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Plaudits for the missing middle

Mayor's Urban Design Awards recognize innovation in Calgary's residential architecture

Village, designed for RNDSQR by Modern Office of Design and Architecture (MODA).

The winners of Calgary's seventh biennial Mayor's Urban Design Awards (MUDA) were announced Wednesday night, celebrating architecture and design that contributes to the well-being of residents and communities and the livability of the city as a whole.

This year, a new Housing Innovation category was introduced, the first category to extol small- to medium-scale residential design. Chief Urban Designer David Down says the introduction of the category is in response to the increasing emphasis Calgary is placing on innovation in neighbourhood intensification, accessibility, affordability and improved liveability for seniors.

In its inaugural year, the judging panel has bestowed three awards for Housing Innovation projects, more than any other category in the competition.

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"We've had single family, we've had semi-detached, we've had towers and podiums but now we're seeing an increase in townhouse and mid-rise developments in Calgary, which are filling a crucial gap in our housing landscape: the missing middle," Mr. Down says. "This category acknowledges the firms that are creatively trying to meet city goals with regards to intensification, while also filling niche housing markets in Calgary which, arguably, have not previously been well filled."

"To have three award winners in this category, in its first year, is really fantastic and shows the calibre of projects we're now seeing in Calgary's residential market," he adds.

Chief Urban Designer David Down says that RNDSQR’s developments ‘exemplify how to sensitively insert density into establish communities.’

Two of the winning projects are mid-rise, infill developments, designed for RNDSQR by Modern Office of Design and Architecture (MODA). Mr. Down says they "exemplify how to sensitively insert density into established communities."

"Good residential architecture has been a huge void within our urban fabric for a long time now," says MODA co-founder Dustin Couzens, "it's a blind spot, not just within Calgary but within a lot of North American cities, since private developers began constructing speculative housing on a large scale. For most cities, housing isn't really the sexy part of the city. If someone comes and visits you take them to look at the cultural buildings, not the residential buildings."

"MUDA recognizing innovative housing is really exciting and a sign that the city is realizing that we need to spend energy and creativity on residential design," he continues, "because there's no reason why our residential buildings can't be as interesting as our civic buildings."

"The next generation of buyer is better travelled, more worldly, and their expectations are elevated because of that," adds co-founder Ben Klumper. "Clients are realizing there's potential in offering a little bit of colour in a very monochromatic market. Firms like ours, and others like us, have been challenging the status quo for a while now and it's great to have that recognized."

Grow, designed for RNDSQR by Modern Office of Design and Architecture (MODA).

But both Mr. Couzens and Mr. Klumper are eager to stress that there's more to innovation than wow-ing judges with eye-catching buildings.

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"There's a lot of advancement being done by younger, emerging designers, like us, in architecture that can be done on a shoestring budget or that can be done on a banal, nondescript site or within difficult zoning parameters," Mr. Klumper says. "We feel that both Village and Grow are great examples of doing something really creative and special, in the face of those challenges."

The third award for Housing Innovation went to Arrive at Bowness, a 50-unit townhouse project, designed for Attainable Homes by Hindle Architects. Mr. Down says the development "impressed with its use of design in context, its street address and street animation."

Arrive at Bowness, a 50-unit townhouse project, designed for Attainable Homes by Hindle Architects.

"The challenge with this site was in creating a housing project that responded to its context and could withstand the pressures of what was around it," says Jesse Hindle, Hindle Architects' co-founder. "It's a unique location due to a convergence of the Canadian Pacific railway line, the Sunnyside Garden Centre, and the commercial and industrial traffic that goes with that, and the northbound Sarcee Trail expressway."

"We ended up taking those contextual queues as inspiration, borrowing from the materiality of the area by using corrugated galvalum, the repetitious gable form of the greenhouse buildings and pops of colour to mirror the sequences of colours which appear on the railway cars as they pass. That's how we established a unique character for the buildings," he explains.

Design aside, Arrive at Bowness, like its fellow category winners, has also proven than innovative architecture can co-exist with meeting strict client parameters.

"As unique as the units are, compared to other affordable housing developments in the city, they also met all of the client's requirements: financially, architecturally and in terms of timescales," Mr. Hindle says. "The project has been hugely successful in every respect, not just how it looks."

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The Crossroads Garden Shed in Calgary’s East Village.

In addition to the Housing Innovation Award, over the years the city has also added the Green Design category for sustainable design, the City Edge category, to encourage the submission of projects from outside the downtown core, and the Mawson Award.

Named for the town planner Thomas Mawson, the Mawson Award acknowledges projects that commemorate the history of the city. This year's winner is a city project that is preserving the tree canopy on historic residential streets.

"Calgary's original tree canopy was created by William Reader, Calgary's first Superintendent of Parks, and is a huge part of the city's history," Mr. Down says. "Sadly, that canopy is being eroded and this project is looking at cataloging, researching, replanting and recreating those tree canopies. Hillhurst has some spectacular canopied streets, for example, and we wanted to highlight the work that's being undertaken to preserve those."

As well as the juried categories, this year's People's Choice Award goes to Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre. Other notable category winners include the New Central Library by Dialogue and the King Edward Arts Hub and Incubator by Nyhoff Architecture.

There were also three winning public realm projects from within the East Village; a retail space, a village square and a sculptural "shed" created from shipping containers for the East Village community gardens.

Susan Veres, senior vice-president of Calgary Municipal Land Corp., says these projects provide "more places and more occasions" for the community's anticipated 11,500 residents "to bump into one another and, with each collision, personal connections are made and friendships forged."

C-Square Park in Calgary’s East Village.

"The Community Garden and Shed, the EV Retail Junction and C-Square Park have all helped to create a new sense of identity for this once forgotten community," she adds. "In my opinion, the public realm improvements are contributing to the vibrancy and inclusiveness of East Village."

Mr. Down says Calgary's "growing interest in urban design" means residents of communities like East Village are "putting pressure on the city's design community to ensure that they're meeting public expectations and stepping it up."

"Engagement in, and discussion around, urban design from the public increases each year, as does interest from the media and city council on the importance of design in building a better city," he continues.

"That in turn is driving interest from architects and designers as they explore new ways to build and create. Entries to MUDA have increased from around 30 in the early years to over 90 this year. Entries for the 2015 awards dipped to just 45, in the face of a struggling economy, so we're very happy to have interest higher than ever this year," he adds.

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