Custom Design West Coast Island Homes


Cliff house as toy

Check out this new photo. I edited using Tiltshift Generator, an iPhone app that gives the photo a toy camera effect. I like it!


Cliff house deck in place

The deck at Cliff house has been installed. The deck cantilevers sixteen feet out over the cliff, supported by steel beams.

By avoiding touching the ground with columns, and allowing rainfall through a permeable cedar deck surface, this design intrudes less on the cliff wildlife below.

The subfloor for the main floor has been laid down, giving a good sense of the platform created.

The next step is to place the steel moment frame. Then the wood frame walls will go up and what looks like a construction site now will quickly take on the shape of a house.

The view from the deck is quite spectacular and a little vertigo-inducing, although that will change once the cedar decking goes on.

A bald eagle was on the lookout today further down the cliff. A good omen, if you're Roman.


Mount Pleasant Promotes Contemporary Architecture in Future Zoning Revision

The renewal of Main Street, together with the humming light industrial area of southeast False Creek, has made Mount Pleasant the creative centre of Vancouver over the last decade or so. Now Mount Pleasant is gearing up to add architecture to its leadership role in the City, as participants in the neighbourhood's Community Liaison Group have shown overwhelming support for contemporary and green architecture during a round of reviews of the area's residential zoning.

The City of Vancouver has received a lot of credit, some of it deserved, for its approach to planning in the City's core. The term "Vancouverism" popularized by Trevor Boddy has its own art exhibit extoling the City's success. In a nutshell, Vancouver planners pioneered a development model which offered density bonuses to developers who provided public amenities, a win-win that has led to a downtown that is the envy of most other cities in North America.

Less well-known is that Vancouver's planners have used a similar approach in the City's single family home neighbourhoods, except that instead of handing out extra density for public amenities, the City has given it to designers and builders for putting faux heritage facades on its houses. The City achieves this through a set of design guidelines which accompany the zoning bylaws. The design guidelines require the building permit application to include a streetscape analysis which compares the existing houses to the new proposed house.

For example, the single family zone RS-5 includes this image in its design guidelines, with the accompanying text: "Where a streetscape offers identifiable facade composition, a new house design should be derived from common patterns":

In other words, new houses should look like existing houses.

To make matters clearer, a further example is given which explains how the new house should be sure to incorporate period details: "A streetscape of houses of different styles and periods requires the designer of a new house to select some predominant context elements and compose these into a design which generally fits into the surrounding context":

In Mount Pleasant, which is an area with many heritage houses, this enforcement of periodized copying has meant that most new houses built in the neighbourhood have earned the name "faux heritage." In some parts of Mount Pleasant, faux heritage houses outnumber the original heritage ones they were intended to copy.

If a designer objected to this, they would be told that they could still build something different, but if so then they had to do it "outright," i.e., they had to build a smaller house. Since most clients wanting a new house, and practically all developers, prefer to build as large a house as possible, in practice that means that the vast majority of new houses are faux heritage. Lately, the requirement to build faux heritage has extended to the outright designs as well.

Why would the City believe that this is a good idea? To answer that question you have to look at Vancouver's history over the last thirty years or so. I would argue that the key moment arrived in the 1980s when Vancouver experienced an unusually high rate of immigration. At the time, there were no design guidelines, and new immigrants with enough money built large houses that looked different from the existing housing stock. Locals called them "monster houses" and proceeded to pressure the City into the creation of the design guidelines: if people wanted to build a large house, then it had to look like an existing house.

Vancouverites might not want to admit this, but the design guidelines are a clear form of architectural xenophobia. This is echoed in one of the comments from an earlier Mount Pleasant community liaison group meeting, in which one person wrote that there should be design controls in place to ensure that new houses are Edwardian or Victorian in style rather than "foreign looking."

In general Vancouver as a city has moved on from this xenophoboic moment and has become a cosmopolitan, outward-looking Pacific Rim city. Most Vancouverites don't just tolerate our multi-cultural diversity, we celebrate it and see it as one of the City's greatest strengths.

The xenophobic design guidelines, however, are still on the books.

This enforcement of antique design is an obstacle for local architects and designers who wish to pursue contemporary and innovative forms. It is particularly debilitating for the careers of young designers who usually cut their teeth on smaller buildings such as houses or laneway houses, but who are forced to produce dated designs.

Permit applications with contemporary design mean that the designer has to fight for approval or alter the design to meet the design guidelines. House builders, meanwhile, who are more concerned with square footage than aesthetics are happy to comply with the design guidelines if it means an easier passage through the permit process, which can otherwise be time-consuming. To make matters worse, many of the faux-heritage designs that are accepted use inexpensive techniques, such as slab-on-grade and engineered trusses, that were part of the reviled Vancouver Special and monster house repertoire, but which are now acceptable provided that they are hidden behind a periodized facade.

How refreshing it was, then, to attend the Mount Pleasant Community Liaison Group last Wednesday.

The group split up into three rooms, two for design of new houses, and one devoted to preservation of existing heritage houses. I joined one of the two design groups. I was ready to speak my mind, expecting to have to fight for contemporary design, only to discover that everyone in the room felt the same way.

This was graphically demonstrated when we were asked to put stickers next to ideas on the walls that we agreed with, and the most stickers were stuck next to sustainable design, followed by contemporary design.

Even more heartening was to sit in the full session following the design meeting, and discover that the other design group also felt exactly the same about the need to promote contemporary design, and to stop promoting faux heritage.

Everyone felt that existing heritage houses should be protected, and should be easier to designate as heritage. No one argues with the value of the City's architectural history. What people object to is the idea that architecture stopped in 1920, and that the neighbourhood should be frozen in time.

The thorny issue of how to incentivize contemporary and green design in Mount Pleasant still has to be worked out, and it will be tricky. But the first and crucial step has already been taken, and that is the rallying of this trend-setting community around the belief that contemporary architecture is important to the cultural life of the City and should be promoted.


Formwork and Treeplanting at Cliff House

The house on the cliff at North Pender Island is nearly ready for foundation wall pouring.

Meanwhile, we have planted some Red Alders and salmonberries at the front of the property, by the driveway, with the intention of restoring it to its natural boggy state.


Formwork on Cliff House

Formwork for foundation walls is half done. The bracing for the deck
means the concrete is higher than expected, but the bonus is that the
house gets a better view and a roomier basement.


Under the Zelkovas: Hitoshi Abe's Aoba Tei Restaurant

Take a bullet train an hour and a half north of Tokyo and you’ll find yourself in Sendai, a coastal city of one million known for its trees—and for one of Japan’s most intriguing young architects, Hitoshi Abe. What makes Abe so intriguing is that he continually reinvents his design process, making each project uniquely itself: a football stadium takes on the contours of the surrounding hillside; the rooms of a private art gallery are sized according to its collection and arranged like soap bubbles in a box. Across the street from Toyo Ito’s celebrated Mediatheque in downtown Sendai is Aoba Tei, a French restaurant specializing in beef tongue. The interior of the restaurant is designed by Abe and takes its cue from the double allĂ©e of zelkova trees lining the boulevard outside. The architect has employed a sophisticated technique to achieve an extraordinary effect, as the space within the restaurant conveys the experience of being under the zelkova canopy directly outside. Though small in scale, the project is one of those key works that engages significant changes taking place in the field. Aoba Tei places Abe at the forefront of a conversation taking place in architecture about the use of 3d modeling to create complex surfaces­, while at the same time the restaurant embodies many of the qualities of older Japanese architecture, before the country opened up and began its mad dash towards modernity.

Entrance to Aoba Tei Restaurant

It is worth looking at that trajectory in order to understand where Aoba Tei’s ideas came from and what makes it so interesting.

The story is perhaps best told by pop artist Takashi Murakami, who describes postwar Japanese art as a progression from flat to superflat. Under America’s influence, Japan became a flat society. Traditional hierarchies dissolved in the new democracy and the middle class expanded to make Japan a nearly classless capitalist economy. In this media-driven age, flat cultural products predominated: billboards, magazines, TV and movie screens.

Postwar Japanese architects meanwhile adopted modernism, a movement whose flat ideals of universality and mass affordability suited the country’s urgent need to rebuild. Tadao Ando and others did for reinforced concrete what Kobe did for beef (and much else besides): they imported something that did not exist in the country before 1868 and raised its quality to the point where the West now copies Japanese techniques. Here and elsewhere, this boxy architecture derived in part from a design process rooted in flat formats. Orthographic projection, the use of plans and sections flattened onto paper and computer screens, tended to produce buildings composed of planes arranged at 90 degrees to each other.

As the economy took off, it was the otaku (geek) subculture that produced the country’s most commercially successful cultural products: manga, anime, Nintendo. Takashi Murakami’s work is a sendup of this trend, flat culture taken to its logical conclusion: superflat. Like Andy Warhol, Murakami’s work is at once a celebration and a critique of the flattening of high and low art, of art and commerce. His signature style, brightly coloured kawai (cute) figures, has found its way onto Louis Vuitton handbags.

Superflat Japanese architecture arrived in the 1970s with the metabolist movement, which proposed that buildings are living cellular organisms that can evolve over time. Its best known product is the Nakagin capsule tower, which is composed of small replaceable concrete units attached to a permament spine.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Today the lines of superflat art and pop architecture converge in Tokyo at Shibuya, with its building-scale jumbotrons, or in the maid cafes of Akihabara; it can certainly be found at the love hotel Adonis in Osaka, where for ¥950 patrons can spend half an hour in kawai intimacy in the Hello Kitty room.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Hello Kitty Room Info Screen

It might seem as though Japanese culture has long since left behind its austere roots. Yet superflat art and modernist architecture fluorished in Japan in part because they resonated with certain design qualities of the past. Manga and anime are direct descendents of ukiyoe and kabuki, while in architecture, modernism has much in common with tatami-era buildings: asymmetrical composition, minimalism, and a modular building system. There is a line of artistic thought that can be traced directly from Edo to the accelerated culture of contemporary Tokyo.

Tea Room at Daitokuji Temple

Still, there are other qualities in traditional Japanese architecture and landscape design that have fallen into disuse in the process of modernization. These qualities are most evident in the temples and gardens of Kyoto, which was spared the bombing, but can be found throughout the archipelago, often in the rural, slower parts of the country.

Rock Garden with Tourists, at Ryoanji Temple

It is difficult to point to any one thing that produces the effect of traditional Japanese design because the different elements work so well together. The natural materials—dark wood, thatch, straw, rice paper—engage the senses. They limit light, reduce contrast, and have an earthy aroma. They are well-adapted to the climate, expelling heat and repelling water in the humid summer and rainy fall. In the winter, heating comes from a hearth sunken in the floor, which is used for cooking and serves as a social focus. The straw tatami mats are sized to the body, creating a human-scale module for room sizing, rooms that are often kept deliberately small to foster intimacy. The transition from outside to inside is measured, with deep eaves and long verandas, while the view from inside to outside is often carefully framed.

For novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, whose 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows laments the passing of traditional Japanese aesthetics, the key element binding everything else together was light:

Our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s end. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else.

The aesthetic system does not stop at the building materials. Tanizaki cites a lacquer bowl, which in electric light looks garish, but which in the dim shadows of a Japanese room takes on a lustrous depth.

Modern materials and lighting make this kind of effect difficult to achieve. Even in a modern masterwork such as Tadao Ando’s Church of Light, which lights the nave by cutting a glass cross out of the concrete behind the altar, the transition is too sudden, too high-contrast to achieve the gravitas of traditional Japanese space.

Tadao Ando's Church of Light

Yet while it may be hard to set the mood, as anyone who has sat down to contemplate a rock garden knows, the tranquility can be broken by just about anything. By the busload of school children filing past. By the tinny music playing on the loudspeaker behind you. By the fellow next to you snapping photos with his mobile phone. The rocks don’t seem to have an answer to any of this other than to sit there, enigmatically, photogenically. As solemnly beautiful as these places are, there is an incongruity to them as well, as if they find the modern world a bit trying.

Returning to Hitoshi Abe, the genius of his design for Aoba Tei is that it evokes the mood of older Japanese architecture while being at ease with the gadgetry and pace of the times. The compressed, shadowy space transitions seamlessly from the from the leafy boulevard to the dining room. Sitting in the restaurant under the pixellated Zelkovas sets up a view of the trees outside. The effect is highly place-specific, not just to Japan, but to this particular spot in Sendai. Move Aoba-Tei three blocks in any direction and it would lose much of its power.

Sendai's zelkvovas during the festival of light

The zelkovas on the interior of Aoba Tei restaurant

The making of this effect is just as interesting. The tree images were made from digital photos taken inside the zelkova canopy. The photos were then pixellated and applied to a surface designed to wrap the interior of restaurant, a process known in 3d game development as texture mapping. The difference is that Abe has brought this technique to life, drilling holes of varying sizes in sheets of steel, which were then shaped by marine welders to match the 3d model. When backlit, the trees render as pixellated outlines of limbs and leaves, enveloping the diners in a variation of shadows much as the zelkovas do the pedestrians outside. The likeness is even stronger during the winter Festival of Starlight, when the bare zelkovas are lit with strings of white lights.

3d rendering of zelkova trees outside Aoba Tei

One pixelated zelkova

Rendering of interior steel shape inside Aoba Tei

Steel shape with pixelated trees punched out

Steel shape inserted inside restauarant

Rendering of final street scene outside restaurant

Rendering of interior of restaurant looking out at zelkovas

Though modest in scope, Aoba Tei is one of the better examples of an important shift taking place in architecture. Innovation in the field has always been fueled by technology. If modernism was the working out of the logic of new building materials­ —concrete, steel and glass—what we are seeing now is the logic of the computer. Abe’s design relies on perspective, a view that defies measurement, or did, before the advent of 3d modeling. Where 2d drawing led to boxes, 3d modeling is just as happy with angles and curves. This development has had a surprising effect: the computer, which was supposed to distance the designer from the haptic qualities of building, has instead in the right hands brought a new sensuousness to architecture.

While technologically sophisticated enough to accommodate the inevitable mobile phone, Aoba Tei is also a place where the lacquerware would show its beauty. It seems fitting though that the restaurant is international, with its chef having trained in France and its architect in the United States. Perhaps most globalist of all is the use of 3d modeling, a technology that has spread across the arts and around the world, but which Hitoshi Abe has used here to create a very local, and very beautiful space. As for the beef tongue: that is a matter of taste.


Construction Started on Cliff House

The footings have been poured on my first real building project, a cliff house on Pender Island.

The structural engineer was over to visit the site and discuss the framing with the contractor and the steel fabricator.

"When does the steel need to be ready?"

"The crane operator gets back from his vacation in Russia in a month. So, in a month."


Vancouver Laneway Housing: An Unfinished Project

The City of Vancouver recently approved its Ecodensity initiative, which includes a provision for laneway housing in single-family zones. This is a welcome and progressive move by the Council, since it adds density, and all its benefits, to the least-dense parts of the City. Metro Vancouver is expected to double in population before the middle of this century, and all those new people need to live somewhere. The general view is that laneway housing adds density without disrupting the granular building pattern that makes these neighbourhoods so desirable. The fact that the City was able to increase density in areas that have traditionally been reluctant to allow it is a sign of how appealing laneway housing is.

What Vancouver failed to do, however, is apply the obvious appeal of laneway housing to other appropriate parts of the City, in particular two-family zones. The thinking seems to be that two-family zones in the City already allow laneway houses in the form of infill housing, so including these zones in the Ecodensity initiative was unnecessary:

Current City regulations already allow one type of laneway housing. These are zones in which lane houses are placed over garages, in order to provide the required parking. They are generally on larger lots (50 ft or more) in areas zoned to have duplexes, conversions, and other similar development in addition to laneway housing. Although the main house is often retained, both the main house and the laneway house are part of a site redevelopment by small scale developers, with units in both buildings sold through strata titling. This zoning is very suitable for, and successful in, some parts of the city and could possibly be expanded to other locations. Ecodensity Initial Actions (p 18)

The reality however is that infill laneway houses are nearly impossible to build in these two-family zones because of an overly-restrictive set of design guidelines. In Vancouver, many parts of the City have both a set of zoning and development bylaws, which are legal documents passed by Council that determine what can be built where, as well as policies and guidelines, which are less rigorously written and enforced, but which have significant influence on the outcome of development proposals in the City.

In most two-family zones in Vancouver, there is an infill design guideline on the books that limits what can be built. The stated objective of infill is "to retain existing buildings by allowing the construction of a second residential building on appropriate sites" (p 11). The restrictions provided in the design guideline however make laneway infill nearly impossible. These restrictions include:
  1. Separation between existing and infill building of 4.9m (16 ft)
  2. A rear yard area of 195 m2 (2100 sq ft)
  3. Infill building maximum height of 7.7m (25 ft)
  4. Rear yard site coverage of less than 35%
  5. For mid-block infill, a side yard adjacent to the existing building of 4.9m (16 ft)
This is what that looks like:

The first four restrictions make laneway infill doable on many lots, provided the existing house is relatively small and forward in the lot. However the last provision, the side yard setback, effectively kills laneway infill as a popular option. The reason is that most Vancouver lots are either 33 feet or 50 feet wide, while houses are rarely less than 25 feet wide, and are usually placed near the centre line of the lot. For a 33 foot lot, that typically leaves 8 feet of side yard, divided between two sides, while a 50 foot lot has 25 feet of remaining side yard. So 50 foot lots are a rare possibility, provided the original owner built a narrow building and located it off to one side, but 33 foot lots are out of the question.

In other words, the objective of the infill design guideline is supposed to encourage the retention of existing buildings, but the guideline's own side yard setback makes this nearly impossible. In practice, this means that the vast majority of developers of these lots demolish the existing building and construct a new duplex. (Many of these new duplexes look like character buildings, but in fact are built slab-on-grade, i.e. without basements, and without attics, much like the cheap Vancouver Specials that preceded them). This is the first irony.

The second irony is that many of the two-family zones in the City are meant to be heritage-friendly zones, which promote the preservation of character and heritage houses. Since it is largely impossible to build infill, and very costly to renovate or expand an older building, most developers will demolish the existing house, and then design the new duplex in a faux heritage style in order to get a density bonus that allows for greater floorspace. Result: character is being replaced with faux character.

The final irony is that these new duplexes are then required to have a two-car garage on the lane, a parking requirement that is meant to reduce crowding on the street. (Never mind that many duplex owners park on the street anyway, and use their garage for storage.) This required garage ends up being about the same size as the infill laneway house that the design guidelines originally prevented.

The question, then, is what is the point of these design guidelines that prevent infill laneway houses in two-family zones?

Perhaps it's because the municipal infrastructure cannot support the added density? Not true: the allowed duplexes add the same load to the infrastructure as the disallowed infill. And anyway, the numbers for family sizes and residents per building have been falling in Vancouver for decades.

Perhaps it's a matter of safety, i.e. the 16 foot side yard setback is the distance required to get emergency fire and medical services to the infill unit to the back of the lot? Again, not true: the BC Building Code only requires 3 feet for emergency access, which is the setback required for laneway housing in the new ecodensity initiative, and anyway, the lot can also be accessed from the lane.

No, the reason for the 16 foot side yard setback is that whoever wrote the guideline decided that it looked nice. To make that clear, they included this picture in the guideline:

At the time of writing, the City felt that all of the dwellings should be visible from the street. Notice, too, that the laneway house matches the main house to a large extent in terms of style. There is an idea here about the character of the streetscape and the granularity of building pattern relative to open spaces. A couple of questions come up immediately, however.

The first question is: why does this idea of streetscape trump all of the benefits of sustainable urban growth identified in Ecodensity? Laneway housing has proven to be the most visible and popular aspect of the Ecodensity initiative, with very little concern shown for the fact that these small new laneway houses will be hidden behind the existing homes. The answer must be that when the guidelines were written, the sustainable nature of laneway housing was not well-recognized; in other words, the design guideline is obsolete in today's thinking.

The second, and to my view larger and more interesting question, is: why are the City's planners trying to design houses? This is not their job. There is a point where design guidelines cross the line from being general regulations concerning safety and massing of buildings, and into the territory of individual building design. The former is a fair matter of concern for City planners, but the latter is a matter for architects, house designers, developers, owners and their neighbours.

Here and elsewhere, the City of Vancouver has attempted to quantify certain characteristics of older homes in the City, and has developed a set of incentives to encourage developers to build new buildings similar to those old forms. This is a large topic and worthy of a blog post of its own, but for now I will say that I am not alone in feeling that this encouragement of faux heritage new construction is turning the low-density parts of Vancouver into a theme park of kitsch architecture.

It is especially confounding when a kitsch design idea such as the side yard setback for laneway infill ends up encouraging the demolition of the very character homes that the new kitsch houses are meant to emulate. Yet this is what is happening throughout two-family zones.

The City Council showed admirable insight and gumption when it recently passed the Ecodensity initiative. That initiative effectively fast-tracked a slow and tedious neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood revision of zoning bylaws in order to allow small laneway houses in single family homes. Some zones, including Cedar Cottage, have already jettisoned the restrictive design guidelines that prevented laneway infill housing, while other two-family zones, such as Mount Pleasant, are attempting to do it one by one, as part of the regular neighbourhood rewriting process. The City should now show the same pluck and fast-track laneway infill housing for two-family zones.