Viewpoint (May 01, 2009)

In early April, I had the opportunity to be part of a jury for an ideas competition called FormShift Vancouver. This design competition, co-hosted by the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the City of Vancouver, invited architects, designers and interested members of the public to submit speculative design proposals to improve Vancouver’s livability quotient. Entrants were encouraged to respond to a series of documents and guidelines that the City of Vancouver has recently adopted, such as the Climate Change Action Plan, the EcoDensity Charter, and the Architecture 2030 Challenge to reduce carbon emissions. The competition received 84 submissions, and it was inspiring to review such a large number of thought-provoking designs that will hopefully lead to innovative projects in the city. After the most recent building boom came to an end last fall, many people were left with the impression that Vancouver had produced precious few examples of innovative architecture and urbanism beyond the Vancouver Convention Centre or the lacklustre Olympic Village–albeit one that is built to LEED Gold standards.

The FormShift deliberations were guided by City of Vancouver Director of Planning Brent Toderian. The other members of the jury included Nancy Knight, Vice President Campus and Community Planning at the University of British Columbia; Walter Francl of Walter Francl Architecture Inc.; Vancouver-based photographic artist Stan Douglas; and myself. Francl acted as the competition’s professional advisor.

The submissions identified many important issues that Vancouver must address over the next 10 to 20 years–district energy, laneway housing, urban agriculture, alternative forms of land ownership, prefabricated construction, and a host of green-roof technologies. Not surprisingly, the majority of the FormShift entries focused on intensifying the city’s laneways, an urban system that is so much a part of the Vancouver experience. But it was disappointing that so few submissions convincingly supported incentives for private developers to effectively implement district energy programs, to facilitate the production and sale of locally grown produce, and to keep the cost of laneway housing affordable–despite the fact that laneway housing in Vancouver has been widely discussed for over 30 years.

To his credit, Toderian’s FormShift Vancouver initiative was intended, in part, to further the City’s studies pertaining to laneway housing as a solution to an ongoing rental crisis and the need to create more housing that is affordable to the average Vancouverite. Toderian, who manages his own blog on, is neither short on self-promotion nor on words attesting to his enthusiasm for his adopted city. Having flourished under the direction of Larry Beasley for roughly 20 years, Vancouver’s planning department was handed over to Toderian in 2006, where it has since struggled to develop a vision beyond hype, to keep pace with seasoned developers, and to embrace the creativity of BC’s architects.

There is certainly a market ready to adopt laneway housing. And there are companies which can produce modular homes within the current 1.5-storey 600-square-foot limitations. Even more housing options will become available if Toderian and his staff can push those limitations to two storeys and 750 square feet, suggested dimensions that have been discussed in the local design community. Improving guidelines for laneway housing will not contribute to a city as radical as the schemes proposed in FormShift, but Toderian’s team must work strategically and apply the scenarios presented in the competition to make Vancouver truly equal to its reputation as a pre-eminent city.

Ian Chodikoff