Strathcona sits like a heritage-rich residential island, surrounded by a sea of new high-density development in Chinatown and the Hastings Corridor. Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, it offers turn of the century railway houses, former rooming houses turned into artists studios, parks, cafes and more than a hundred years of multicultural history. But with property prices rising and encroaching development pressure, the area that has survived freeways and decades of urban blight has required new design solutions, ones that both respect the heritage feel and idiosyncratic weave of the neighbourhood and also address a growing city’s need for densification.
Nick Sully and Dwayne Smyth, partners in the architecture firm Shape, recently completed a five-year project based on principles they call “eco-heritage,” which they suggest could well become a model for future development in transitioning urban areas.
“We want to regenerate not gentrify,” Mr. Sully says, who was the project architect for the development that converted two heritage houses on Union Street into seven residential units.
Purchased by a couple in 2007, who wanted to convert the property into both revenue generating units as well as one to house an aging parent, the clients’ mandate was also to create something green and cutting edge, while preserving the heritage grain.
A tall order, but not, as it turned out, an impossible one. Working within city heritage guidelines that allowed for up to seven units on the consolidated lot, and assisted by a provincial SENC (Super Efficient New Construction) grant given for the renovation and upgrading of existing heritage homes, the architects have created nothing less than a new prototype for an urban micro-community: one that is home to a variety of housing types, income levels and generations.
It was a five-year journey, one that overcame initial nimbyism – it’s one thing to support civic green and densification efforts in theory and another to live next door to them – by smart design and ongoing community consultation. Concerns about shadows from the building were mitigated by scaling back mass and form, maximizing frontage and achieving a balance between public and private spaces. Now that construction is complete the complex is a source of neighbourhood pride. Many curious locals wander into the inner mews area that leads to a central courtyard, atypical of the traditional single family neighbourhood and a clever extension of the streetscape on Union Street, which happens to be the city’s busiest bicycle path.
Mr. Sully initially moved the two heritage houses to the back of the property and built two ground floor front facing units, before moving them back on top. So the approach to the multi-family dwelling still bears the framework of a single family residence, with re-milled wooden cladding closely matching the original in style and colour.
But a concrete façade on the bottom units and pathway leading into a central inner courtyard beckon the eye toward the south facing units that make the development so distinct. Essentially what Mr. Sully has created is a modernist version of Georgian style townhouses married to a courtyard house typology– not a bad hybrid for a half-Asian former British colony like Vancouver.
He has maximized space by employing a centralized underground mechanical area that services all seven units and by creating vertical space, in the absence of horizontal.
Transparent stairwells that connect the three levels enjoyed by the three south facing units are anchored by light wells and accented by skylights and they serve to open up the space and amplify the relatively small square footages.
While the four north facing units enjoy city views, as well as the ever-flowing river of bicycle traffic, the south facing units face an inner courtyard.
Viewed from the courtyard looking north, the white pitched roofs of the original houses rise above the black, cement clad flat roofed units that have solar hot water heaters, presenting an intriguing study in geometrical and generational interplay.
By staggering unit heights and inverting interior layouts, the dwellings were given individuality and privacy.
The 750-square-foot residence on the east side of the lot has the bedroom on the sunken ground floor, the kitchen/living area on the second and a rooftop deck accessed by a skylight hatch on the third. Its sister unit to the east, features a south facing sunken patio and kitchen/living area on the ground floor and a bedroom and bathroom on top.
Meanwhile the 1600-square-foot, three-storey lane way infill where the owners/developers reside features so many light wells and skylights that artificial light is almost never used during the daytime.
Its minimalist palette of white oak flooring, polished concrete, aluminum grating and steel amplifies interior space, while ample glazing drinks in the gritty grain of the laneway, textured weave of surrounding heritage homes and rich green of a towering cedar tree.
The third floor retains the cosiness of a garret with the levity of a light filled aerie. Glimpses of neighbouring Edwardian gables speak to the area’s past, while views of the towers lining nearby Main Street evoke a city of the future.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Follow us on Twitter: