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A factory-made modern home Add to ...

In Kitsilano/Point Grey, the Vancouver neighbourhood where single family homes tend towards traditional arts and crafts styles, large lots and $2-million price tags, Oliver Lang has made a bold architectural intervention: modular housing.

But MONAD, his new multi-family, multi-storey modular housing project on 4th Avenue is all about going "beyond the box." In fact, there is nothing box-like about it. While maximizing the space - Lang has designed four urban homes on the standard 33- by 110-foot lot size of a single family home - he has also used the full 33-foot width to great horizontal effect. Every unit has 31-feet of glazing to let in light and air.

And while modular housing is often associated with low-cost, semi-permanent structures, Mr. Lang and his associates at his firm Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Culture designed modules that were high quality and sustainable.


By designing two C-shaped modules that could join together to form a single unit, living space was opened up. And use of concrete and engineered wood for all the main framing, means that MONAD is built to last, and built to withstand Vancouver's damp climate.

"The problem with current corridor housing " explains Mr. Lang, looking to a neighbouring building on busy 4th Avenue that is typically deep and narrow with limited glazing, "is that there is often only one window and therefore no cross ventilation and not much light."

The key to designing a comfortable urban living space at MONAD, he says, was "all about the core." By opening up the building with a central courtyard, Mr. Lang created a "two-sided" effect, where instead of competing for windows, bedrooms look out onto a landscaped inner courtyard and living space opens up to a view of mountains and water to the north and the street and park view to the south. To maximize light and cross ventilation, units also look onto light wells.



"I wanted to create a kind of sky house," says Mr. Lang, who is soon to move his young family into the north-facing penthouse unit. The south-facing, 1,700-square-foot penthouse has just been listed at $1.6-million. But this is in a neighbourhood where houses less than 10 years old sell for over $2-million. And with 200-square-foot storage lockers and bike rooms on the ground floor replacing the traditional basement, and an innovative two-platform parking elevator, MONAD neatly transcends the traditional single family home. As an added bonus, it offers limited upkeep, a smaller footprint, and a stylish solution to urban density issues.

While in Scandinavia up to 80 per cent of housing is prefab, and modular housing of this type is common in Germany and other parts of Europe, there's relatively little multi-family modular housing in North America of this standard. But Mr. Lang sees prefab as a design advantage because if offers more "quality control."

And as the manufacturer of the modules (Mr. Lang and architect Tony Robbins build the modules at their Preform Casa factory in Surrey, B.C.), as well as the architect and developer, he can oversee the building process from start to finish.

Another advantage of prefab, of course, is that the time it takes to finish a project is drastically reduced. At MONAD the pre-assembled modules - complete with drywall, wiring and plumbing - were lifted onto the site in mid January and the units will be ready in April. The building's foundations, basement, retail level, parking and elevator structure were constructed on site.

In addition, the whole process is less intrusive to the area and has a smaller footprint than the normal construction process. There's no need for huge trucks to arrive on site, noise for neighbours is reduced and workers who live near the Surrey factory where the modules are made don't have to drive into the city.

But the green factor doesn't end there. MONAD features an integrated geothermal/solar in-floor radiant heating and cooling system, which involved drilling 400 feet below site. And a research grant from BC Hydro's Power Smart innovation program facilitated passive design with sliding solar screens and triple glazing that maximizes light and heat in winter and deflects it in the summer.

MONAD shares some spatial similarities with Mr. Lang's 2006 award-winning project ROAR 1 just a half mile away, including deep setback balconies, an inner courtyard, and movable aluminum mesh window screens that act as shading and offer interesting texture. But the significant difference here - besides the much smaller lot and reduced unit size (ROAR has a 66-foot lot size to play with and contains 10 units) is the prefab factor. With it's polished concrete floors and high end finishes, MONAD is hardly less luxurious, but there is a sense of it being more raw and open. However the rough-edged references are nuanced, even sensual. A repeating pattern of vertical indentations on a raw, sloping concrete wall look vaguely Babylonian and the galvanized steel that clads the building in industrial riff chic will soon have a distinctive patina. When it catches the afternoon sun, it gleams like the true Sky House that it is.

Because of its prefab components MONAD also offers more flexibility. Rooms can be used as bedrooms or studies or extra living space and units can be customized according to client's needs. In Lang's penthouse, he plans to create a secondary suite when his daughters are older, by merely inserting a wall where the unit naturally cleaves.

Indeed, MONAD lives up to its name - a play on German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz theory that units of existence add up to more than the sum of their parts - as well as an inversion of the "m" and "n" in "nomad."

"What I've created here," says Mr. Lang, " is an urban model that can be transplanted anywhere."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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