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An entry by Workshop Architecture in the Missing Middle design competition sponsored by Urbanarium.

Courtesy Urbanarium

Canada’s major cities, which used to consist of small apartment zones surrounded by vast swathes of single-family houses, are undergoing a major transformation.

In Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, apartments dominate as the main form of housing that developers are building. In 2017, half to three-quarters of all new homes built fell into that category, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation statistics. Many are in towers.


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As well, Toronto also still builds a lot of suburban-style houses, while Montreal builds almost none of them and Vancouver is somewhere between those two.

But what every city is missing is something in the middle: the kind of not-single-family, not-condo-tower-apartment style of housing that provides enough room for a couple of parents and kids, has some kind of ground-level space outside and doesn’t cost a fortune.

Only 14 per cent of the 22,000-some homes built last year in Vancouver were rowhouse-style. In Toronto, it was 15 per cent; in Montreal, the Canadian birthplace of this form, only 7 per cent.

That’s a problem that a unique group of architects and planners in Vancouver decided to tackle this year by putting on a competition to see who could come up with the best design for that “missing middle” housing.

In particular, the Urbanarium group wanted architects to create a form that would fit into existing single-family neighbourhoods – something that local city councils could consider as a possibility for local densification, rather than following the usual planning route of segregating the single-family houses in one area, apartments in a second one and rowhouses in a third.

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The competition got lots of responses. It also exposed one big problem.

While everyone came up with innovative, socially inclusive and occasionally beautiful designs, the judges for the competition observed one thing: None of them would be affordable to the average family in Vancouver.

“We went through all the schemes looking at construction costs and everything. Our conclusion was that you can’t just densify your way out of the problem,” said Bruce Haden, an architect and one of Urbanarium’s board directors.

He, along with many competitors, made the point that if Vancouver or any of North America’s cost-squeezed cities are going to create this kind of housing, planners will have to figure out how to capture some of the high land values and put it toward lowering the cost of housing.

Otherwise, sixplexes or co-housing projects or rowhouses on former single-family lots will remain out of reach for many.

One solution that the competition’s winning entrants came up with was to create a form of co-housing where a group of people develop a project with six or seven units of very different sizes using their pooled income.

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“It would range from a unit for a student working part-time who could pay $800 to rent a studio to a family of four paying $1,800 a month for a three-bedroom unit,” said Shirley Shen, a co-founder of Haeccity Studio Architecture.

Her company won first prize in the competition for the concept of a “micro-op” project that had included townhouse units around a courtyard on a standard lot in Burnaby, the suburb just to the east of Vancouver.

Haeccity Studio Architecture’s ‘micro-op’ concept won first place in the competition.

Courtesy Urbanarium

She and Haeccity principal Travis Hanks estimated that everyone living in the project could get by with paying no more than 30 per cent of their collective income.

They also calculated that the pool of owners, with that many units available on the site, could come up with enough money to be able to compete with any developers, especially since they wouldn’t have to pay for the usual components of a market development, such as builder profit and marketing.

The design of the project itself is also different because it aims to help everyone living on the site have a chance to interact with each other in common spaces.

The three-storey townhouses are set in two rows, one facing the street, one facing the alley, with a courtyard in between.

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Another entry – this one set in Surrey, the rapidly growing suburb south of Vancouver – took a slightly different approach because there are no laneways there.

Instead, Cedric Yu and his Altforma business partner, Shane Wu, came up with a design for a double lot that would include 16 or 17 townhouses and apartments. He wanted a bigger project so there would be enough people for “critical mass to create a community.”

The four-storey buildings within the project have a lane running between them in the interior of the site.

“Surrey is so auto-dependent,” said Mr. Yu, speaking from Sweden, where he works some of the time. “The front is a space for cars. So for us, the main thing was having a successful collective space [inside].”

Altforma’s double-lot design would feature 16 or 17 townhouses and apartments.

Courtesy Urbanarium

Mr. Yu’s financing model assumed $6.9-million in cost for the whole project, or about $294 a square foot for buyers – a significantly lower price than the $1,000-plus a square foot that even new Vancouver east-side or Burnaby condos are selling for.

Mr. Haden said that, as innovative as some of the ideas were, cities will still need to make some significant changes to reduce land costs if they want to develop a form that can be built affordably in big, expensive city centres.

“They will need to make a big move and do it over the whole city at one time,” he said. “If someone does [rezoning] just in pockets, then you get very high values in the middle of low value.”

Another strategy cities could try as a way of inserting affordable housing is to allow a single-family-lot landowner to redevelop into something much denser, such as a sixplex, he said, as long as two of the units were rented out at rents geared to income for households making less than the median in the city.

The idea behind the competition was, along with ideas about design and cost, to convince city councillors that there are types of denser housing that can fit comfortably into single-family neighbourhoods.

At the moment, rowhouses and small apartment buildings are restricted to relatively small zones in the city. Mr. Haden and others in the competition say cities would be willing to rezone to allow these other forms into single-family areas.

One professional builder says that he doubts, in the current climate, whether any city council would be willing to do that.

“The general public from West Vancouver to Langley is very anti-development,” said Rick Johal, the president of Zenterra Developments Ltd. He said councils and bureaucrats are fearful of giving approvals because of that backlash, so they delay or don’t approve projects at all.

“The approval process is mind-bogglingly slow,” said Mr. Johal, whose company builds about 175 townhomes and apartments in small wood-frame buildings every year ranging in price from $350,000 to $1.5-million.

“I could bring in hundreds more,” he said, “if we could get through the process faster.”

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