For locals, Vancouver’s picture-postcard reputation and its public-planning triumphs do little to salve the fact that it has one of the highest costs of housing per capita in the world. It also has a serious issue with social alienation; a recent Vancouver Foundation report named lack of connection and engagement as citizens’ number-one complaint about the city. And as heritage homes are routinely destroyed for lot value, Vancouver is starting to embrace its history while carving out a new identity for itself.
A creative answer to all these issues is found on Union Street in historic Strathcona. The neighborhood—perched between the railway station and Chinatown—was only narrowly saved from bulldozing for a new freeway in the late 1960s by local activists, and today its community spirit inspires not only a new generation but also a new housing solution.
The multiunit project, designed by Shape Architecture, is dubbed Union Street ECOheritage. It’s an example of a new approach to residential site development and an innovative model for sustainable multifamily living.
"We were inspired by projects in places like London’s Camden Town and by S333’s work in the Netherlands: densification with a heritage backdrop but contemporary overlay," Shape principal Nick Sully explains. "The challenge was how to do a contemporary appliqué on top of [original] infrastructure that didn’t just emulate the past."
The ECOheritage project is just a few streets away from where Shape’s investigation into this type of infill development began. There, next to Hendrix House—the historic home of Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother, a prominent Strathcona resident—Shape’s first experiment in adding density to a lot with an existing structure took place: They lifted up an old house, put a new unit underneath, and added another building in the rear.
When area residents Dick Hellofs and Karli Gillespie, themselves local developers, saw the project, they were impressed enough to hire Shape to design multifamily dwellings on two side-by-side lots with Edwardian houses they’d recently acquired.
"We knew we wanted to do something contemporary, green, community-oriented, and multigenerational," Karli says. But even with this forward-thinking plan, the developers wanted to respect the past.
Shape’s solution? They saved the facades of the two Edwardian homes, salvaged as much of the bones as they could, and, with a nod to their first Strathcona project, lifted the units up and inserted new ones underneath. Period elements like stairwells and beams were integrated into new interiors and original wood was recycled wherever possible.
The next step involved the development of what Sully describes as the "mid-ground" of the site. With the courtyard house and Georgian mews in mind, the opening of the middle of the site became a focal point for increased density and community—a "social condenser," Sully calls it.
This midpoint is framed on the far side by a new laneway house—home to Dick and Karli—and augmented by shared gardens and a communal bike room, a useful amenity in a location that faces a busy cycling path. Now, a lot that once held two single-family homes features three separate structures with seven different units, inhabited by residents ranging from Karli’s mother to a couple with toddlers.
Each unit is as singular as its inhabitants, and although property is strata-titled—with each resident responsible for maintaining their own unit as well as a share of the common areas—it’s the antithesis of the cookie-cutter condo model more typical of Vancouver’s multifamily dwellings.
The 25-foot-wide lots, each with a front porch that serves to animate street life (a distinct feature of the neighborhood), helped shape the design: "The project was very much about balancing tight adjacencies of public and private [spaces] that North Americans are not necessarily used to," Sully says. "But there’s an energy that comes from that private-public proximity. It requires a give and take, a social exchange with which you have to deal."
Creating a sense of community in a device-dependent world was key to the developers. But city guidelines called for privacy, too. Much of this was achieved through window dressings, screens, and frosted glass, as well as the use of state-of-the-art soundproofing.
Boundaries between public and private space are softened by strategic landscaping, including sunken gardens and trees that provide a canopy of shelter. Tight interior spaces are augmented by high ceilings, deep light wells, and floor-to-ceiling windows, while variegated scale and massing create a sense of layering that amplifies space.
So far, this subtle experiment in community development is working. Karli’s mother enjoys interacting with the neighboring children, and the residents share vacuum cleaners and—thanks to LEED platinum technology such as solar hot-water panels—lower utility costs.
As it turns out, this "new" density is actually a return to the population concentration of a century ago, Sully notes. When the original houses were built, it would have been common to have 15 or 20 people inhabiting two city lots.
In addition to being studied as a model for intergenerational housing by planners in Stockholm, the ECOheritage project has also had the unusual honor of winning awards in both preservation and design—two worlds that don’t often connect. "You know you’re doing something right when your project wins praise from both urbanists and preservationists," Dick says. "We hope this can become a model for other developers."
"We’re not trying to replicate craftsman detail," Sully adds. "We’re doing modern design—extruded onto the bones of the old neighborhood."
To date, the Union Street ECOheritage houses have inspired four similar Shape-designed projects in the area, including Sully’s own residence. "What we’re doing is about much more than a few singular projects," he says. "It’s about urban regeneration."
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