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Pocket Development’s 2 Bed Apartment Competition: Lessons from London

February 8, 2016

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner Abroad | ©2016


I thought Pocket’s Two Bedroom Competition would make a nice book-end to my earlier post “Making Apartments Work Harder: the 3rd Bedroom Challenge“.

We can learn a lot from London, and the innovative companies tackling the city’s housing affordability and supply challenges. For almost 3 years, I’ve been leading the design and development of mixed-use housing projects in the UK, and I’ve come to appreciate how deep and systemic the housing supply issue is here.

London Housing Challenges

  • 140,000 people moved to London last year but the industry produced less than 20,000 new housing units.
  • For the last 10 years, Greater London’s housing industry has under-supplied this world city by about 30,000 units annually.
  • Prices in London have surged and thousands of hard-working London households are left out of the housing market.

Pocket’s Response

Founded by Marc Vlessing, Pocket is focusing on the design and development of affordable apartments for “working Londoners” caught in the affordability and supply gap between Social Housing and Market housing. The firm aims to produce units at about 20% below the market rate with purchase mechanisms to keep them affordable over the long term. They’ve launched a partnership with the Greater London Authority to these ends, and they recently published the results of a very interesting Two Bedroom Design Competition that I’ll describe in a bit more detail below.

Pocket’s Two Bedroom Competition

Pocket is challenging housing design and size as a way to increase supply and affordability. They recently invited 19 London architecture firms to prepare design prototypes for liveable, space-efficient two-bedroom apartments. Their instructions were to design smarter and compact (but not micro) units that could comfortably accommodate a small family. And they also challenged the design teams to be innovative with plans that increase liveability, functionality, storage, privacy etc. The architects experimented with open concept plans that bend some of the London Design Guidelines that set out minimum apartment sizes amongst other criteria.


London Design Guideline Sizes

Some of the interesting plans generated include design features like:

  • Expandable / Flexible rooms;
  • Dual entries for sharers;
  • Innovative Storage Systems and ‘Storage Divider Walls’;
  • Study Nooks; and
  • Modular / Pod Concept Internal Finishings.

I’ve posted a few examples below:

Take a look at more!

What is impressive, and fortunate for all of us, is that Pocket shared their results online. Take a look! It’s well worth your time!

Some of the open plan design approaches will not be unfamiliar to Vancouver architects, and the lessons of many of these case studies could be easily introduced into new Vancouver buildings. One thing I found interesting is how many of the UK architects who participated in this competition chose to use “single-aspect” designs – that is apartments with windows on only one side. “Dual aspect” design – with windows on two elevations – is a general requirement of the London Design Guidelines but in my experience it does not encourage compact building forms or efficient internal circulation routes.

This is perhaps where London can learn from Vancouver where we create very efficient buildings (Net floor area: Gross Floor Area) by designing units off of a central hallway and a shared lobby where you can create a bit more amenity. This approach does create some single-aspect units, but apartments on corners still benefit from windows on two different elevations. Light and ventilation are typically achieved through open plan designs and shallow unit depths.

It has been fun working and learning in another design culture and I really appreciate when other firms share their research so widely.

Kudos to Pocket for being such thought leaders.

Lecture: Geller in Russia – Images and Lessons

February 8, 2016

Russia: Images and Lessons in Planning

Thursday, February 18
7 pm
Room 1400, SFU Vancouver (Harbour Centre)

Free, but reservations are required. Reserve


Over the past two years, Michael Geller has participated in a number of planning activities in Russia, including serving on the competition jury for Moscow’s new International Financial Centre; speaking on heritage conservation and master planning in Saint Petersburg; and acting as jury chairman for a sustainable community planning competition in Kazan, Russia’s ‘third capital.’

This lecture will present images of old and new Russia, with a focus on urban development and housing. It will include a review of Russian planning practices and potential lessons from this fascinating country. Be prepared to be surprised by what you see and hear.


I asked Michael to send me an image or two to illustrate the lecture, and in return got an eclectic set of intriguing shots, most of which I’m posting here to give you a sense of the variety you can expect when Geller goes live.


Moscow day 6 007

Moscow day 6 252






Item from Ian: From ‘thoughtful urbanism’ to ‘radical pragmatisim’?

February 8, 2016

Naturally Ian picked up on this piece from The Glove and Mail by Alex Bozikovic:


Globe arch

… new forms have to be chosen carefully. Innovation is risky when you are dealing with streets, blocks – and, ultimately, people’s lives. But Canada’s cities are getting new buildings that are too often indistinguishable: Level a site, build a block of stores and apartments about four levels high, and drop a narrow tower on top of it. This tower-and-podium model, as it’s called, is born from Vancouver’s thoughtful urbanism. It is emerging as gospel in most of Canada’s major cities. And that’s fine.

But you can’t shape an entire city with a formula. In a panel discussion hosted by Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science, de Vries spoke with the Toronto architect Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance. Clewes presented a criticism of the city’s tall-building guidelines: “If regulations keep us focused exclusively on one [type of building],” Clewes said, “we run the risk of a banal city.”

Economy and good city-building don’t always have to generate glass boxes. This is the lesson of MVRDV’s radical pragmatism. As working architects, they have learned “which things you can steer, and which things you can manipulate in a certain direction,” as de Vries told me.



Banal?  What, Vancouver?


Bike lanes on Commercial – 2

February 8, 2016
Some Price Tags posts seem to have staying power – comments-wise.  Like this one.  Biclii posted the most recent comment, which I’m referencing because of its link to an important CityLab article:


Examples are taken from around the world.  Here are the two from Canada:


Vancouver, Canada

This study of shops in downtown Vancouver did find a net decrease in sales after the implementation of a separated bike lane. But the analysis relied on business surveys, rather than actual sales data, which might have led to a response bias among the merchants who took the biggest hit. The little sales data that was received “indicated that the estimated loss in sales was not as high as reported in the surveys.”

Key line:

Despite efforts to increase response with follow-up telephone calls, there is some degree of uncertainty about the randomness of the results obtained.


Toronto, Canada

Surveys were conducted with 61 merchants and 538 patrons on Bloor Street in Toronto. It was found that only 10 percent of patrons drove to the shopping area, and that those arriving by foot and bicycle spent the most money per month. Report authors concluded that converting street parking into a bike lane in the area was “unlikely” to have a negative impact on business and that, on the contrary, “this change will likely increase commercial activity.”

Key chart:

Clean Air Partnership


 All case studies here.

Ohrn Words: Old Media Decline and New Media Rise

February 8, 2016
Good to have Ken back in town, not only for his images but also his opinions and observations.  Like this one:


Media Thoughts

The death spiral of Postmedia and its newspapers is well-documented. But here’s some useful perspective from an odd source on the decline, and the rise of new media (particularly in Vancouver), and its effect on the Alberta oil industry. And some perspective from Vancouver and elsewhere.

Markham Hislop writes in the industry trade mag “Alberta Oil, the Business of Energy“.  It’s almost funny, because he complains (at first) about “how the Vancouver School is distorting media coverage of the energy sector”. But there is something to be learned here, he writes.

“A cynic might argue that traditional media already do a pretty good job framing energy news to favor industry’s interests. But the B.C. experience suggests a well-organized environmental opposition coupled with alternative media trumps traditional news and advertising. If industry is looking for new strategies as it seeks approval for Energy East, it could do worse than emulate the Vancouver School.”

It is my belief than among the forces leading to the upcoming demise of Postmedia are its obvious fealty to business interests, a right-wing point of view, and continuous framing of “news” to serve these interests. Even as the audience is changing, getting hipper, and not buying the 1950’s paradigms of what’s important, who we are and how we live. But now, here are new media outlets serving this new audience, who have a fresh set of concerns, and a very different idea of who we are and what we want in our future.  And you don’t have to be a cynic to get this narrative.

Here’s Linda Solomon, publisher of the Vancouver Observer, responding in an e-mail newsletter to Hislop’s article:

The sunset industries (fossil fuels and old media) are heavily invested in fading values, attacking sunrise new media companies like National Observer that embody forward-thinking values . . . .

. . . As Lawrence Martin wrote in his article entitled ‘Canada’s media: A crisis that cries out for a public inquiry’ published yesterday in The Globe and Mail,  “…it’s a joke to think a healthy democracy can be restored given the continuing depletion of the one industry that holds business and government to account.”

For those who want to dig in a bit deeper, the Walrus has published THIS article by Margo Goodhand, former editor of the Edmonton Journal.  It’s a chilling business and public interest perspective on the rapid downward slide at Postmedia. And a clear explanation of the danger – consolidation of the source for content, with a few exceptions:

People may not notice. How do you measure the slow gutting of a metro newspaper, the largest newsroom in town?

Court and crime and car crashes stay in the headlines because they are cheap and easy to cover. What disappears is the substantive stories that contribute to a community’s sense of self and worth; programs that require a spotlight, business and arts trends, political coverage and context.

I think that people do notice, and are turning to new sources for opinion, spotlighting and information about this new world we slowly realize will have to emerge.


Expect more from Ken on Price Tags, as he broadens the base of interests you can find here, notably media and energy which he nicely combines in this post.

And further to the post above, why can’t CBC TV help fill in the vacuum created by the decline of advertising-based media which, in the case of PostMedia, are being sucked dry for their remaining asset value by hedge funds.  CBC has done well on radio, but it can’t seem to break out on TV news.


Density-wise, Seattle’s in America’s Top Ten

February 8, 2016

From The Seattle Times: “Seattle, density doesn’t have to be a dirty word


Analysis of census data shows that Seattle — for the first time in its history — ranks among the top 10 most densely populated big cities in the U.S.


Seattle 1


Seattle’s population density has increased by nearly 10 percent since the 2010 Census. And if current growth rates continue, we’ll bypass No. 9 Los Angeles within five years. …

The densest part of Capitol Hill packs in about 55,000 people per square mile — comparable to Greenwich Village in New York.

Seattle 2


When density is done right (said Branden Born, associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington), it gives people more of what they like, and less of what they don’t like, in their neighborhood — but he recognizes that hasn’t always happened in Seattle. In Ballard, for example, there are so many new projects they’ve changed the character of the neighborhood.



Market Street in Ballard


Born points out that density doesn’t need to look like downtown. He suggests a stroll through some areas of Capitol Hill, one of the densest parts of Seattle.


Broadway on Capitol Hill


London’s Urbanarium hosted by the NLA

February 8, 2016

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner Abroad |


From afar in London UK I’ve watched with great interest the evolution of Vancouver’s nascent Urbanarium, both online and in it’s physical venue at the Museum of Vancouver. It’s been the longtime vision of many people including, most notably, former City of Vancouver Director of Planning Ray Spaxman.

I am planning to move back this year to work on the unfolding story of Vancouver and its Region, so it’s great to see the level of interest in the Urbanarium take off as it has with the latest series of debates. My only regret is that I can’t be there quite yet!


London’s Urbanarium at the NLA

What I can share from here is a bit about London’s Urbanarium, which is curated by an organization called New London Architecture at “The Building Centre” at 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT. It is well worth the visit if you are ever over this side of the Atlantic.



Some stats on the NLA’s scale model:

  • 1:2000 scale model, meticulously 3D printed in a series of panels
  • 12.5 metres-long and covers 85 square kilometres (19 of London’s 32 Boroughs)
  • contains 170,000 buildings
  • 34km of the Thames River
  • stretches from King’s Cross in the north to Peckham in the south and the Royal Docks in the east to Old Oak Common in the west.

The model and related displays are very informative. A computer projector beams information onto the model, covering a variety of themes. All around is exhibition space with a regularly changing series of displays.


The New London Architecture Program

From this base, New London Architecture runs a full time program of lectures, workshops and exhibitions on the evolution of Greater London. The NLA also hosts a variety of urban interest groups, and the space is often rented out by design and development firms for various meetings which must help them cover costs.


NLA 100 New Ideas for Housing Competition

As an example of a recent event that may be of interest to Vancouverites, the NLA hosted “1oo New Ideas for Housing” focusing on the supply and affordability of housing in the UK’s massively under-supplied primate city. Each of the 100 ideas is captured in the linked document. Many are incremental and iterative – additions to existing  buildings for example. Others would bring new scale and intensity to the City.

Supply is a big problem in the UK – and as I have mentioned before, little Vancouver builds more units every year than London does.



Best regards from London.

The first post from Michael, who will be guest editor this week.


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