Designing for Vancouver’s future

Let’s build apartments that we can live with well into the foreseeable future

Apartment construction
Clayton Scoot and Esther Liu

Good ideas aren’t inherently complicated. Often, they’re simple ways of looking at a problem from a unique perspective.

Right now, Vancouver is a city under construction. With so much being developed, it’s hard for anyone to ignore the housing challenges around us – growing demand for inventory, rising costs, and the need to quickly build with limited space and tightening regulations. This is a lot to unpack in one discussion, a lot of players to consider and a lot of checkbooks to balance. And in our minds, at LSW, the type of challenge that demands many unique perspectives.

Across the firm, we’re united around the notion that good design should bring people together and help shape the community. This means designing buildings that will last. That will be energy efficient and environmentally responsible. That will look like homes and add interesting textures to our city. That will encourage people to live happily, healthily and harmoniously.

In thinking broadly about how this translates to apartments in Vancouver, against the backdrop of current housing conversation, there are many ways that design can push ideas for the good of the community.

Homes, not boxes

Let’s begin with a truth: Apartments are homes. Each one represents a space where people will spend quality time with family or roommates, recharge from work and hopefully be free to be themselves. At the back of our minds, we’re designing spaces with the goal of making people feel a sense of belonging.

Another truth: Vancouver needs a range of housing options to scale. The current climate demands that we build low-cost housing for those who need it and market-rate options for those who can afford it.

Every project, regardless of scale, requires you to make a lot of decisions – and the big decisions that you make at the start of a project have the biggest impact. If you’re making those choices with people in mind, this changes everything.

Collaborative decisions

Design and architecture, for us, are about enhancing the relationship between all things to one another: People, environment, community. This premise charges our teams with understanding the social, historical and the broader context of a building before breaking ground; getting to the heart of why it needs to exist.

This warrants deep, lengthy conversations from the public, city officials and building owners with a vested interest in the outcome of a project. From a community standpoint, we need to be thinking about and factoring the outcome of our work five to 10 years from now – a lot will change. What we choose to build today will matter down the line as things continue to grow.

Think beyond aesthetics: Bike racks, alternative modes of transport, green space, energy efficiency, technology. Our choices should, in an ideal world, lead back to answering how can we build with the goal of maximizing value for people?

Wear & tear

Let’s focus on the lifespan of a building. An important step is thinking through what it will – and should – look like in 15 or 20 years? Will it date, fall apart or outlast its useful life?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the elements (wind, constant rain) play a key role in materials. Wood panels, for example, look amazing but can’t be exposed to extremes and must be treated on a regular basis. We must consider how material choices will impact end-users and owners when it comes to picking up the maintenance tab.

When it comes to housing, cost, value and experience don’t have to be inherently connected. An affordably made apartment doesn’t have to look cheap or feel small, and a brand-new development can pay homage to a city’s roots and honor history. One goal, from our side, is recommending low-impact materials that look great, last and are comparable in price to more familiar options that don’t measure up.

Design for the future

Growth in any community is challenging. It forces things to change, often faster than the people impacted would prefer.

Vancouver has been growing aggressively for some time now, and the momentum is forcing everyone to make long-term decisions in a hurry. At this point, one of the most productive and innovative steps we can all take – as developers, planners, architects, city and county officials and as the greater community – is engage in and maintain an open dialog about what matters for the long term. And from these talks, offer solutions we can all live with.

Housing is an important piece of our shared story. What we build today must serve us through the next phase of growth and opportunities that follow. Things change and will continue to do so when looking at the future of development. We can’t stop this from happening, but we can responsibly plan for it and be informed participants.

Esther Liu, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal with LSW Architects in Vancouver. She can be reached at Clayton Truscott is a copywriter with LSW Architects. He can be reached at

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