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by guest blogger Jeff Olson, Urban Designer for VIA


We began our design work in 1998 after the Kyoto Protocol was published. We had the idea of a sustainable future; a new way to build that would benefit everyone’s quality of life, air quality, water quality, and soil quality, a way that would protect plants, insects, marine life, land animals and bird life. We started in the library, we reviewed the scientific literature on environmental issues, and then we thought about urban systems, urban design, architecture, material engineering, energy sources, environmental performance measures, and so forth.

We inherited an industrial site from the past century with derelict buildings and industrial machinery related to ship building, lumber products, and salt distribution. These lands have been transformed over time from inter tidal swamp, to land filled lots, to armour protected sea wall. Today the land is totally transformed; nothing remains the same except the feeling of timeless walking paths along the water’s edge.

Our collective dream of a better future became our 2010 Olympic Dream to host the winter games and to welcome the athletes to our village. Some twelve years later the Copenhagen Convention is about to convene and in another two months the games will open. Signs of life have appeared in the village and it’s environs, the riparian zone has re-established along the shoreline, the birds have returned to feed, a habitat island has been constructed and planted, spawning fish have returned to the area, the constructed wetland is hosting new life, the stacks from the new sewer heat recovery plant are venting steam for the first time.

Vancouver designers and builders have invented and built a village of high performance buildings and memorable public spaces. One of these buildings is a net zero building that will sell excess heat back to the new energy utility. The new district energy system utilizes up to 70% renewable fuel. Most of the buildings have roof top gardens, collect and use rainwater. The project has become a model of actions that can be taken elsewhere across the globe and so we warmly welcome all our visitors from near and afar to “Vancouver Green Capital” as they visit Winter Games.

For more information, visit the Challenge Series.

by Naomi Buell, VIA’s Marketing Assistant

“It’s closer than you think” was a forum put on by the DVA (Downtown Vancouver Association) and organized by our own Graham McGarva. The forum’s speakers were Brent Toderian, the Director of Planning for City of Vancouver and Michael Gordon, the central city planner for Vancouver. The topic discussed was the future of the Northeast False Creek (NEFC) area.

NEFC is a neighbourhood that currently contains two stadiums, a casino, a skate park, the Plaza of Nations (which hosts a number of events) and a few restaurants and bars. It has long been designated as Vancouver’s entertainment district but has never jelled as a meaningful people place since Expo ’86. Decisions now being made about NEFC not only affect those that plan to live there but also the thousands of event goers that currently flow in and out of the area. The neighboring areas also have a vested interest. Ask anyone between Burrard and Main street (a 20 block span) about the Molson Indy or the Madonna concert and you will hear a number of accounts of how people could hear the entire event from their living rooms. The forum’s name “it’s closer than you think’ therefore refers to the future of NEFC being closer to us both in terms of time and proximity.

Those of us that have been reading the local Vancouver newspapers have become quite familiar with BC Place’s new retractable roof, which will begin construction after the Olympics. The $458 million dollar roof and renovations have caused quite a stir as most of the funding will come from a 40 year loan from the provincial government. City council has also endorsed a plan to create a high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood of about 7,000 people¹ around the stadium.

This high density neighbourhood, as stated by Michael Gordon, is proposed as a family friendly area with an anticipated 400 children living in the buildings. However, one challenge faced by city council is how to address the needs of those with families and provide them with the necessary amenities and security while dealing with the thousands of people going to and from the stadiums, restaurants, clubs, pubs and casino. The dichotomy caused by these groups with seemingly different interests and needs is just one of the many issues surrounding the area’s plan. City council recognizes these challenges and plans to address them.

As Brent Toderian pointed out, although the future residents of NEFC will be warned about the noise and high traffic nature of the area, there will need to be more done to try and rectify anticipated complaints. He referenced a recent and similar situation in Whistler in which a residential building was built near an industrial plant. The residents were all notified about the existence of the neighbouring plant and were required to sign binding covenants acknowledging the existence of the plant. However, residents have still begun to voice concerns and frustrations, thereby putting political pressure on the city officials.

Another of the challenges of the NEFC area will be to provide a high density neighbourhood without obstructing views. NEFC, not surprisingly, is across from Southeast False Creek, which includes the 2010 Olympics Athlete’s Village. This area has been recognized globally for its environmentally focused design and drive to create a self sufficient neighbourhood, and includes some of the most expensive land in the city. The residents, who will most likely be paying a premium to live there, will no doubt have an interest in the view that currently looks out past NEFC to the mountains and sky. Because of these amazing views that the City has protected through designated view corridors for the past two decades, ideas are being discussed to ensure that there are only minimal view obstructions arising from new development. One such idea is to have an articulated skyline, so that the height of the buildings would vary with relation to the mountains in the background. Another idea is to place the larger buildings in areas outside of the specified view corridors. This was the idea behind the approval and placement of the Shangri-La building, which at 62 storeys became the tallest building in Metro Vancouver.

Brent mentioned that the planning of NEFC must look at the area in terms of the associated opportunity costs. That is to say that for every structure, amenity or public space that is built, there is one less area to build something else. With a finite land area and a multitude of stakeholders and proposed land uses, the planning and development of the area will be challenging. However, there is also excitement to see what will become of the last waterfront property in Vancouver. So raise your glass to Expo ‘86 (which is the last time the land was used for anything besides a racing track or show tent) and be prepared to create new memories. The shape of the city will inevitably continue to change to respond to the pressures of each generation it serves. The challenge now is to play a meaningful role in shaping this change at the heart of Vancouver’s urban frontier.

Image 1: from L to R:  Michael Gordon, Graham McGarva, Brent Toderian
Image 2: link

Get Schooled is a program that encourages education and works to make positive changes in the education system. Part of that program is to find different career professionals and talk to them about how they ended up in their field and what schooling it takes to get there.

For the Get a Career feature of “What it Takes to Become an Architect,” our very own Alan Hart was interviewed about his path towards becoming an architect. He talks about hurdles in his educational path, what inspires him, and about the Olympic Village as part of Southeast False Creek in Vancouver.

To read the complete interview on Get Schooled, click here.

by guest blogger John Collings, Collings Johnston Inc.
The annual conference of the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) was held in Vancouver this year and was well attended by over a thousand transportation officials, planners and engineers from across Canada. TAC is an association which provides “a neutral forum for gathering or exchanging ideas, information and knowledge on technical guidelines and best practices.” source

The newly opened spectacle of the Golden Ears Crossing was evident at the conference. The project’s urban planning and aesthetics were highlighted by Graham McGarva’s and John Collings’s poster presentation. Collings Johnston Inc. and VIA Architecture were retained by TransLink to develop, specify, and implement the urban design process for the new 14 km highway and major crossing of the Fraser River linking the municipalities of Langley and Surrey with Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows. The design and construction was undertaken by the Golden Crossing Group between 2006 and 2009 as part of a Public Private Partnership. The project had three main urban design goals:

  • to design and build a new arterial corridor and river crossing in support of its surrounding context 
  • provide a moderate speed arterial for use by all road users: cars, trucks, buses, bicycles and pedestrians
  • implement an integrated urban design theme whose aesthetics would enrich users experience along Golden Ears Way

The presentation highlighted the process of designing a Major New River Crossing within the context of its surroundings and took the form of questions and comments as the audience passed the posters. That is to say that the audience came to the presenter instead of the presenter talking to an audience. There were about 100 conference attendees that visited the Golden Ears Crossing presentation and showed genuine interest through their inquisitive questions and informative comments with regards to the design approach. Many of these people were from the senior ranks of government and municipalities.

John Collings also gave a presentation on Context Sensitive Solutions to the Urban/Freeway Interfaces of the Golden Ears Crossing. The 15 km arterial was specified and designed as a limited speed facility in keeping with the urban features through which it passes. The iconic and landscaping features of the route provide much of the context and items such as Curvilinear bridge approaches with a median barrier marked with reveals are used to manage speed.

Robin Johnston gave a tour of the new bridge and arterial to conference participants and was able to demonstrate many of the planning and urban design aspects of the project where VIA Architecture provided leadership and inspiration. These three presentation styles enabled conference attendees to get a well rounded informative experience about the design process of the bridge.

The Golden Ears Crossing Project comprised a new 14-kilometre, multi-lane, highway corridor which included a major bridge crossing of the Fraser River. This Public-Private Partnership Project in Metro Vancouver crosses the flood plain of the Fraser River amidst the Coastal Mountains and passes through residential, agricultural and industrial lands. After four years of work on alignment and preparation of bid documents, construction commenced in February 2006 and was completed in the summer of 2009.

The Crossing was conceived as a transportation facility that would be designed and built within the context of its surrounding land uses. The base concept that was used for the design/build proposals required a comprehensive and integrated design approach from each proponent. It incorporated speed management and involved design elements that were in keeping with the surrounding area.

The commitment of context sensitive design led to a mandate to make aesthetics and urban design considerations integral with the technical and financial performance of the project. The RFQ to pre-qualify bidders led to the selection of three teams, of whom two submitted bids to Design, build, operate and maintain the project.

The successful proponent, Golden Crossing Constructors Joint Venture (GCCJV), provided a design theme that built upon the story of the valley beneath the Golden Ears peaks. This incorporated the natural and cultural history of the area, such as the Katzie First Nation, salmon fishing and the eyries of golden eagles. These were reflected in many of the aesthetic features of the bridge. Handrails adorned with metal fish were used to create an image of the salmon traps and nets that had been set across the river for many generations. These high fence verticals, and the absence of guardrail caps at eye level both mitigate suicide attempts (a functional criterion) and provide an open vista up and down the river for bridge users (a perceptual criteria that is hoped will complement speed management). Sculptural eagles circling the cable-support towers at both bridgeheads of the main river bridge symbolize the many eagles whose eyries have long inhabited and overlooked the Fraser River’s expansive splendour.

In addition to these, Translink required identifiable features that characterized the crossing as a context sensitive roadway. Luminous “entry beacons” were used to introduce the gateways and to represent the towering fir and cedar trees that once adorned the banks of the Fraser River. This continuous ribbon of native landscapes reinforces a perception of “parkway” over “highway” along the approaches.

In addition to aesthetic features, geometric design was used to ensure that the crossing provided a positive experience to all road users. Pedestrian Facilities were designed to be attractive and encourage use. The attractiveness of pedestrian ways is a function of their walkability. Their design had to create safe and attractive paths that were free from noise, dirt and fumes. Landscaping features such as planted roadside and median environments were also used to encourage use. All pedestrian facilities took into consideration the special needs of users including creating sidewalks that are accessible for wheelchairs and people who are visually or auditorily impaired.

Bicycle Facilities, in keeping with criteria, were configured to the right hand travel lane so that they could double as emergency stopping lanes for motorized traffic. They were placed all along the arterial road and are clearly marked.

Human factors were also an important consideration for the design of the crossing. The ability of the driver to process road information is the key to the design of a safe road. Human factors were used to provide messages about the intended speed for the arterial and to provide characteristics for safe operation by drivers unfamiliar with the route. Curvilinear roads approaching the bridge were used to manage speed as were landscaping and horizontal alignment features.

The bridge and roadway provides an essential north south link for community building, serving industrial traffic enabling transit, encouraging cycling, as well as eliminating lengthy trips that formerly had to funnel into the Port Mann and out the Pitt River Bridge and vice versa. The Golden Ears Bridge integrated aesthetic and geometric design to create an arterial crossing that is both accessible and visually appealing.

Image Sources: Polaroid, Bridge with Eagle,GEB at night, Biking on the bridge

We’re very excited to announce that the Burien Transit Center won “Best Small Project” for Northwest Construction’s Best of 2009 awards competition.

According to their website, Northwest Construction “received a record-breaking number of entries.”

The winning projects will be honored at an awards breakfast December 11th at the Seattle Waterfront Marriott. For more information call 206.378.4708.

See our previous post with more information on the Burien Transit Center here.

Congrats to the Burien team: INCA Engineers, Tres West Engineers, AKB, Karen Kiest Landscape Architects, Julie Berger (public artist), and Pellco Construction.

by Graham McGarva, Principal for VIA Architecture


When one is consumed in the continuing reinvenition that is the craft of city building, long walks help.  So this morning, I detoured on my way into work through False Creek North’s Roundhouse Neighbourhood (which we planned 20 years ago), and past its Community Centre ( a heritage adaptive re-use and expansion that we built 12 years ago), and took in the irony of the imperatives of the “life official” in contrast with the bubbling delight of the youngsters around me going to their inner city school and day care on the False Creek waterfront.  The following is what I saw and wrote:

Fire exit please do not block
We have to let the fire out
Lest it consume us
With its passion for life
Ladies and children stand aside
Douse your thrills and trills
When the fire drills through you
Stand aside and let it pass
Do not let it consume you
Let vacant space be your heritage
Void of fire 24/7 or whatever
10-4 be your emergency
Keep the flame doused inside you
Safe from the armageddon
Of common sense
And thrill of the crowded room
Of private emotions

Better still never get close enough
To let the fire get in

And while you are at it
Keep the tide away
From the foot of the stairs!

P.S. In case you are wondering, it was a major victory to get the park steps to go all the way down to the water’s edge (breaking the prescribed rule of being 1.3 metres above high high tide level with a safety railing) to where once or twice a year the lower pathway would get flooded at an extreme high tide, and the City Parks and Planning Departments always did disagree on what was to be the “front” and the “back” of the Roundhouse.

by Stephanie Doerksen, Intern Architect for VIA Architecture

I recently attended the Resilient Cities Conference in Vancouver, co-hosted by Gaining Ground and Smart Growth BC. In the afternoon of the first day, I attended a workshop session about community-based decision making processes for sustainable communities.

One of the panelists was Peter McLeod of MASS LBP, a Toronto based consulting firm specializing in proactive community research and consultation. He framed his talk with two questions which, although referring more generally to local governmental policy decisions, are extremely relevant to the type of urban planning and design decisions that VIA faces with on many of our projects.

The two questions were:
1.    How do we (local governments, planners, community groups) make the right decision regarding any particular issue relating to sustainability?
2.    How do we balance democratic processes with the need for quick action on environmental issues?

In order to answer these questions, we have to understand why the decision making process is difficult and what we generally do wrong.

We don’t ask the right questions

In order to give citizens the right to meaningfully engage in the decision making process, they must have the opportunity to provide input, and this can only happen if the question is correctly framed.

The example given by McLeod came from a community in France in which residents were asked whether they would accept the construction of a nuclear waste dump in their neighbourhood. When the respondents understood that their community relied on nuclear power for its energy, over 50% responded that they would accept it. However, when residents were asked if they would put up with a nuclear waste dump in the community in return for a sum of money, the number of respondents who were willing to do so dropped drastically.

What this reveals is that generally citizens are willing to make sacrifices, or accept a decision that they see as being a civic duty or somehow beneficial to their community, but they are much less willing to accept something they see as being imposed on them, even if there is personal compensation involved.

We don’t have the right mechanisms

According to McLeod, standard analytical methods don’t bring solutions in the context of decision-making around sustainability. This is because there is no right decision when it comes to environmental issues. There are always trade-offs that have to be made. Rather than making the right decision, our goal is to make the best decision. This is a crucial shift in thinking, and one that needs to be conveyed to the participants of any collaborative decision-making process.

Because of the complexity of sustainability, the standard open house format of public consultation doesn’t work. Instead, we need to design a public learning process that engages the public imagination and provides residents with all the tools and knowledge they need to guide the process of building their community. Although this sounds more laborious and lengthy than the typical methodology, it would do us good to keep in mind that quality of the decision making process will reflect the quality of the decision.

We don’t provide the evidence

In order to allow citizens to engage meaningfully in the decision-making process, we must provide them with real information that measures what is truly important. Traditional cost-benefit analyses tend to miss out on key aspects of environmental issues. They do not account for many of the repercussions of the proposed solutions, such as the impact on the health of residents, or the relative value of alternative solutions.

Despite their inappropriateness, we persist in using these types of analyses to provide a basis for decision-making. If we expect citizens to make the best decision for their community, we need to structure our analyses of the issues around the values of that community and to measure the factors that we want to be the basis for the decision.

In addition to providing the correct evidence around the issue itself, we need to provide participants with evidence that their engagement in the decision-making process is real. Public consultation should result directly in a policy decision, and this should be very clear throughout the process, so that participants have a sense of their responsibility towards their community.

In summary, there are certain key ways in which we need to rethink our standard methodology for collaborative decision making, to suit the particular needs of complex environmental issues.

We need to frame the question in a way that gives people the agency to participate in community building and, in doing so, we mustn’t underestimate the ability of citizens to make hard decisions or see beyond their immediate personal interest.

We need to develop analytical methods that measure the truly important aspects of the issues. We need to provide this information in the form of a community learning process, and this process needs to result in a concrete outcome, in the form of a policy decision, a community plan or some other directly measurable result.

Although these strategies, as they were presented by McLeod, were aimed at the municipal government level, as architects and planners we are often engaged in decision-making around issues of sustainability and community building. From time to time we engage directly in community consultation, but even if this is not the case, many of these collaborative decision-making strategies are invaluable to us, as we try to guide our clients in making difficult solutions on complex issues. We are often involved in integrating the input of a variety of consultants and disciplines, and working in a collaborative setting to make the best decision.

Image Sources: Conference Banner, Peter McLeod, Nuclear Waste

In Flanders Field
by John McCrae

In Flanders field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Poem’s Origin

The areas of Northern France known as Flanders and Picardy, saw some of the most concentrated and bloodiest fighting of the First World War.

There was complete devastation. buildings, roads, trees and natural life simply disappeared. Where once there were homes and farms, there was now a sea of mud, a grave for the dead where men still lived and fought.

Only one other living thing survived. The poppy, flowering each year with the coming of the warmer weather, brought LIFE, HOPE, COLOUR and REASSURANCE to those still fighting.

In 1915, John McRae, a doctor serving with the Canadian Armed Forces, was so deeply moved by what he saw that he scribbled the verses in his pocket book.

In hono[u]r of Remembrance Day, our staff in both VIA offices have been wearing poppies for the last week.

Vancouver Office Staff:

Seattle Office Staff:

by Jihad Bitar, Planner for VIA Architecture
After three days of intensive lectures and presentations about the environment, climate change, ecology, economy, development, theories, corporate progress and grass root success example at the Gaining Ground Summit under the theme of ‘Resilient Cities, Urban Strategies for Transition Times’, there were a lot of messages flying through the air at the Canada Place ballroom. Yet, at the end of it all, I grew rather depressed reading all the data and equations of how long we humans have on earth before we totally destroy it.

In the midst of this ‘Smart’ jungle, I was reminded of a great message from Paul Hawken’s speech and lecture. When asked whether he is an optimist or a pessimist about the future, he replied with what became his most famous quotation: “If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” And then Hawken later used the word ‘heart’.

For me, I like to think of myself as a scientist with a heart, which by Hawken’s definition, makes me a pessimist-optimist. But when I thought of Hawken’s words, the scientist side of me linked Hawken’s inspiring ideas to Hernando De Soto’s theory which talks about giving the poor full rights over the illegal properties they live on as the first step toward a better future for us all.

These two ideas may sound different at the beginning but, in my humble opinion, when we link property rights and social justice with sustainability and green development; we are actually working towards greater social justice for the people who need it while simultaneously developing their neighborhoods into a safe and sustainable environment. This is the very soul of the current global movement of sustainability and what it means to be green. We must be just and fair to everything around us: air, soil, plants, animals and, above all, humans.

Think about it, the majority of the development we have today is happening only for a lucky few of us who have access to credit and proper basic services like energy and water. Meanwhile, the majority of the population continues to live in poverty in highly polluted and highly concentrated environments.

Do we dare imagine that we are contributing to world-wide social justice and cleaner environments when only a small percent of the world’s population reap the benefits? And of that small minority only roughly 5% are consciously taking measures to be environmentally friendly? How can we achieve the goals we set for our planet if we don’t include the majority of us – the poor – into our plans?

My straight answer is – we cannot. Period.

Regardless of how much we recycle and build green; or how much we develop and force corporations to do their clean duty; or even how much we try to produce environmentally friendly materials and programs; it is all fruitless if the majority of us humans don’t or can’t participate in the global movement.

Therefore, we must address the issues of poverty in order to tackle the problems with our environment.

To further illustrate this, I would like to give a short and quick explanation of De Soto’s theory.

It explains that unregistered properties have no proper ‘value’ attached to that land. For instance, if a person were to take an unregistered piece of land, build on it and use it, the property will still have no value because it is not officially legal. If this person decides to sell their developed land to someone else, there is no proper documentation that can connect this person to that property or transfer the property title from one name to another. Therefore, anyone or any government can simply take the land at any time because it is not properly registered and push those people outside without any legal protection for them. As a result, these properties are entered into the ‘shade’ or black market and are not accounted for in the official market.

In order to grasp the magnitude of this problem, we need to multiply this one property by a million to understand that entire neighbourhoods, communities and even villages that have residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural value currently exist only on the black market. And since these groups are not officially recognized on paper, they do not have any official value to support them in the real market.

So the first step we need to take to get these ‘shade’ properties into the market is to connect each property to its owner and then help them enter formal markets. There, they can retain official value of what they own and have the ability to engage in real business or apply for legitimate loans and credits without fear from any person, organization or law that may have intimidated them before.

Yet before we can implement such a theory, where it is needed, and for it to work properly, several supporting steps need to take place. This includes remedial action such as fixing political problems and fighting corruption, as well as providing awareness and incentives for environmental improvement and sustainability. We also need to factor in the cultural, traditional and custom layers into the property right laws to discourage any corruption among the poor. We simply want to make business easier to do in these communities instead of killing it.

Educating the poor about property rights and then teaching them to be responsible land owners and showing them how to incorporate green practices into their daily lives would be our best contribution to help slow down climate change. Meanwhile, we must also continue pushing corporations to do their share by conducting more research and finding new ways to clean up the earth- an earth that includes everybody, even the poorest of us all.

Majora Carter, one of the speakers at the Smart Growth Conference, shared with us her success story about bringing justice back to her own neighborhood of South Bronx, New York. Carter worked with her community to improve their run-down neighborhood by treating polluted areas, planting parks and building community centres that introduced education programs to help improve community wellbeing.

Yes, we must educate the poor. Yes, we must improve their corrupted systems. And yes, we have to introduce a democracy to them in the way that works for the main goal and not to our western standards. I believe that we can achieve it all by connecting theories and working with organizations that have clear visions and passionate people who work hard for their community. This is the key to slowing down environmental deterioration and it is for this reason I have chose the title to my article.

I started my post with Paul Hawken and now I will close with him saying:
‘Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich’

Image Sources: Gaining Ground, Paul Hawken, Power of the Poor, Poverty, Majora, Flowers