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The duplex, re-invented for high-density living

One of architect Lucio Picciano's duplexes. Mr. Picciano says he has re-imagined the duplex style to fit high-density sites.

Photo courtesy Lucio Picciano/Photo courtesy Lucio Picciano

At the nexus of Vancouver's bravest new neighbourhood, design/build architect Lucio Picciano is reinventing the duplex.

Mere minutes from the new Vancouver Community College SkyTrain station and Ken Lum's iconic monument to East Vancouver, the housing type most commonly associated with 70's A-frame style barns, is being born again. Its 2011 incarnation is as a high-density, high-design dwelling that is as flexible as it is modern.

"The duplex," contends Mr. Picciano, " is a great solution to the high cost of housing in the city." By building two residences on a single lot, he says, buyers can save money and invest in higher design standards.

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Mr. Picciano chose the neighbourhood for its flexible zoning bylaws. Around the Clark and East 7th Avenue area where he first built a duplex in 2008, followed by one around the corner this year, with two more in design stage, there is a wealth of housing types. Located near a light industrial zone, the area contains single-family homes, social housing, duplexes, triplexes and apartment complexes.

The first duplex project he designed and built on East 7th Avenue is home to a childless couple on one side and a single professor on the other and kitty corner to that is a duplex designed for a young family. Two in the design stage include another duplex on East 7th for an inter-generational family from China with a penchant for modernist design, and one that will become a B&B a few blocks South on East Broadway.

For Sherry Paley, who lives on the east side of the three-storey East 7th Avenue duplex, Mr. Picciano's design is "ideal" for her lifestyle. A hairstylist and educator for Joico who often works from home, Ms. Paley needed a place "where I could live, work and play." Besides its sleek modernist design, the key for her is the "flexibility of the space." She has made her garage into a gym, and the ground floor delineated into two separate spaces divided by a bathroom, into a sewing room and salon that can double as guest rooms.

Working on a corner lot, Mr. Picciano positioned the duplex to maximize north-facing views of the city and the mountains. By breaking up the exterior through a series of "pop out" walls and windows, Mr. Picciano succeeded in diversifying the façade – avoiding the traditional "stucco box" type of duplex more common to the neighbourhood. By extending picture windows on the main floor of both duplexes by four feet, he ensured views for both sides and simultaneously created an exciting articulation of both space and materials. The window boxes are fitted out in red aluminum panels, with weathered pine beetle wood transitioning into the unpainted aluminum – that juts out by six inches for extra articulation – that clads most of the house.

In addition to its modernist style and industrial aesthetic – subtly referencing the likes of the former Lululemon factory across the street – what distinguishes this duplex is that fact that it's a side-by-side – rather than the more usual front to back – kind.

The side-by-side type of duplex is rare, as the interior finish widths only come to 11½ feet on each side in standard construction practice, making interior layouts tricky. But Mr. Picciano has been able to increase the standard interior widths to 12' 4", simply by using 2-by-4 rather than 2-by-6 construction as well as less-bulky spray insulation.

"This method of building is more costly and most contractors do not use it, or they don't know it can be done, " relates Mr. Picciano. "The city requires an R-22 insulation value in walls and you can [usually]only achieve that by using thicker structural walls with standard construction. I have found ways around that."

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Another advantage of the side-by-side typology, is that is allows owners or investors to have equally valuable spaces to sell. There is no compromise on view or amenity as there usually is with the back to front style.

Mr. Picciano also embraced this style for its "row house feel."

"I could easily envision many of these built from one lot to the next down a whole city block. This would give it a more densified, urban feel, especially since I forego a basement to add a third level. This way I get exceptional views, a taller structure, and a nicer proportion of the building."

While traditionally, contractors don't like the idea of the extra costs associated with a third level, it's here that Mr. Picciano's design prowess shines. The space opens up to reveal 14-foot vaulted ceilings and deep open decks that embrace the view.

The duplex's long narrow spaces follow an almost Victorian typology, but the key difference here – and what saves the interior from feeling cave-like – is the use of light. With an open floor plan, a single linear stairwell to access all three floors and extensive glazing, Mr. Picciano has created a light-rich space. The long 60-foot shape ensures the duplex has full natural cross ventilation and the benefits of both morning and evening sun.

For John and Gina Chen, living with their 10-month-old son Luke in the Picciano-designed duplex that faces Clark Avenue, is "very child-friendly." Mrs. Chen says the open plan is ideal for child minding. "I can be cooking in the kitchen and keep an eye on Luke playing in the living room." Easy wipe down surfaces also make the space toddler proof.

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Previously the couple lived in a 1950's bungalow that took up the entire lot. Now they have their own 1,600-square-foot home, as well as another that they are currently renting and plan to soon put on the market.

"The duplex has been a safe investment choice for us," says Mr. Chen. But as he and his young family gaze out from their light-filled, high-ceilinged third floor at their view of the city, the SkyTrain and the modern new VCC campus a few blocks away, he muses, "Sometimes it feels like I'm not in Vancouver, like I'm in some other city."

"Yes," says Mrs. Chen, who likens their modernist interior to those of her native Seoul, "it's the city of the future."

And it's a city that forward-thinking architects like Mr. Picciano hope will expand the area's flexible zoning bylaws to other neighbourhoods. "High-density housing like this," he says, "means higher design standards and more affordable housing."

If zoning regulations don't relax, he contends, looking out at the expansive view from the Chen's living room, "we'll be building single family homes all the way up those mountains."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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