Creating Safe, Healthy, Supportive Housing for BC Communities
Entuitive’s Vancouver office is providing consulting engineering services on many different project types throughout the lower mainland and across British Columbia.
Often, we are engaged by our clients, BC Housing or non-profit groups to help design safe, healthy, supportive housing for aging, indigenous, or at-risk groups. Recently, we sat down with Principal Mike Lembke, Senior Project Director Paul Creighton, Building Performance Analysis Lead Salah Imam, and Building Envelope Specialist Timothy Wong to discuss these projects and how we work to address end user and community considerations to create the best possible final project.
Thanks for sitting down with us today. How are we supporting diverse communities in BC with our work?
Timothy Wong: I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in projects, including affordable and supportive housing designs, that are geared towards non-profit organizations to operate the facilities on behalf of the residents. Of course, Entuitive is less involved than the architect and client team in making programmatic design decisions but where we do get involved from an envelope side are in the discussions surrounding occupant comfort. This includes considerations around what would make a healthy and safe living space. In terms of diverse occupant typologies, we’ve worked with communities where resilience and a sensibility to the user is very important. In the case of the Reframed Initiative project at Dany Guincher Place, the occupants have been able to communicate specifically what their needs are and we are able to listen and use this feedback to inform design decisions and the construction process.
Mike Lembke: Reframed is a project focused on exploring various levels of upgrades that could be used to improve energy performance for existing affordable and supportive housing buildings in Vancouver. The residents of our site have limitations that would make something like being displaced from their home, or being exposed to outside interruption, challenging and stressful. So, our design options and decisions have to take account of those preferences, especially the fact that end users would be spending so much time inside their dwellings.
What sort of community involvement is there in the design process?
Paul Creighton: Tim and I participated in the Happy Cities research-action initiative, which was a community-centered program to boost sociability and equity through multi-family housing design.
Tim: The initiative was funded by the CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) under the NHS (National Housing Strategy) Solutions Lab Initiative. It was an unconventional virtual setting bringing together many stakeholders in the modular housing design process. The setting provided the unique ability to generate practical approaches and roadmaps towards more efficient and reactive workflows. Paul and I loved the ability to connect the technical consultant world to the integral stakeholders and most importantly the end users.
Paul: There was also a lot of focus on how the Indigenous communities’ needs were different. The discussions I was involved in were around provisions for outdoor space. For instance, having the ability to create a sweat lodge or have a space to burn smudge fires if needed, which might not normally be a consideration on most residential projects. There was also the desire to create security without conveying the sense of being in a jail. There were a lot of perspectives that were discussed and there were a lot of very personal stories that came out as well from people who have had to cope with living in these facilities without the same level of consideration for their needs. With respect to the outcome, the design would be affected by the need to incorporate these unique aspects. I think anyone would benefit from these types of design considerations.
Tim: In the reverse, by sharing insight on the construction process during the program we talked about leveraging speed of construction with modular, but in the right way. So, not creating modules just for the sake of efficiency and not compromising on the occupants’ health and safety.
Paul: There was also an emphasis on the significant difference between permanent and temporary/immediate modular structures and how that difference could impact occupant comfort, health, and safety.
Tim: It’s true, the difference between the two types of modular was something we had to clarify. It was helpful for the end users that all of us consultants shared that when we think about modular there is permanent modular which is an efficient construction type but requires more long-term considerations, and then there’s temporary modular that is a rapid-response construction type and might have some weaknesses around the health consciousness aspects of a project.
This connection between consultant and user early on definitely allows for social well-being and community involvement to be a driver on projects.
Mike: Quite often when we work with BC Housing or on supportive housing projects in general, there’s usually a kickoff meeting that includes the end user group even before the building design starts. We use these meetings to hear the priorities and what’s important to the end user and client groups. In the case of our work on the Ambrosia Housing project the end users asked the construction team to consider employing community members to train and perform on the construction team as a means to build up the community not only by providing shelter but also connecting the project to its community.
What happens after the initial design and kick off consultation meetings?
Mike: The design team takes away the information, and it becomes a bit of a mantra throughout the development of the design. Every project has a design program of rooms and spaces that a building needs to have, but in this case, we are designing spaces that are very personal and must support the needs of the unique user group. And for many of us, that specific user group’s needs are likely not something we learned in school, so we need to hear it first-hand and meet the people that will be directly impacted by our building. These meetings help to provide a beginning of a team-wide understanding, and it is important to have the full team attend because all systems have to pull in the same direction, architecture, structure, mechanical, electrical, landscape, envelope, etc. These meetings really solidify the team, and bring the end user group to the table as part of that team.
A good example of a completed attainable housing project would be our work on the Baird Blackstone Building.
Salah Imam: We’re currently working with Tikva Housing to minimize occupant disruption through the Reframed Initiative. Ultimately, our strategy around occupant disruption has two parts. The first part is coming up with the ideal phasing of the strategies and the second part is discussing the strategies and the benefits with the community end users. We’re in the process of connecting with the community to share the benefits and move forward with the strategy in whatever way they see fit.
What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way while working on these projects?
Tim: Early and continued engagement from the design team through to the user group is key to the success of these projects. We often hear of horror stories where similar projects might misinterpret end-user needs and fail to take into account end user preferences, or neglect to design accordingly to the given site environment given the pre-fabricated nature of modular construction. We’re always doing our best, within our scope of responsibility and accountability, to ensure we understand specific user needs, preferences and constraints.
Mike: This extends to other project types as well. For instance, when we design headquarters buildings or complexes for major corporations, the owners are involved throughout the entire project. If the design team wants to have a satisfactory result for the client, then involvement and communication on both sides needs to be consistent.
Paul: A few years ago we took over a project in Haida Gwaii at the construction phase where the previous building envelope consultant had been released from their contract. The community were dismayed because they weren’t consulted on some important issues. For instance, there was a pitched roof, and the previous consultants oriented an opening in the roof for all the HVAC. No one could figure out why they had faced the cut out toward the worst storms that come off the channel. The community was so confused and wanted the building turned around! There were limitations on this project that limited the amount interaction the design team had with the community, and perhaps this would have been caught if there was an opportunity for more engagement. Again, this is something important to remember for other projects as well.
Any final thoughts?
Mike: I think one common thread here is no matter the project typology, if the end user is known, then you should engage with them heavily to ensure the highest potential for a successful project.
Thanks for sitting down with us today Mike, Paul, Salah, and Tim. It’s great to see the ways in which your work is contributing to a healthier, happier, and more inclusive BC.
If you’d like to reach out to learn more, you can contact Mike, Paul, Salah, or Tim here.