After selling their Strathcona home, Karli Gillespie and Dick Hellofs found themselves in search of the holy grail: an affordable house that had a heritage feel but operated in a sustainable manner.
Having worked as developers on various small-scale renovation projects, the couple initially looked at the Edwardian home located at 666 Union Street and feared that renovating it would be too labour-intensive. However, after learning that the seller also owned the home next door, their idea mushroomed: without anything on the market that met their needs, why not combine households to develop an energy-efficient, multi-unit dwelling without destroying the building’s classic exterior?
“What was really a tiny idea, just looking for housing, turned into this enormous, ambitious project for us,” Gillespie tells the Georgia Straight during an interview with her partner, Hellofs, and architect Nick Sully outside the home.
Sully and his team at Shape Architecture have developed similar urban infill projects throughout the neighbourhood. A project on East Georgia Street inspired Gillespie and Hellofs to contact him to find out if their larger-than-life idea could become a reality.
“It’s not new, this idea of combining the social space between houses,” Sully says. “Retaining heritage isn’t really a new thing either, and everybody is talking about sustainability. What’s different is the fact that Karli and Dick were talking about doing all three of these things on one property. It’s a development where all of those things play equal parts, without sacrificing one for the other.”
The two single-family homes at 662 and 666 Union Street have since been transformed into seven separate units that are collectively referred to as the Union Street EcoHeritage Project. The LEED Platinum–certified development has received international attention and was recently awarded the top prize in the urban-architecture category of the National Urban Design Awards.
In addition to a 1,600-square-foot laneway house—Gillespie’s and Hellofs’s home—each building houses three units, each between 500 and 1200 square feet in size. During construction, the project quickly drew interest from eager locals, and each of the additional units was sold before the project’s completion in 2013.
After significant rebuilding that involved removing the top floors of both homes, constructing additional lower-floor units, then putting the upper floors back in place, the development has space to house up to 17 people.
One might jump to the conclusion that squeezing so many individuals onto two 25-by-120-foot lots is excessive, but Gillespie, Hellofs, and Sully assure that each person living on the property has ample space, both inside and out.
“It was paramount for us to have private-amenities space, so even though there was going to be so many units here, we wanted everybody to have a patio or deck,” Gillespie says.
Despite what Sully describes as “some really fine adjacencies”—a matter of inches in some areas of the property—private space is abundant. In the couple’s laneway unit, a deck off their bedroom overlooks the back alley. Through the kitchen and across the unit, a rooftop pond overlooks the yard, offering a quiet place to reflect.
In addition to each unit’s own private outdoor area, the shared space between homes provides an inviting yard for neighbourhood get-togethers and barbecues. A large garden off the laneway house provides each person living on the property with an abundance of homegrown vegetables, and a secure locker has space for more than a dozen bicycles.
Inside, bright, open areas are configured to maximize space. Massive windows placed cleverly near amenities like one unit’s sunken garden patio or another’s rooftop deck make indoors and outdoors seem to merge. Gillespie says this illusion of extended space “makes you want to open your window and participate in what is going on outside”.
For Hellofs, self-described as “a little high-strung”, the design is soothing.
“Whatever it is that happened in there, whether it’s the light or the features of the architecture, it’s a really calming atmosphere,” he says.
“I think there’s a lot of fear for people doing developments like this, because neighbours might think you’re going to have people looking in your back yard all the time, but if you are working with guys like Nick, they can explain to you how to get light into the buildings, and where to place windows so that you’re not overlooking your neighbours,” Hellofs says. “It proves that you don’t have to make a sacrifice to live in higher density.”
The development’s eco-friendly status, non-negotiable from the start, is what sets it apart from other projects that have fused a modern aesthetic with heritage retention.
Many people might be familiar with LEED certifications, but Gillespie, Hellofs, and Sully were keen to score high on the EnerGuide scale, a benchmark that measures a home’s energy use against how much energy it creates.
“With 100 being a net-zero house—one that creates as much as it uses—we wanted to get as close to 90 as possible,” Sully says. “The average Canadian house is probably in the 60s or lower, so that played a huge part in trying to maintain energy efficiency across the board.”
Rooftop solar hot-water panels, two air-to-water heat exchangers, insulated concrete formwork, and passive ventilation are just a few important aspects of the building that brought the project’s final EnerGuide score to 89.
“As far as bells and whistles, we’ve used low–VOC [volatile organic compound] paints and adhesives, energy-efficient appliances, and low-flow toilets and fixtures,” Gillespie says.
Sully says that by focusing first on the EnerGuide requirements, it was easy to meet all the prerequisites for LEED. They scored additional points for recycling more than 40 tonnes of material from the original site, and being adjacent to one of the city’s busiest bike routes made for an excellent walkability score. Having more small, well-designed rooms also bumped up their score even further.
Vancouver’s image as a leader in the “green” movement might suggest that completing a project of this scale would include some sort of incentive for developers and architects, but it seems that the City of Vancouver has yet to implement an expedited approval process for developments that are clearly aligned with the city’s goal of becoming the greenest municipality by 2020.
In total, it took two years for the necessary building permits to be approved—far longer than anyone, including Sully, expected.
“There are probably some small cities in China that were completed more quickly than this project,” Sully jokes. “If the city wants us to do projects like this, they have to create incentives. We’ve got half a dozen projects with similar ambitions over the last few years that have been locked up in processing time, and a few of them have walked away.” Even Sully’s own home, an energy-efficient fourplex, took more than two years to be approved.
“If we want to be the greenest city by 2020, that has to change now,” Hellofs says.
Despite the struggles, the couple are happier than ever in their home on Union Street. Sully says that if it hadn’t been for their tenacity, the idea would never have come to fruition.
“This is a great example of working with motivated clients. This sort of density is what the area was built for, before this massive diffusion to the suburbs. All we’re doing now is putting people back where they were originally, in a more efficient way.”