A community ice slide, a garden suite "stuffed under" the backyard and sharing-economy-inspired spaces wedged between dwelling houses: These are just some of the ideas architects and designers came up with for the inaugural Edmonton Infill Design Competition last month.
What's more, many of the designs (including the community ice slide) could well become a reality as the city looks to review regulations to bring more creativity to Edmonton's often controversial infill architecture and architects seek willing clients to build their entries.
"The conversation about infill with Edmontonians hasn't always been easy," says Livia Balone, director of development and zoning services for the city. "Some infill in Edmonton has been criticized as either boring and uninspired or insensitive to established older neighbourhoods. Or both."
The competition received 82 entries and worldwide interest. Balone hopes it will "advance the design ethic for infill in Edmonton and demonstrate that infill can augment, rather than detract from, the character of our established neighbourhoods."
"If people have a better understanding of what is possible in the realm of infill design, there is a greater chance that they will seek out better infill solutions for their own projects," she adds.
One of the competition's most striking entries, Inclination, was submitted by local firm Kennedy Create and was awarded a Merit in the Open category. It included the concept of a semi-private community space for residents which could be used as a winter ice slide, summer water feature or to harvest rainwater for residents.
"Infill housing can be very introverted," design lead Sam Maleknia says. "We wanted to create a new typology that would give back and add something to a neighbourhood. Something that included a secure space for parents to watch their kids play and a space where kids create memories.
"Edmonton is very black and white in terms of its public and private spaces," he continues. "We wanted to create more of a grey area to fill the gap."
Balone says the idea of an ice slide was a firm favourite with her young son but Maleknia says it's more than just a fun concept, it's something his firm is keen to bring to fruition.
"We've pitched the concept to a number of clients and there's been interest. We're looking into a preliminary study on costs and we'd love to see it get built."
For Maleknia, putting creative design into practice is the only way to change perceptions of infills in Edmonton.
"When the city said 'any lot that's 50 feet or wider can be sub-divided' it was actually very progressive; but it scared people a little bit. When people see the fabric of their community change, they get worried. But that reaction is based on what has been produced to date and not what could be produced."
Upping the creativity stakes to address the challenges of garden suites is another Edmonton-based firm, Rockliff Pierzchajlo Kroman Architects, who won an Award of Merit for their design called Backyard Pingo.
"As an office, we're all for subdivision and densification but we appreciate that a lot of the discourse around that in Edmonton is negative," principal Jan Kroman says. "We got to thinking about how we might hide a garden suite in plain sight. So we thought 'Okay, let's stuff it under the carpet.'"
The result is an inconspicuous dwelling house which causes the earth to rise up like a Pingo; the Inuvialuktun word for a small hill which refers to mounds of earth-covered ice found in the Northwest Territories.
Kroman admits that the initial concept for the entry was "put together over a few beers on a Friday," but says the design itself is "entirely feasible."
"The land form rises and accommodates the dwelling but keeps the garage on top. We designed it with current regulations in mind and it'd be great to get a client for it," he says.
Kroman agrees that better design is the only way to change the discourse on density in Edmonton.
"We need to educate the public that infill isn't the problem, it's the design of the infill that's the problem."
Kroman says he believes "exposure to the design practices of high-density cities like Toronto and Vancouver is beneficial" to Edmonton's own design scene.
Maleknia, who was born in Iran, grew up in Dubai and lived in Turkey and the United States before settling in Canada, agrees. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel all the time," he says. "A lot of cities have already addressed the problems Edmonton has."
Bringing out-of-town thinking to the table, Winnipeg-based 5468796 architecture won Best in Class in the Open category for a new and original concept for infill housing called Tweener, which challenges conventional thinking around building ownership.
"The space between infills is so tight that there's actually a lot of waste there; wasted energy by not sharing walls, wasted side yard, wasted floorspace," principal Johanna Hurme says. "Paying attention to the sharing economy movement, we decided to design infill housing that has a space built in between which neighbours could agree to use on a shared basis.
"Traditional spare rooms in family homes are very rarely used and yet they still have to be built and heated and maintained," she continues. "This way is more socially, environmentally and economically sustainable."
The Open Category was the only one in which entrants were free from all zoning constraints, though Hurme says Tweener could certainly work for either Edmonton or Winnipeg.
"It's actually relatively simple. You just need an agreement to build over a property line. It's quite possible," she says.
Balone foresees "some challenges with its implementation" but says the point of the Open category wasn't necessarily to get a build-ready idea.
"If the proposal contains even a small nugget of an idea that can set off a new line of thought and creativity for our city, then it's a success," she says.
"[This category] also acknowledges that our city regulations do not always have all the answers – sometimes a great proposal can show us examples of where our regulations may actually be inhibiting good design."