Can This ‘Decoding Density’ Architecture Competition Solve Vancouver’s Housing Crisis?

Urbanarium’s Decoding Density competition breaks all the rules—in the name of solving our housing crisis.

When the provincial government recently bumped Vancouver’s five-year housing target up to 28,900 units, city hall declared their “all hands on deck” support. But anyone who has tried to rent in Vancouver (or—dare to dream—buy a condo here) knows that we need more than a flood of generic “housing stock.” What we really need is something more human—we need homes.

In our rush to green-light developments, the focus has rightly been placed on affordability. But—beyond price tags—we also need our dwellings to foster community, armour us against the climate crisis and maybe boast enough elbow room to share a meal with friends. That beyond-survival thinking is what inspired former city planner Ray Spaxman to create Urbanarium back in 1985. He assembled a ragtag collection of planners, architects and community leaders who wanted to use debates and workshops to concoct new visions for our city—ways to make Vancouver livable and vibrant and not just a marketplace.

Today, two full-time employees (along with board members, advisors and volunteers) carry on Spaxman’s vision. Executive director Amy Nugent arrived in 2020, just before COVID hit. “The pandemic made us all want more from our neighbourhoods,” she says. “We began to think about communal and co-living  spaces and a shared economy. The Canadian dream of housing is becoming different.”

Fulfilling tomorrow’s housing dream is the goal behind Urbanarium’s competition series. Past versions (in 2017 and 2021) asked contestants to imagine new models for the “missing middle” (mid-sized buildings, as opposed to just towers and houses). Those competitions inspired municipalities around the province. “Now,” says Nugent, “the densification we were imagining has become legislation.”

This year’s competition, Decoding Density, takes the “missing middle” mission to new heights by asking folks to break all the rules—quite literally. Urbanarium asked designers and architects to think about which building codes and regulations are stopping us from creating better versions of the mid-sized, six-storey buildings that Vancouver so desperately needs.  “When charged with designing mid-sized buildings, you’re just going to get big, wide, ugly boxes,” says Nugent. This is because our building code is woefully restrictive. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”


The two-staircase requirement for buildings over two storeys makes it challenging to create smaller multi-unit buildings (like those commonly seen in cities like Amsterdam, below)—instead, we wind up with multi-block boxes.
The two-staircase requirement for buildings over two storeys makes it challenging to create smaller multi-unit buildings (like those commonly seen in cities like Amsterdam, below)—instead, we wind up with multi-block boxes.

Developers, Nugent argues, have been hamstrung by a series of Byzantine bylaws and codes that limit what they can deliver. For example: a six- storey building in Vancouver must have two stairwells—but that does little to improve fire safety while placing extreme limits on the design, making courtyards and other humanizing elements highly unlikely. Nugent points out that we’re also not allowed to have more than five bedrooms in a unit because of an old rule discouraging brothels. What we have, in short, is an accruement of a hundred years of codes—many of which were well-intentioned at the time but have since become pointlessly limiting. What we need, says Nugent, is a clearing out of the rules that no longer serve us: codes should change as our technologies and understanding of safety issues evolve.

Kari Dow, a board member at Urbanarium, says this is exactly the moment to push for change—because the province is in the midst of reviewing their building code. She believes the six-storey buildings that Urbanarium has zoomed in on are a crucial part of Vancouver’s housing future. “It’s our last win-win for building types,” she says. “At that size you can still build with wood frame, so it’s fast and affordable and low carbon. It’s also a comfortable social scale. It’s all upside.” Six-storey buildings are, in fact, about to proliferate across Vancouver. The Broadway Plan enables their construction throughout 485 blocks on either side of Broadway. “It’s going to provide a huge supply of housing,” says Dow; new area plans for the Rupert and Renfrew Skytrain stations will do so as well. But will all that housing be (in Nugent’s words) “big ugly boxes”? Or will we find ways to turn our next housing boom into a crop of humane, diverse and lasting homes?

Nugent is the first executive director at Urbanarium and her appointment speaks to the team’s eagerness to transform debate and workshops into concrete change. They managed it before, with visions from this decades-old brain trust shaping our region—but, with their Decoding Density competition, Urbanarium is now tackling their greatest challenge yet: a rewriting of the rules for a city in crisis. We have, after all, been missing more than just a “middle” building type; we’ve been missing livable building designs.

If Urbanarium has its say, future house-hunters may discover options that reach a little higher—options that consider community, climate-change resiliency and generously sized living spaces to be as integral as any bottom line. And it’s champions like Nugent and Dow who will make that change possible. They teach us to ask for real homes… not just a piece of real estate.

“I think people don’t like density because they’re not used to inspired density,” says Nugent. “But what if density was something beautiful? Wouldn’t that be great?”

The submission deadline for Urbanarium’s Decoding Density competition is April 3. Learn more here.