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Design practice: Rethinking Multi-Unit Residential Design

Optimizing flexibility, affordability and construction efficiency

By Michelle Xuereb, Dev Mehta, Adryanne Quenneville and Tiffany Wong of BDP Quadrangle

The world is in a period of increased urbanization. In 2018 the United Nations estimated that by 2050 68% of the global population will be living in an urban area. Urban population growth has driven up land value and the costs associated with residential building construction. For most, living in an urban area means residing in a multi-unit residential building (MURB).

As the costs related to urban residential development have increased, the average unit size has decreased. For example, a typical two-bedroom-plus-den unit in one of Toronto’s older stock of residential buildings is usually around 1,000 square feet. Current residential developments fit the same program into roughly 750 square feet.

This squeezing of the floor plans, however, has reached its breaking point. Residential units can only be tightened so much without sacrificing the quality and functionality of the space. When every room is competing for floor area, designers need to get creative.

In March, BDP Quadrangle held a studio-wide ‘Shrinking Spaces Charrette’ to come up with innovative solutions for small units. We took a typical residential unit apart – examining every inch of space from the master bedroom to the pantry shelf – to find creative new ways of maximizing square footage within a limited space.

The future MURB unit does away with fixed rooms with set programs. Isolating in response to the pandemic has prompted all of us to find more flexibility in our living spaces, and also to question how MURB design can go further to support a sense of community and foster interaction with others while still maintaining privacy and a safe distance if required.

This pandemic experience has equipped us with a direct and immediate understanding of the specific desires for an improved at-home wellness experience – such as a need for both togetherness and separation from other family members; having a place to stow away a computer at the end of the day; the possibility to grow vegetables on a balcony; and the benefit of socializing with neighbours. We identified a need for more resilient, sustainable, flexible, and healthy spaces – all within a small footprint in order to maintain an affordable unit.

We began rethinking MURB units by asking: what would happen if we reduced or eliminated set programs? In order to optimize flexibility, we propose blurring the lines between rooms, rather than delineating them with demising walls.

To accommodate this, the building is designed with a structural column grid instead of shear walls, as is typical of Toronto construction. This structural system also uses less concrete – thereby reducing the building’s carbon footprint. For other elements that are typically fixed in place, such as the plumbing stacks and mechanical shafts, we arranged them in a manner that allows for an open plan: the kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry closets are consolidated on the perimeter of the unit. These shifts allow for a more flexible floor plan.


Design practice: Building a New Culture of Care

By Farshid Rafiei

The South-Central Foundation, an independent health authority responsible for the health and wellbeing of 65,000 Native Americans throughout the state of Alaska, was established back in the mid-1980s.  This was a time when our own federal government still controlled not only operating budgets for healthcare services on First Nations reserves, but also ‘designed’ and delivered the built infrastructure these services required.

The South-Central Foundation healthcare system is based on a holistic approach to treatment that, rather than responding to the visible symptoms a patient presents at a one-on-one consultation with a doctor, uses a multidisciplinary team-based approach to uncover the underlying causes behind a patient’s medical condition.  This approach resonates with the holistic view most Aboriginal people have regarding the relationship of the individual to family, community and more broadly to nature.

While the rules around the design of healthcare facilities on First Nations reserves in Canada changed in the late 1980s, changes to the delivery model for healthcare services took much longer. The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) with provincial jurisdiction was established in British Columbia in 2013 and only now is the traditional service delivery model being re-examined and reinvented to better suit the needs of Aboriginal communities.

Gone is the clinical model, by which a patient accessed a physician in an institutional environment – the typical sequence being a stark waiting room with upright chairs lining the walls; a reception counter with a sliding glass panel at which one stands and delivers personal information; a long walk down a grey and featureless corridor; a hurried conversation with a white-coated doctor in a small and windowless consulting room; and the usual result –  walking away with a prescription to fill.

In its place comes a very different healthcare experience in which architecture plays a significant role, by interpreting community needs and cultural values, while acknowledging the social sensibilities and stigma that may surround the act of accessing health services.

Under construction in the magnificent and expansive archipelago of Haida Gwaii (population 5,000) is the Skidegate Health and Wellness Centre, which not only creates a very different physical environment for healthcare services, but also an emotionally supportive one.

Skidegate itself has only 900 inhabitants, so privacy can be hard to come by and rarely does a visit anywhere (never mind to the doctor) go unnoticed. Young adults in particular are sensitive – and to some degree secretive – in this regard, preferring that their parents do not discover they may be struggling with substance addiction, or mental health challenges.

However, in Haida culture, where respect for Elders remains strong and the matriarchal structure of society places grandmothers, in particular, in a position of trust, influence and power – these same young adults are much more comfortable sharing personal information with them.

Equally important in its influence on the design, the Haida place enormous importance on their association with and proximity to the ocean, and favour buildings that offer a sense of openness and connection, rather than enclosure and confinement.

We have approached the design of the Skidegate Health and Wellness Centre with this physical and cultural context in mind. On the side of a hill overlooking the ocean, the building follows the slope rather than the contours running across it, enabling all public areas and frequently occupied private spaces to have a view of the water. The road to the Health and Wellness Centre extends a little further to another building – an Elders housing complex.


New (Temporary) Home of the House of Commons

Hidden solution controls a glaring problem

Any long-term renovation project comes with issues, and the recent conversion of the West Block courtyard in Ottawa to the new home of the House of Commons for the next 10 years, is no exception. In this case, a hidden solution was found to one of the most glaring problems.

By Terry Coffey

To convert the exterior courtyard to an indoor space, architects AFGM designed a multilayer roof structure comprising a supporting steel structure, outer glazing, an access catwalk, and an inner laylight. This plan would create an impressive space, full of light.

Impressive but problematic.

As the proceedings of the House of Commons are televised, control of light through the roof structure is critical to prevent glare. Draper, a U.S.-based manufacturer of custom solar control solutions, was tasked to provide a way to maximize the diffuse daylight in the space without permitting direct sunlight to strike any part of the debating chamber at any time during the day.

Given the complex geometry of the roof and the need to block direct sunlight, it wasn’t possible to use an “off the shelf” solution. As a result, Draper worked closely with facade engineers, Front Inc.; climate engineers, Transsolar Inc; and skylight contractor, Seele; to develop a custom motorized louver system.

There were three big challenges to address:

• Motorized louvers rarely rotate more than 90°, but this project required a drive mechanism that could rotate the louvers through 180°, allowing them to track the sun continuously throughout the day.

• The louver system needed to cope with the irregular shaped skylight elements.

• The system needed to allow adjustment to run on a number of different slopes.

The final design comprises a drive bar with sections of rack mounted at each louver location. These racks engage toothed wheels mounted on the louver shafts. Consequently, as the actuator drives forward and back, the louvers are rotated.

The louvers slowly rotate 180° every day during daylight hours, then retract to their original position overnight. Adjusting the actuator stroke allows the amount of louver rotation to be increased or decreased as required.

Using 3-D printers, prototypes of components were produced to check their integration with the structure.

Due to the precision required, two mock-up systems were built and reviewed by the design team and modifications made to address issues that were highlighted. Noise measurements resulted in the original actuator being replaced by one which achieved significantly quieter operation.

The mock-up also allowed consideration of maintenance issues, including louver or actuator replacement and, in an emergency, the ability to close a bank of louvers if an actuator failed.

In addition to the prototyping and approval process, each segment of the louver system was completely built and tested in the factory before shipment to Ottawa.

In the end, the custom louver system, while critical to the successful operation of the debating chamber, is almost invisible both from the interior and the exterior because of its position in the middle of the multi-layer roof structure.

Terry Coffey, ISF is with Draper, Inc.; Drawings and photos supplied by Draper, Inc., unless otherwise noted.


Emission Omissions: Carbon accounting gaps in the built environment

New study discovers important gaps in life-cycle approach used to account for GHGs in buildings

By Philip Gass, Senior Policy Advisor, International Institute for Sustainable Development

In Canada, there is rising interest in how building materials may affect greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and whether innovations and choices in these materials can help the country meet its emission reduction targets. The fact that over 30 per cent of GHGs come from the communities and structures we build for ourselves underscores the need for us to get this right.

To date, evidence for optimizing the choice of building materials has largely been drawn from life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies that consider the GHG (and other) impacts of building products at each phase of their “cradle-to-grave” lifespan (i.e., production, use and end of life).

While LCA is the best-available approach for evaluating GHG performance of alternative building products and designs, policy-makers and building designers should be aware there are also limitations, challenges and uncertainties that need to be considered when looking to decarbonize our buildings. We should exercise caution when making decisions that advocate for one building material over another.

Recent research by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has identified serious gaps in how emissions from building materials and products are being measured and accounted for. Failure to account for all carbon emissions may undercut today’s climate change efforts and shortchange future emission reduction opportunities.

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