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’Switchback’ condo layout increases saleable square footage


Clever design that boosts the bottom line

The design wraps two condo units around one another over two levels.

'Switchback' layout of proposed Calgary condo increases salable-square footage

Innovative architecture doesn't often help a developer's bottom line, but Calgary-based Modern Office of Design + Architecture (MoDA) is proving that doesn't have to be the case. Its latest project, a 19-unit condo building in Lower Mount Royal, boasts an unusually high saleable square footage of 95 per cent, 10 per cent above the industry benchmark.

Called Switch/bloc, the design wraps two condo units around each other over two levels, giving each unit the full depth of the building; half on one floor and half on another floor. With no requirement for a corridor on every level, MoDA co-founder and architect Ben Klumper describes the layout as "tighter" and " less wasteful." "Developers love that," he adds.

"This is a lane-less site so it has no bumper between it and the adjacent buildings, which is quite unusual," he explains. "It's probably a historic planning quirk. But it means we have to be mindful of how we use every inch of space. That's what started us down this path."

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Mr. Klumper and his business partner, Dustin Couzens, admit their best designs have been born out of problematic sites with unusual constraints. Their latest project, an inverted condo building in Bankview designed for an unusually sloped site, recently won a prestigious Progressive Architecture Award.

An exterior rendering of Switch/bloc.

"The knee-jerk response to this site is the ubiquitous four-storey double-loaded corridor, multiresidential housing project, but that caters to such a small demographic and does little to add to the public realm," Mr. Klumper continues. "So we spent a couple of months playing with the conventions of what comprised a unit and how those units were distributed throughout the building and this is what we landed on."

And the advantages of the design the pair have come up with extend beyond thrifty use of floor space.

"By distributing units over two floors in a switchback fashion, it allows us to allocate the kitchens, living and dining areas to the front of the building and the more private sleeping areas to the rear, so there aren't quiet units and noisy units or lighter units and darker units," Mr. Couzens explains, "which means the developer won't be left with harder to sell properties towards the end of sales."

The site is being developed by Mike Shaikh; a well-known Calgary philanthropist who is also a senator-in-waiting and a past chair of the Calgary Police Commission. It's Mr. Shaikh's first development, which the 68-year-old describes as "a retirement project" arising from "a desire to build something unique in Calgary."

With no requirement for a corridor on every level, MoDA co-founder and architect Ben Klumper describes the layout as ‘tighter’ and ‘less wasteful.’

"I had four or five architects bidding on this project," he says, "and while MoDA weren't the cheapest, they were the most innovative. This is an unprecedented design and something totally original in Calgary."

His site, located at 1722 7th Street SW, is in one of the city's most affluent neighbourhoods, just steps from the Red Mile. He purchased it in 2009 for $3-million and the cost of development, he says, will be about $10-million.

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"It's a significant investment in a time when there are many challenges within the city's economy. It needs the right product to ensure it's a success," he says. Which is why he hired Calgary-based Ignite Strategic to undertake market research into what potential buyers wanted.

Mr. Shaikh says the research determined that there is demand in Lower Mount Royal for a condo product that works for small family units, which is a niche he hopes to fill.

"Units over one floor are not efficient or attractive to families. With Switch/bloc, parents will be able to put their children to bed on a different level and then carry on with their evening, enjoying company or whatever, without disturbing their sleep," he explains.

"You also won't get those pockets of noise which are typical in a more traditional layout where someone's television is blaring next to your bedroom. You'll see sunrises in the morning from the bedrooms and sunsets in the evening from the living areas. It's more like a townhouse or a single-family home in that respect," he continues.

Switch/bloc is currently awaiting a development permit, but Calgary philanthropist Mike Shaikh hopes to break ground this spring.

Mr. Shaikh says the development has been well received by the community, who were appreciative of its "neighbourhood-appropriate aesthetic."

"Mount Royal is a community with lots of beautiful turn of the century homes," he says. "Inserting something new into that landscape has to be done sensitively."

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By using materials and shapes traditionally associated with older architecture but "contemporizing" them, Mr. Couzens and Mr. Klumper believe their design will fit right in.

"What you find in this neighbourhood is lots of clapboard, brick and shingle alongside lots of traditional shapes such as mansard roofs and protruding dormer windows," Mr. Klumper explains. "We're using cedar shake, which is a traditional roofing material, to clad the front of the building. The raking of the front and rear façades are a reflection of the traditional mansard roof and the front elevation becomes a megadormer or a large projecting volume, which abstracts the traditional use of a dormer window."

"By using those shapes and materials in new ways, we've created something that is modern but fits in," Mr. Couzens adds.

Switch/bloc is currently awaiting a development permit, but Mr. Shaikh hopes to break ground this spring. Though starting prices are still to be finalized. he says achieving 95-per-cent saleable square footage "will help to increase the affordability of the units."

Mr. Shaikh is planning further developments in Lower Mount Royal in the next two years.

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