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by Wolf Saar, Director of Practice for VIA Architecture

The other day, I was going through my normal weekend routine of picking things up, and as I was making my way downstairs with my arms full of laundry and various other items, I noticed I hadn’t hung up a shirt that was laying on the bed. Instead of putting the stuff down, or getting to it later, I decided to try and hang up the shirt with my free hand.

Like an acrobat I repeatedly tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to place the shirt on the hanger without the hanger swinging away. I finally dropped my pile of stuff and hung it up properly. Then I started thinking: what would I have done if my arm was in a sling? What if I had suffered a stroke and lost the use of my arm? As an architect and designer, what could I do to remedy that type of situation? This is a great example of what the aim of Universal Design really is: to make all things accessible and able to be manipulated, regardless of ability.

Less ridiculous than my Saturday morning act is what my dad faces every day as an 89 year old experiencing the progressive diminishment of his abilities due to Parkinsons Disease. He currently lives in a 35 year old Burnaby, BC high rise condo with my mother; narrow hallways that hinder his passage with a walker, a standard tub that he cannot negotiate without complete assistance and doors with knobs that are difficult to turn. And then there’s the toilet which, because he basically falls onto it, we fear will ultimately become irreparably dislodged from its mounting.

Thankfully, at 85, mom is relatively fit and can provide the care and assistance he needs so he rarely has to deal directly with the barriers that are designed into the space he inhabits. But this condo creates difficulties even for her; until I added a second one, the door peephole was mounted at “standard” height and, being short, she couldn’t actually use it.

I can excuse a 35 year old design on the basis that we were not as sensitized to these issues back then. But, as a 51 year old who can now visualize a future of “aging in place” for myself, I am still amazed at the way we often take the expeditious approach to the design of the places we live in.

As an architect with a passion for designing spaces for elders, I make it a point to look at the way senior housing is designed and am repeatedly disappointed in the number of “independent” living facilities I’ve seen that comply with ADA but don’t take the next step to design universally. Combo microwave/kitchen hoods positioned up high above a stove are my pet peeve because they’re hard to reach and potentially a burn hazard. It’s also evident in elements such as ranges without front controls, dishwashers that aren’t raised so the resident doesn’t have to stoop down and standard bathtubs you have to climb over the edge of to get into.

Several years ago, I went to a presentation by Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston. The Institute is an international non-governmental educational organization committed to advancing the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design. That talk was a turning point for me because it clearly showed me how I could influence design in a very real way and contribute in a positively to the experience of aging.
Valerie introduced the notion that, besides accessibility, Universal Design advances “Social Sustainability.”

When we discuss sustainable design, we consider three broad facets: environmental, financial and social. In considering the concept of “Aging in Place” and the social aspects of Universal Design, the goal of independence can be expanded to be “Aging in Community” by promoting the design of accessible and maneuverable environments in the public realm. Universal Design promotes socialization of seniors as contributing members of society by breaking down barriers while placing less of a burden on social services. There is nothing “greener” than being able to continue to live in your own home or community.

Despite the challenges that their living unit presents, my parents do live independently and, in a broad way their location next to a Skytrain Station and a few blocks from their primary doctor, dentist, grocery store and a full-service mall serves them well. Basic needs in the public realm are met, such as curb ramps and adequate lighting but being next to a large shopping center means that, in this case, the car is still king and navigating their neighborhood is both daunting and a bit dangerous due to discontinuous pedestrian ways and drivers that seemingly ignore them. More and more, I see my parents retreat into the condo and limit their forays outside.

There are a number of excellent resources available to designers and the public. In the Seattle area, the Northwest Universal Design Council was formed in an effort to help advance Universal Design thinking in the Puget Sound region. This organization is exceptional in that it brings together people concerned with providing universally accessible environments and advancing the mission of an enlightened approach at all levels of design. This is an energetic and steadily growing group consisting of members of the public, government officials, architects, designers, students and builders with a common goal: to advance the design of “Environments for All.”

As another valuable resource, Aging and Disability Services of King County provides a particularly good clearing house of Universal Design links and resources. In the Lower Mainland, check out Citizens for Accessible Neighborhoods’ website at

And, bringing it back to how to hang a shirt with one hand? Maybe give up on the hanger and look at that old alternative: the coat hook.

Tuesday News Roundup

Jun 15, 2010

Janine Benyus using Biomimicry to Design Cities (Treehugger)
Janine Benyus helps design cities the biomimetic way

Apartment Therapy’s ‘Small Cool Kitchens’ contest yields interesting observations (Apartment Therapy)
(and) Treehugger — lessons from apartment therapy kitchen competition

The Way We Design Now (NYTimes)
Allison Arieff – Design now exists less to shape objects than to produce solutions.

Denver Urban Farms (Grist)
Denver busts urban farming’s yuppie stereotype

Good neighborhoods have lots of intersections (Grist)
It’s a little counterintuitive, but it turns out that having lots of intersections is really important for neighborhood walkability and transit use

A Growing Concern (Earth Island)
Can urban farms translate popularity into profitability?

The variety of American street grids (Discovering Urbanism)

Seattle’s waterfront streetcar – not coming back? (Human Transit)
Ultimately, if Seattle loves the Waterfront Streetcar enough to pay for it, or get its tourists to pay for it, then by all means Seattle should have it. My job as a transit planner, though, requires me to ask, now and then, if the proposed service is going to be useful as transit.  Will this thing actually be useful to people who just want to get to where they’re going?

Blame it on the Train (NY Post)
Late for work? NYC offers excuses via email

Friday Feature: Chris

Jun 11, 2010

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Chris Wanless. I am currently a third year architectural masters student from the University of Toronto completing a 6 month internship at VIA Vancouver.

What made you decide to go into your field?
Growing up in a family of engineers, I have always wanted to build; to be involved with the possibility of changing the world around me.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
My family is quite proud of my pursuits and the passion I have for them.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Scott Sorli. He taught me how to see.

What was the biggest hurdle you have faced or are facing along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
The biggest hurdle I continue to face in design is to be able to feel at the same time as thinking; to supress the overly rational in favour of the phenomenological.

What inspires you?
Simplicity and beauty.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
A masters degree in Architecture is required to work for yourself, which is my ultimate goal.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
In my experience, those architects that are equally talented, knowledgable and personable have the best chance to suceed. I say chance as fortune and fate are inseparable as in any case.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
Blur your eyes in front of a design. If it still speaks of it’s purpose and beauty then it is a success.

Also, never pick a fight with a drunk or a fool.

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
It ebbs and flows with the global economy as it always has.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
Always sleep plenty if you wish to be original.

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architecture

In Alec Applebaum’s apt Op-Ed column in the New York Times for the opening of 1 Bryant Park, the first LEED Platinum office tower in the US, he warns:

“But while the [LEED] standard is well-intentioned, it is also greatly misunderstood. Put simply, a building’s LEED rating is more like a snapshot taken at its opening, not a promise of performance. Unless local, state and federal agencies do their part to ensure long-term compliance with the program’s ideals, it could end up putting a shiny green stamp on a generation of unsustainable buildings.”

This really isn’t news. (Same paper, last August.)

It is encouraging, however, to see a growing chorus in mainstream media calling for more demanding standards and continual monitoring of our built environment. Energy usage is probably among the easiest data to collect, but there’s so much more that I, as an architect, want to know.

At a recent seminar about an ongoing study of energy usage in multi-unit high-rise buildings, the presenter tossed out an anecdote about a Vancouver-area resident who had to move her bed into the hall during the summer to find relief from the heat. This is a horrifying proposition – that a resident, probably an owner who had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in her home, found that space seasonally unbearable – even in Vancouver’s mild summer – to live in.

This story raises all kinds of questions – what way does her unit face? Are there any overhangs, openable windows, air conditioning? Most critically, what design choices led to that situation? And equally important – has anyone told the original design team?

Every building has its quirks. So many ideas and systems interact – sometimes in surprising ways. From a 1950s 3-storey walk-up to a high-rise with a fresh Occupancy Permit, there are and will be funny little things that might be called ‘character.’ Over time, maybe they’ll blend into a comfortable patina. Hopefully, they don’t become sources of horrible discomfort.

Designers are quirky, too. There are moves each of us push for, based on our own experiences and lifestyles (higher showerheads and uninterrupted wall space for bookshelves, for instance). But if there’s anything that significantly affects the lifestyles of the users – tell us! Then we can repeat the idea (if it’s a good one) – or adjust it, or avoid it altogether. In large projects where the user group is known as ‘Buyer’, direct feedback is far too rare – and often only had when things go really wrong.

It is better to know that some element does not perform as intended or expected – whether it’s a missing or ill-placed sunshade, an interior layout, or an energy system – than to unwittingly repeat a folly for the next several decades.

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Krystal and I am a junior designer straddling the VIA worlds of architecture and urban design.

What made you decide to go into your field?
I used to draw the floor plans for my dream houses when I was a kid… some of them were even dimensioned (albeit arbitrarily and probably without a lot of math behind it). In high school I took technical drafting classes and attended art school for half the day. As it turns out I was obsessed with urbanism and the built environment as a subject and incorporated it into most of the work that I did in ceramics, photography, painting, drawing and sculpture. Everything from Skylines, buildings, bridges, windows, and streets all made their way into my creations. I was really excited when I made my decision to help create cities.

What did your family think of your chosen field?
They were pretty happy about my decision, not happy about the cost of my decision.

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Aristotelis Demitrikopolis (that is not a made up name). He was my 3rd year studio professor who insisted that the Greeks pretty much invented everything including architecture, civilization, outer space, telephones, pc computers, pencils etc. He was really hard on everyone, but he taught me the importance of designing in context and I had a major breakthrough in understanding scale in his class. Our project was to create an office building on a site in the middle of nowhere in Texas. I ended up having to design an entire city because I was so stumped as to how you inform design decisions with nothing but sand and tumbleweeds. Needless to say… I got an A and pretty much stuck to the urban realm after that.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
My biggest hurdle was Hurricane Katrina. The summer before my thesis I went home to New Orleans to research my project which was going to be a short transit line between New Orleans and the north shore. When the hurricane came, not only did we lose our house and all of my research, but I also lost my project’s theoretical ridership (since over half of the city’s residents had left). I adapted my thesis however and expanded the network to the suburbs to the north and created TOD’s everywhere. It’s really funny now to read my thesis… I had no language for what I just described. Thanks VIA 😉

What inspires you?
Music!!!!! Art. Technology. TED. Nature. Music.

What schooling is required for success in your career?
Bachelor’s degree in Architecture although a master’s would probably be desirable.

What kind of people are the most successful in your field? Are there any specific attributes?
Oh wow, that’s a tough question. It takes a whole lot of people with a lot of different attributes to make a successful team. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thanks Bucky 😉

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
Growth is a funny word. There is always room for people who want to develop their skills and push forward for what they believe is positive and influential change.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?

Slow down. Take time off to think about it. I fast tracked through my masters in architecture, but if I would have slowed down, I realize I would have chosen a different path. Urban Design would have suited me better, but thanks to VIA I get to do both!


Thoreau’s Coffin

Jun 02, 2010

by Craig Hollow, VIA Architecture

“Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.

This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Last week, at a dinner party with a group of the most dedicated proponents of density I know, I took an informal survey of how many of us actually live in multifamily housing. Out of eight hardnosed urbanists, I was the only one who could claim the righteous mantle of walking our talk, living in a 650 sq. ft. studio apartment in a multifamily…mansion? Ok, even I don’t rate as a purist given that my ‘dense, urban’ living situation includes a front and back yard, a two car garage, and is actually a grand old Capitol Hill manse divvied up into five surprisingly spacious if quirky apartments.

At this point, it’s a well-publicized fact that for all of their grime dense, walkable cities like New York are the greenest developments out there. Freedom from cars is part of Manhattan’s green story, but there are many other beneficial by-products of density: the energy efficiencies inherent in larger buildings, the critical mass necessary to support robust transit options, neighborhoods with enough amenities that they are worth hanging out in, infrastructure that serves more people per dollar, no lawns asking for constant doses of pesticides, the long list goes on and on.

The efficiency of the city is underlined when we look at the numbers comparing the net energy use of density and sprawl. The cowhands of Wyoming, the least energy efficient state in the Union, produce 124.11 million metric tons of CO2 and consume 937.9 trillion btu’s of energy apiece while driving 44,080 miles a year, from the ranch to the steakhouse and back no doubt. Meanwhile, the accidental environmentalists of New York produce only a tenth the CO2 and consume less than a quarter the number of btu’s than the average Wyomingan. Even compared to the latest and greatest utopian experiments in zero-energy ecotowns, the city comes out ahead. No matter how you cut it, single family housing just isn’t sustainable.

We know these facts and many of us repeat them like parrots. But given a choice, the best-intentioned among us often are not trading our single-family homes for multifamily living, even in the Pacific Northwest, a veritable hotbed of eco-activity.


This is an important question because as Saul Griffith pointed out in a recent New Yorker article by David Owen, it’s extremely unlikely that we will come close to meeting minimal global goals for carbon emissions reductions if we count on new infrastructure and green power to do the job. The problem of climate change is primarily a problem of over-consumption and while the magic of carbon neutral power sources will help us consume cleaner if they ever materialize, we simply need to consume less. Choosing to live more densely is a key to consuming less.

When gently chided for living the All-American single-family dream, the responses of my urbanist friends ranged from open-mouthed, blinking silence to apologetic stammerings about the pastoral requirements of raising children. The most cogent and disturbing response, however, was simple and distressing, “We can’t afford it.”

This was shocking to me. Aren’t condos and apartments cheaper than single family houses? How can less cost more? The answer is complex and says much about the challenges to increasing density in our region. On a dollar per square foot basis, a single family home is often cheaper and that’s the plea my delinquent friends made to me. “Try finding a condo with two bedrooms in a decent building that isn’t a million dollars or more,” they complained. But when you factor in the costs of owning a car, utility bills, and the costs of maintenance the numbers tend to flip.

If we try to account for the difference between the price of housing and its cost by factoring in the infrastructure of roads and utilities and remediation it quickly becomes apparent that the market isn’t working to bring price and cost into alignment. For the moment, because a buyer’s options are driven by financing and purchase price, it’s often true that you have to pay more to get less if you opt for a condo rather than a single family house.

The challenge to creating density today is that when even its cheerleaders add up the numbers they find that choosing to forego a single family house in exchange for a condo in an urban, walkable neighborhood is too often like choosing to live in Thoreau’s three-by-six foot box when for the same price you can afford to live at Walden.

Friday Feature: David

May 28, 2010

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is David Sachs and I am an architect from the United States currently working in Vancouver and I play an architect on TV (VIA TV). I have worked on a variety of project types over the past 12 years making me a bit of a generalist for better or worse and have deliberately avoided specialization.

Did you always want to be in this field or did you have other career aspirations growing up?
I built my first basswood house at age 6. At age 8 I helped my father draw elevations for his architecture school thesis. He used all of my blue lego pieces to build his site model. I wanted to be an architect. By early high school I thought it better to be a politician or psychologist. By end of high school I entered a design competition for a kindergarten and did well. I wanted to be an architect again…

What made you decide to go into your field?
Some people say ‘to be like my father’…in truth is was because I loved legos…

Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
Tony Schuman, my 3rd year studio professor. He exposed me to housing and responsible ‘pedestrian scale’ design. We designed an Olympic Village in the New Jersey Meadowlands… it had to convert to market rate housing after the Olympics through a combination of townhouse, multi-family and mixed use building. He also introduced me to Herman Hertzberger.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path? (academic, financial, motivational, family or peer pressure, outside distraction, etc.)
Deciding if I wanted to be a ‘real’ architect or a ‘theoretical’ architect. NJIT provided a well grounded urban architectural education with the ability to choose based on professors how you wanted to approach architecture. I chose to tread the line between…

What schooling is required for success in your career?
At lease a Bachelors of Architecture. Nothing prepares you for success like the real world, seeing your work built and learning from your mistakes and successes.

What is the best advice you were ever given?
‘Measure twice, draw once, Measure twice cut once’
‘Do the next best thing, the next “right” thing, and then move on to the next…’
‘Never have someone look at your work without reviewing it yourself first’

Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
If the economy is behaving, yes.

What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
You have to love it and be willing to put in your time and sometimes starve…

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability

There has been an overwhelming amount of interesting writing recently around the topic of integrating food production back into our urban and regional awareness, and therefore our land use. This has taken many names and forms, among them Urban Farming, Community Gardening, Urban Agriculture, Agricultural Urbanism, Agriburbia, Agritopia … and related ideas such as farmland preservation, food security, the local food movement, community-supported agriculture, relocalization and many, many others.

One of the champions of Agricultural Urbanism has been New Urbanist leader Andres Duany, who has led the planning of numerous North American communities that seek to re-establish traditional village land use patterns that are based on integrated physical relationships between residential areas and surrounding rural lands. However in a recent presentation at the 18th Annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Toronto, he went beyond this concept into the new, more radical idea of Agrarian Urbanism, or the concept of a society concerned with the growing of food (0). This goes beyond the concept of land use into the idea of actual engagement of residents with their food production.

Attending the same event was James Kunstler:

”Among other things, the most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home … Farming, at one level or another, is going to be your occupation.” (1)

One of the challenges of the architectural and planning perspective is the sense that we can use design to solve problems – in this case, really big problems like connecting people back to their awareness of food. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “design it and they will come.” Agriculture has been called “the new golf”(2), now placed at the center of new development in lieu of recreational activities in places like Port Gamble WA (3) and Delta BC (4). But how successfully can we use land use planning to design communities that focus on farmland and expect that a steady supply of local food is the natural outcome?

Unfortunately farming isn’t quite that simple. There is much idealism associated with agriculture, which tends to be viewed through a lens of nostalgia for a past that very few of us ever have experienced. In addition, although farms can make for lovely-looking countryside, we venture into dangerous territory if we are now valuing agricultural land because of its aesthetic qualities and its marketability as the centerpiece of new development.

The practical realities of food production are considerable:

  1. Agriculture isn’t an optional accessory. Cities need farms, and farms need cities. If we’re serious about food security and a supply of affordable, nutritious food, we can’t just place farms where they’ll be nice accessories to suburban forms of development. We have to preserve all the viable land that we can within reasonably reached travel distances to our major urban centers. The NDP BC Government did a masterful job of agricultural land preservation with the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in 1973 (6). Even though this policy has been controversial since its inception, it has preserved over 18,000 square miles of potentially viable land primarily located in the Fraser River Valley that could easily have been consumed for suburban sprawl long ago.
  2. Food is seasonal. In the northwest and much of the rest of the country, this means that locally grown fruits and vegetables are abundantly available from May through November, and pretty much non-existent the rest of the year. Adjusting our expectations to this reality can be pretty challenging and requires the relearning of a whole new set of food preservation skills that our foremothers all knew. It also means that these centerpiece farms valued aesthetically for their verdant abundance, are going to look pretty sparse during a full half of each year.
  3. Prosperous farms aren’t necessarily pretty. Farmers who seek to make a living wage from their efforts are generally focused on food production, not necessarily keeping the 3-rail fences painted. Joel Salatin (5), the renegade farmer from Virginia and author of books such as You Can Farm, is very clear that profitable farms are often the worst-looking ones. This is because they’ve made an art form of frugality in order to survive without the crushing debt held by most current-day farm families.
  4. Growing food involves risk. There are no certain outcomes in farming. As if the risks of drought, flooding, lighting strikes, and pestilence weren’t enough, then there are the challenges of capitalization, competition, access to markets, community support and available infrastructure. So if a farm becomes the focus of a development, who assumes these risks? And what happens if the farm is not able to survive as a viable business?
  5. Farming is hard work. Creating a sustainable food supply isn’t the same as tending a p-patch. It takes physical labor, wisdom, and resources, and a commitment to be out there in the muck every single day from dawn til dusk if that’s what it takes. So in these planned communities, who is going to make that commitment? And how is this going to be more marketable than a golf course?
  6. The demographics don’t look very good. Not only is the average age of farmers in the United States is currently approaching 60 (7), but there is a critical shortage of young farmers willing or able to take over our existing farms. I once met a fellow who said that “every farmer is a closet developer”. Development of your land must look mighty seductive when you are 60 years old and your options are: 1) sell at minimal profit as farmland, if anyone is willing to buy; 2) keep farming until you die; 3) or abandon your land. Fortunately there are great non-profits like the PCC Farmland Trust (8) who have developed a creative financing model that allows farmland to remain in use while allowing land owners to cash out the development rights, while simultaneously creating opportunities for young farmers to get started.

On a recent episode of Jamie Oliver’s television show Food Revolution (9), it was sobering to watch an entire group of middle-class West Virginia first-graders who were unable to name a single one of the vegetables that the chef had brought into their classroom. Not even a potato or a tomato, not a single one. Clearly as a society we have serious work to do to re-awaken our lost awareness of what food is and where it comes from.

But I think we have an equal responsibility as design professionals to take the problems of our food supply as more than a simplistic equation of land use. Every one of us is a consumer, and every one of us has a stake in the health of our communities. Let’s start by supporting the work of groups that are already preserving, encouraging, and advocating for our small farmers, and be real about the challenges that these hardworking individuals face in continuing to feed us.

Monday News Update

May 24, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!

Reinventing the bus stop (Fast Company)
Teague’s Traffic 2.0 makes transit more friendly

People for urban progress (Urbanophile)
A new feature that will periodically profile great examples of positive urban change coming from the new grass roots.

Bike to work month – how to survive Seattle’s hills (Crosscut)
Thousands of commuters are taking the cycling challenge for Friday’s Bike to Work Day, and in hilly Puget Sound, a roller-coaster route is virtually inevitable.

Institute for Market Transformation
“Resources to the latest on energy efficiency financing, green buildings and codes under a changing energy regime”

Office composting service in Vancouver (Vancouver Sun)
Growing City leaves a lined plastic bin in your office and each week picks up the accumulation of coffee grounds, egg shells, fruit peels, bread crusts, paper towels, paper plates and uneaten carrot sticks, and has it composted.

Walk, Bike, Ride – the economic case (Publicola)
Growth of walkable neighborhoods in cities and suburbs can play a similar role in the decades to come, sparking growth in the broader economy—but only if we start preparing today.

Paper or Plastic? The answer is neither (NYTimes)
Some area cities are now considering bans on paper and plastic carry-out bags.

Backyard gardens grow cash in lean times (LA Times)
Green-thumb entrepreneurs turn a grocery list of items they can grow, hunt or collect themselves into extra cash.

Mandatory bike parking in North Vancouver (BC Local News)
At a public hearing Monday, North Van council unanimously supported a zoning bylaw amendment that would require new developments include parking for bicycles.

The crash of carpooling (Seattle Weekly)
Seattleites aren’t doing it anymore. All that remains are acres of reserved parking.

Three visual perceptions of residential density (Switchboard NRDC)
A visual representation of what rural residents imagine when they are confronted with a proposal for increased density:

Urban Green: The Mountain Dwellings (World Changing)
The award-winning Mountain Dwellings, located just outside of Copenhagen, prove that many advanced green building techniques still work beautifully at a large scale in an urban setting.

If any of you have been following the blog for a little while, you’ll remember a feature that MTV’s Get Schooled did on our principal, Alan Hart back in November called “What it Takes to Become an Architect.” We’re entering a busy time of year for our staff, and so it gets harder for them to find time to write thoughtful pieces. As a result, we’re going to start something called a Friday Feature where we highlight different staff at our firm (and possibly outside of the firm) and look at what it took for them to become an architect or a planner.

To kick it off, we’re going to repost Alan’s feature (which gives us some time to get features from our other staff ready):

Alan Hart, architect and co-founder of VIA Architecture, talks to Get Schooled about what it takes to be part of a great team and how he’s trying to make Vancouver and Seattle better places to live.

Alan Hart

GS: What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path?
AH: For me, the biggest hurdle in becoming an architect was believing that I could really become one.

In my junior year in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a profession. My dad suggested that I had the artistic eye and creative mind necessary to pursue becoming an architect. I thought that it was a great idea, but had no idea what that involved.

The career counselor at my high school told me definitively that I didn’t have the required course work to go to architectural school; ‘not enough Chemistry or Physics.’ I took his advice at face value and decided not to pursue architecture.

At college, I tried all sorts of courses, first majoring in History, then Psychology, and finally Urban Planning. All this time, I remained very interested in Architecture. I photographed buildings as a hobby and became friends with a number of architectural students. These friends saw my interest and encouraged me to take Architecture as a post graduate degree.

It seemed that those who knew me knew I would make a good architect, yet I listened to advice that I didn’t have the stuff to become one. And ultimately, it was me who had to believe. The rest is history.

GS: What schooling is required for success in your career?
AH: Schooling is such a personal choice. What schooling you pursue to become an architect depends so much on what aspect of architecture you are interested in (there are so many).

In a way, I was lucky not to go directly into Architecture right after high school. I had the opportunity to develop a much broader understanding of the world around me and how it worked This bigger view has allowed me to put architecture in a more real world perspective that has given what I do more meaning and value. My advice is to begin by studying the broader context before you delve into the detailed aspects of architecture.

GS: What inspires you?
AH: I am inspired by the commitment of recent graduates that we have hired to make the world a more sustainable, fairer, and healthier place to live. The younger generation I work with has reminded me of the important questions that have long been overlooked or forgotten. Common sense that has long been forgotten–like putting people before cars, being concerned where our food comes from, understanding that sustainability begins with our personal choices, and that making the world a better place is a very exciting reason to be practicing architecture.

GS: Your latest project was selected as the site for Athlete’s Village at the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010. That’s amazing!
AH: We were very excited to be involved in the project from its inception as an “ecodistrict”, or a community that would model walkability, livability, and deep long-term sustainability principles. Our planning emphasized the need for conservation, restoration, management of energy, waste, water, and transportation, and integration of opportunities to grow food in this urban neighborhood. Buildings will use less energy and create less waste. As architects, we feel that work of this kind is a contribution that we can make to our communal well-being, and we hope to take these ideas much further in our future projects.

Here are a few bonus questions that weren’t featured on Get Schooled’s website (including a photo that just had to be shared):

Alan Hart2GS: Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
AH: I have had some very good teachers who have taught me but the one who had the most influence at a key time in my life was Mr. Wright, my English and History teacher in Grade 10. He was an animated teacher whose joy was seeing the present as part of a continuum of history. He could put you back in time as if you were there today. I really enjoyed his way of seeing life and he influenced how I perceive the world we live in. But Mr. Wright went beyond the subject he taught; he taught me to believe in myself, especially during difficult times. And I saw tough times in that year.

It was a time when I was trying to explore new ideas and find new ways to express myself. In the process my clothes, my hair, new music all changed. Changes that were not welcomed by many of my teachers. It seemed the more I tried to find what I really liked and who I really was the more friction I got . Conflict I didn’t welcome but that just seemed to be part of the journey. Many friends were unhappy with my changes and many teachers who once liked me now seemed to be disappointed and even hostile to me. The whole situation seemed to take on a life of its own.

It was in the midst of these tough times for me Mr. Wright seemed to go against the flow and spent extra effort to engage me. I found him asking me about my ideas and he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. A group of us would often stay long after class and discuss things that seemed to really matter. It was through these exchanges that Mr. Wright’s generosity shined through and I learned to focus on ‘content’ and not get lost in ‘personality,’ to do things out of joy and not fear, and to know your own voice in ‘the conversation.’

GS: What is the best advice you were ever given?
AH: The best advice I was ever given was from an architectural professor who advised me to focus on content before personality. He said that we so often get caught up in who or how people are saying things rather than what is actually being said. The principle of this is that innovation comes from ideas and that ideas are ‘open source’ and not possessed by someone. He said possessing ideas is death to innovation and that if we truly believe in what we do we have to be ready for the best idea to win.

GS: Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
AH: The answer to this question depends on what your definition of growth is. Right now, many firms have much less building design work than they had a year ago. As a consequence, many architects, like other professions, have lost their jobs. During hard times though there is a real opportunity for new ideas to solve problems in an innovative way, a time to rethink some of the basic assumptions about how we build our cities and our communities. It takes a lot of thought and consideration to do more with less. Therein lies the opportunity for young people entering the profession.

Our experience is that during prosperous times, there is a desire to get things built quickly in order to profit from the economy, but often the resulting buildings suffer in terms of quality. At VIA, because we approach our work from the perspective of longevity and integrity, our firm is often less busy than others during fast times. Conversely, slowdowns in the building industry often mean busier times for our practice because we can better serve clients who are interested in developing thoughtful, reasonable ways of doing projects. Our clients are more likely to ask the questions “Why should we build it?”, “How much should we build?” and “Are there other ways to achieve this than building something?”

GS: What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
AH: My advice to those considering architecture as a profession is to think of it as an opportunity to help make the world a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable place to live.

If our cities are to become more sustainable, the world need leaders who can understand, envision, and implement the possibilities and who can inspire others to make the necessary changes come true.

Architects, because of the breadth of their training, their ability to visualize and to communicate ideas and have the skills to build them, have a great opportunity to become those needed leaders.

GS: Describe your latest project or current focus.
AH: In the past few years, we’ve realized that the way in which we can make a difference is to look beyond the design of buildings as stand-alone works of architecture. At VIA, our focus is on both buildings and infrastructure, and using the integrative power of design to make sure that all the parts and pieces of a community fit together in a way that supports people’s lives. A recent opportunity to accomplish this was our planning work for a neighborhood in the central part of Vancouver, Canada called Southeast False Creek.

This 50-acre site consisted of former industrial lands, bordered on the north by False Creek. We were very excited to be involved in the project from its inception as an “ecodistrict”, or a community that would model walkability, livability, and deep long-term sustainability principles. To our delight, the site was subsequently chosen for the recently completed Athlete’s Village for the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010. The Village will be converted to predominantly family housing immediately following the Games.

Future residents will enjoy a community where they can live, work, play, and learn in a neighborhood that will achieve the highest levels of social equity, livability, ecological health and economic prosperity and that will support their choices to live in a sustainable manner. Our planning emphasized the need for conservation, restoration, management of energy, waste, water, and transportation, and integration of opportunities to grow food in this urban neighborhood. Buildings will use less energy and create less waste. As architects, we feel that work of this kind is a contribution that we can make to our communal well-being, and we hope to take these ideas much further in our future projects.