60 Richmond has its share of compromises and tradeoffs. The cement-board cladding looks monolithic from a distance, but up close, the deliberate mosaic pattern of panel joints seems to lack resolution. Had budget permitted, the introduction of a different soffit material, such as wood, would have given the composition more nuance. The scarce parking dismayed several potential tenants–only nine spaces, including an auto-share spot, for the 85 units. On the other hand, the building offers a generous bike room with interior and exterior access, which in the early move-in stage seemed well populated with two-wheeled conveyances.

Turning over the building to the co-op board also entails growing pains. One of the board’s first moves was to furnish the community room–with painfully staid-looking office furniture. (Teeple murmured something to Gash about having a talk with the board.) From my own experience living in a Toronto co-op, I can testify to the pleasures and pitfalls of this particular management model.

However, whatever the fate of the common-room furniture, the solid foundations for a vibrant social-housing community are already in place. By being thoroughly incorporated into the city, the building resists the ghettoization of physically segregated social housing developments like Regent Park. Moreover, as a conscientiously designed, boldly contemporary building, 60 Richmond gives its residents a place to be proud of. Earlier this year, Gash passed by a meeting of unionized residents with a tour group. “[The residents] turned and said, ‘D’you love our building?’ And the ownership was there.” CA

Elsa Lam is a PhD candidate in the Architectural History and Theory program at Columbia University.

Client Toronto Community Housing Corporation
Architect Team Stephen Teeple, Chris Radigan, Richard Lai, William Elsworthy
Structural CPE Structural Consultants Limited
Mechanical/Electrical Jain & Associates Ltd.
Landscape NAK Design Group
Interiors Teeple Architects Inc.
Construction Manager Bird Construction Company
Leed Enermodal Engineering Ltd.
Area 99,565 ft2
Budget $20.4 M
Completion March 2010