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Calgary team brings 'new brand of architecture' to multifamily housing

Ben Klumper and his business partner, Dustin Couzens, refuse to design “boxes with balconies stuck onto the sides.” It’s a principle that’s serving the duo well: In only three years, their architecture firm Modern Office of Design and Architecture (MoDA) has won numerous industry awards and high-profile contracts.

The Calgarians, both graduates of and now part-time lecturers at the University of Calgary, admit their “new brand of architecture” is in the minority in the city but they believe their success proves local appetite for innovative design is growing.

Ben Klumper and Dustin Couzens's most recent design project is a 20-unit multifamily development in Bankview, called BV20, that promises to be a striking piece of modern design. (Images courtesy of Turbulent)

Their most recent design project is a 20-unit multifamily development in the residential community of Bankview in the southwest, called BV20, which they’ve undertaken for developer RNDSQR.

Mr. Klumper claims BV20 “endeavours to redefine how people live collectively, which in turn is reinventing the somewhat stagnant multifamily building typology in Calgary.”

In addition to its weighty mission, the building promises to be a striking piece of modern design featuring three sloping topographic ‘switchbacks’ which will serve as a socialscape for residents. The sloping terraces will allow all units an equal share of light and views and the sloped grass roof will be a further communal green space with common garden plots.

“It’s challenging to do something architecturally innovative within the multifamily-building typology because spec housing is so bottom-line driven,” Mr. Klumper says. “So everything ends up looking like a box. Often the only differentiator is the colour of the stucco. The result is that the typology becomes ubiquitous and generic with little consideration for a specific site or neighbourhood. We’re trying to demonstrate that with creativity there are opportunities for innovation within multifamily buildings that are still budget-friendly.”

Developer RNDSQR's BV20 development will feature a sloped grass roof that can act as a communal green space for families.

The design of BV20 is achieved by working with the existing contours of the site which has a 20-foot elevation change between the northwest and southeast corners.

“The parkade is at grade level, which pushes the rear units of the building up and works with rather than against the topography of the lot,” Mr. Klumper says. “The alternative would be to excavate 20 feet of dirt to bury the parking, but that’s expensive and unnecessary when you have a sloped site like this. The saving will offset the added cost of the sloped grass roof. This sort of thinking is appealing to a developer because now they have a product they can market that’s completely different while still meeting their budget requirements.”

Further costs for features such as the communal gardens will be offset by design aspects such as cladding the exterior in cedar wood.

“Cedar wood weathers really well over time and creates a beautiful aesthetic, but it’s also economical because it’s a maintenance-free exterior,” he explains.

BV20 is currently awaiting a development permit from the city but Mr. Klumper hopes it will break ground this fall.

Ben Klumper and Dustin Couzens decided to work with the topography of the lot, accommodating for a 20-foot elevation change between the northwest and southeast corners.

As well as challenging design conventions, the project is also a major milestone in RNDSQR’s ambition to bring families back into Calgary’s urban communities with affordable real estate options centred around a communal living ethos.

“We’ve been building homes in Calgary for ten years,” founder and former real estate agent Alkarim Devani says. “Mostly modern, urban infill homes, but we started to price out. In 2005, our median price was $649,000, now those homes are $1-million plus. That’s not affordable for many families looking for an inner-city lifestyle and it’s a small demographic to sell to. We wanted to do something to widen the buyers we could reach and help families get into the urban lifestyle that’s taking off here.”

BV20 will be Mr. Devani’s first foray into a multifamily condo but he’s been working on his communal-living product with a number of inner-city row townhouses set to be built this summer.

“We have row townhouse projects breaking ground in Bridgeland, Marda Loop and Mt. Pleasant. These homes come with seasonal harvest boxes, bootcamp fitness programs, coffee and lunch programs for nearby businesses and furniture packages from local designers. For us, it’s as much about building great communities as it is about building houses.”

These community features will also complement RNDSQR’s project in Bankview, which is their next step in affordable inner-city family homes.

Developer RNDSQR wants to bring families back into Calgary’s urban communities with affordable real estate options centred around a communal living ethos.

“BV20 will have a variety of unit sizes for a variety of buyers but we’re aiming for a median price of $275,000 with the biggest units being around $600,000. There will be affordable homes there for small families.”

Mr. Devani has another Bankview site on which he’s planning an 80-unit version of BV20 at some point in the future.

“I’d like to work on a few more 20- to 40-unit developments first, to make sure we’re getting those right, before we develop the other Bankview site. Eighty is big leap and we’re not looking to make that jump right now.” But the developer remains confident in his product and continues to capitalize on recent zoning-policy changes by the city and cheaper land prices with fewer competitors.

“The city recently changed their policy on up-zoning on inner-city lots and one of our Marda Loop projects was the first lot to take advantage of that change. It’s great news for developers, the process of applying to increase from two units to four just became a lot easier.

“We’ve bought seven sites in the last 18 months, all inner city. Land prices have come down and it’s a good time to buy. Areas like Bankview, Inglewood and Bridgeland are still the front runners in terms of those culture hubs in great neighbourhood corridors, but areas like Ramsay are about to take off too. Ramsay’s going to be on the new LRT line so that’s an area we’ve got our eye on.”

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