Back-to-backs, brownstones, bungalow courts, clustered housing, plexes, maisonettes, row-houses, stacked towns and six-packs.
Throughout the world, these low-density multi-housing forms provide affordable homes for millions of households. However, in British Columbia, most of our housing is either single-family homes or apartments.
As a result, architects and planners are increasingly referring to these other “gentle density” housing solutions as “the missing middle”.
Given that much of Metro Vancouver is zoned for increasingly unaffordable single-family housing, there is a growing interest among local architects and planners in exploring how these new housing forms might help address housing affordability in our region.
One key advantage of “missing middle” housing types is that they do not require large lot assemblies. Individual lots or two neighbouring lots can be redeveloped with higher-density ownership or rental homes without significantly changing the character of the neighbourhood.
While the result may not be low-cost housing, three to seven homes are more likely to be affordable than one larger home on the same lot.
To encourage local architects and planners to further explore the design opportunities for these housing forms, Vancouver’s Urbanarium Society recently held a Missing Middle competition.
For those not familiar with the Urbanarium Society — https://urbanarium.org/ — it is a registered non-profit founded by a group of architects, planners and other Vancouver citizens passionate about city planning.
Recently, through a series of lectures and sold-out public debates, it has been addressing top-of-mind topics.
Should we open up all neighbourhoods for densification? Should we legislate housing affordability? Should we build fewer towers? Who should plan our neighbourhoods — residents or professionals?
The Urbanarium organized the Missing Middle design competition to generate ideas for how to make housing affordable in Greater Vancouver – particularly seeking models for increased density in residential areas where planning officials currently allow only single-family houses to be built on a lot.
The goal was to generate inspiring possibilities for a single-lot landowner or a pair of neighbours to create affordable, higher-density, low-rise housing options that supported socially healthy housing configurations.
The competition was co-ordinated by architects Catherine Alkenbrack and Bruce Haden. It was open to a broad range of applicants, from children to accredited professionals, who were invited to propose detailed design options for the redevelopment of one or two lots in one of four Metro single-family neighborhoods: Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond and Port Coquitlam.
The competition was expected to appeal primarily to local firms; however, it attracted a considerable number of creative submissions from around the world.
While competitors had to respect existing property lines, they were encouraged to explore innovative ideas.
Could streets be narrower to provide a front yard for homes built near the front property line? Did every home have to have its own parking space or could parking be centralized?
While existing single-family densities are in the order of 0.6 FSR (this means the area of a building should not exceed 60 per cent of the site area), and typical apartments are anywhere from 1.2 to three FSR, the density range for the competition was in between.
Since the submissions were to be judged on their affordability innovation, participants were required to submit detailed financial pro formas and analyses.
Proposals were also judged on social innovation. Did the design help create opportunities to reduce social isolation or offer intergenerational living?
Design innovation was also judged. While this was not a beauty contest, it was recognized that ultimately good design will contribute to greater community acceptance.
The jury included technical advisors and senior planning officials from Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and Surrey.
Thanks to the co-sponsorship of BC Housing, CMHC and Wesgroup’s Peter Wesik, and a variety of other sponsors, cash prizes were awarded to the top entries, as well as an entry selected by local directors of planning.
The Missing Middle competition received 34 entries and 12 prizes were awarded. While most of the winning submissions came from local teams, there was one winning team from Toronto, Workshop Architecture, and one from Los Angeles, Goodale Architecture Planning, both representing cities also experiencing an affordability crisis.
In announcing the winners at Surrey city hall in early March, Richard Henriquez, board chair of the Urbanarium and founding principal of Henriquez Partners Architects, noted that Urbanarium ran this competition to have a meaningful discussion on how middle-density inter-generational housing could contribute to affordable housing in the future.
Haeccity Studio Architecture, a Vancouver-based practice that focuses on medium-scale housing, was awarded both the first prize selected by the jury and a prize selected independently by the senior planners.
In their submission, the proponents stated that it is no longer viable to rely on density alone to address the current affordability crisis. We need to explore ways to side step the speculation and sudden increases to land cost that come with rezoning.
Their winning ‘Micro-Op’ concept hinged on zoning relaxations and incentives for resident-driven single-lot developments based on a shared-ownership model. The goal was widespread opportunities for incremental density increases that preserve the character and social composition of existing neighbourhoods.
Since winning the competition, Haeccity Studio has been spearheading continued discussions among the winning teams in an effort to explore how their innovative plans can be put into action to deliver affordable housing.
Some of the other ideas put forward during the competition probed the upper-density limits of walk-ups around courtyards; encouraging live-work along walkways; forgoing personal vehicle requirements in favour of a modest shared fleet of co-op cars; and transferring some of the accrued land gains from higher-density development into a neighbourhood park.
A full list of the winners and their entries can be found at https://urbanarium.org/missing-middle-competition.
While it is often said that we are running out of land in Vancouver, I believe it is more important to make better use of the land we already have. In future columns, I will explore in more detail other ideas that came forward during the competition and how they might be implemented throughout the region.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, developer and educator. He is an adjunct professor at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.