Much like Cinderella’s glass slipper, when you’re creating an infill housing development for an inner-city community, it’s all about getting the right fit.
When Edmonton city council launched a contest seeking a design for a plot previously occupied by five single-family homes in the Spruce Avenue neighbourhood, the first thing Calgary designers Studio North did was to get to know the community, says Mark Erickson, a principal with the company. Studio North’s entry was named the winner of the competition last week, out of a total of 30 entries that drew interest from across Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.
The key to Studio North’s success was “the fact that we did a really comprehensive site study, that we really understood the parameters of the community and all the amenities,” said Mr. Erickson. They looked at the diversity of people already living in the area and considered who would want to live there in the future. The design had to fit with the community, so much so that Studio North wanted its development of 56 units to mirror the existing broader neighbourhood in the diversity of residents and home styles, in offering amenities and in encouraging interaction between residents.
Called The Goodweather, the design “will allow for seniors, students, young professionals, families all to live within this development.”
The design focused on the lifestyles and life cycles of residents. It’s as much about space as it is about buildings. “It’s kind of a pocket community … it has a lot of these really nice community amenity spaces like the courtyard which we designed as kind of the heart of the project, making sure that all the dwellings interacted with that courtyard so that we maximized the possibilities for interaction,” said Mr. Erickson. Of the 56 units in the plan for the site located on 112 Avenue and 106 Street, 21 are designed to accommodate seniors and are suitable for residents with mobility issues, offering ground-level entrances and no stairs to navigate.
There will also be an on-site daycare for children. “It’s just a really cool amenity to have … so I think it’ll serve this community really well and also bring a sense of youth and playfulness to that courtyard,” said Mr. Erickson. The variety of home styles will also allow for people to move through the cycles in life – from single, to couple, to family with children, to empty-nesters, to seniors – without having to leave the neighbourhood. “It really allows you to live in one place and stay rooted in your community,” he said.
The City of Edmonton called the contest the “Missing Middle Infill Design Competition.” Missing middle refers to the gap in housing supply between single-family homes and multi-storey apartment buildings.
One of the things that set this competition apart from other architectural contests was the intent to proceed from design concept to actually building the homes. Entries had to include financial details to show that the plans were economically viable and could provide affordable housing. The winners are being offered the site at 95 per cent of the land value. The City of Edmonton and the winning team are hopeful to see the project move ahead quickly.
“We have a lot of housing in the form of large apartment towers and we have a lot of housing in the form of very low-density either single or semi-detached housing," said Kalen Anderson, director of the city plan for the City of Edmonton. "Most Canadian cities … are growing this way.”
Edmonton is predicted to double in size to two million people in about 40 years, so the city council has set out to prepare for those added residents without doubling the geographic footprint. That means increased population density. “It took us over 100 years to get to the first million and it’ll take us less than half that to get to the next million. That’s a steep curve, so we have to think differently and on a different scale and in a different time frame than we’re used to thinking,” said Ms. Anderson.
The concept of infills, however, hasn’t always been popular with Edmontonians, particularly the narrow infill single-family homes that residents have taken to calling “skinnies.”
“Skinnies weren’t universally embraced from the get-go and they still aren’t today and I don’t expect them to be tomorrow, but we learned a lot of things about change in Edmonton,” said Ms. Anderson.
The aim of the contest was to engage the community in the planning process and to identify barriers that might stand in the way of developers wanting to work on mid-sized developments. Councillor Bev Esslinger, who represents Ward Two on city council, including the Spruce Avenue community, says the council started the competition to demonstrate that “infill” was not a negative term.
The city is rife with anecdotes of problematic infill – an ugly house, a design that didn’t fit the community, a house that was too big, too obtrusive for neighbours or where construction practices, primarily noise, annoy the neighbours. But the city hopes it is changing the conversation. “People talk about good infill now versus against all infills," said Ms. Esslinger. “They know the difference when they can see something that’s well designed and appropriate or really fits in a neighbourhood.”
There may yet be good news for other contest participants. Jason Syvixay, principal planner with the City of Edmonton infill liaison team, estimates that the contest brought in about $500,000 worth of architectural design work and that all 30 of the plans were judged to be financially viable. They could be adapted for use on other sites in the city. City officials “are literally salivating” at the prospect of seeing where these designs could fit, he says.
The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic Alex Bozikovic was one of the contest judges and was impressed with the quality of entries. “Each of the top three [entries] were good – No. 1 more practical, the others quite radical in form. But the biggest thing is that the city wants infills so badly and this is a real development. They are ready to fast-track it, using a city-owned site of a few houses, and the density is high – from three houses to 50 units. Compared to the Toronto conversation, it’s Bizarro World.”
“Edmonton is really leading the way thinking about this," said Mr. Erickson. "After this, if we can prove it’s a big success, I hope Calgary will follow suit and other cities in Canada as well.”