Vancouver housing pilot project to tackle 21st century urban challenges

A proposed East Vancouver housing community will seek to tackle issues of affordability, climate change, and social equity on one site.

As Canada continues to urbanize and big-city home prices and rents remain volatile, our affordable housing providers will face tough challenges in the years ahead. Here in Vancouver, land costs are soaring, and construction is already the nation’s costliest. Take these market conditions, add the imperative to reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from housing, and those who build homes for those in need have their work cut out for them.

BC Housing is tracking these trends closely. As the province’s largest developer, the provincial crown agency creates below-market rental housing, supportive housing, and temporary shelter for single parents, those with disabilities or other special needs, and people experiencing, or who are at risk of, homelessness. In a bid to test out promising solutions in a real-world setting, BC Housing recently partnered with the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, More Than a Roof Housing Society, and The University of British Columbia (UBC) on an innovative new project.

Welcome to Vienna House

The project, called Vienna House, will be a rental-apartment community that aims to test out the use of innovative materials and processes to lower development costs and cut carbon. The lessons learned from the project could help inform and improve how energy efficient, climate-forward affordable housing is delivered across the province and beyond.

Courtesy PUBLIC: Architecture + Communication

When complete, the project will comprise a six-storey, 123-unit below-market rental community that would be located at Victoria Drive and Stainsbury Avenue in East Vancouver. It would offer its tenants a variety of unit options, from studios to three-bedroom apartments. The proposed building would be less than a 10-minute walk to the Nanaimo SkyTrain station, and just steps away from the Trout Lake Community Centre.

Vienna House would use prefabricated wall, floor, and/or ceiling components constructed off-site from renewable materials. It would be designed using building information modeling software that will create a “digital twin” of the proposed building—allowing careful optimization of all systems before the first nail goes in. Meanwhile, an integrated design process would bring all the partners together at regular intervals to collaboratively solve project challenges as they emerge.

A Case Study Every Step of the Way

The UBC Sustainability Initiative, the project’s knowledge partner, will document every aspect from start to finish, compiling detailed data on efficiencies, costs, and pain points to share with industry, government, and other stakeholders. Their study has two broad goals. First, the UBC Sustainability Initiative will capture the knowledge that stems from this project, by understanding and documenting the decisions and processes of the design and construction teams; and second, the team will disseminate this knowledge across the industry in Metro Vancouver and beyond. The UBC Sustainability Initiative will leverage its prior research on green building construction, such as its study on the predominantly mass-timber Brock Commons Tallwood House, an on-campus student residence.

The Vienna House project also has support on the far side of the world. In 2018, the City of Vienna and City of Vancouver signed a Memorandum of Cooperation that commits them to share knowledge and advance innovation in low-carbon affordable housing. As part of the agreement, each city’s green building program leaders are comparing notes on solutions and approaches. And each is building a project named after its counterpart; while Vienna House rises in Vancouver, next summer work will begin on a Vancouver House in Vienna.

Vienna House would not only offer 100+ desperately needed homes, it would also offer British Columbia an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership on very-low carbon buildings while supporting the construction industry through the shift to new technologies and practices. The Vienna House team would come away from the project understanding how best to use renewable resources to create healthy, ultra-efficient, comfortable, and low-carbon affordable housing—even as construction and land costs rise.

And while knowledge transfer and market transformation are, of course invaluable, the greatest legacy of Vienna House would ultimately be the community of residents who might one day be lucky enough to live there.

Helen Goodland is the head of research and innovation at Scius Advisory, a building-sector research and innovation consultancy. Scius serves as the research manager for Vienna House. Binoy Mascarenhas is the interim Director of Urban Innovation Research at the UBC Sustainability Initiative.

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