Public Involvement Lessons: Inform, Engage … Co-Design

Co-design connects deep public involvement and design excellence.
Case Studies, videos, photos, and “How To’s” follow.

20 years of industry experience as a planner and developer have given me an appreciation of the benefits of embracing the ideas of creative people within our communities. Excellent public involvement processes build trust and are essential if we are to redevelop our neighbourhoods with intensity and commensurate amenity.

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

In my view, stepping up the ladder of public involvement results in better projects that attract more support and generate better economic, social and environmental outcomes. We begin here with a cautionary tale from a “design-defend” project in West Vancouver British Columbia, Canada – one that I was definitely not involved in. Then we move to a more positive case study – only a few blocks away – where I implemented a Co-Design planning approach with the talented Stanley King, the pioneer of Co-Design facilitation, and with James Cheng one of Canada’s most successful architects.

How to Sterilize a Site … A True Story

File this one under “Just Don’t”.

The Seniors Centre was packed, warm with the heat and breath of many bodies as the architects began their presentation of two different design visions for the full-block. Months ago, their client had commissioned this work and this was the day of the big reveal for this major project.

Unfortunately, the mood in the low-ceiling room was not particularly receptive, and it would soon get worse. No member of the public had been involved to this point. Many people had come because they heard rumours that the owner would present plans for a tall building. What would become of their views? Others just did not want to see change happen to them – at least not in the balance of their lifetimes. In attendance also were a couple city Councillors, the Director of Planning, and the Senior Planner assigned to this application.

The architect presented detailed plans with colour renderings illustrating two choices: “vanilla” or “chocolate” if you will. Unfortunately, the crowd assembled was unanimous that they did not want any ice cream at all, thank you. Questions and feedback became hostile. At the microphone, people jostled. In the hot crowded room, a lady was struck in the eye by a cane and fainted. The owner and design team left the meeting with their boards in tow – months of work and thousands of dollars of design fees wasted – and a community left distrustful and entrenched with the relative security of the status quo.

Suffice to say, redevelopment plans for that site have been shelved for a long time.

The Ladder of Public Involvement

Clearly what went wrong was that the owner and design team used a “Design & Defend” strategy and failed to involve their neighbours and the community in any meaningful way in the period before and leading up to the proposal. The team might have been rushed, or they may not have comprehended that the scale and the impact (real or perceived) of their proposal would require a much more collaborative approach.

Urban Planners often refer to the “Ladder of Public Involvement”, an idea first introduced by Sherry Arnstein in 1969.  Some proponents (government and business) operate by keeping the public in the dark and avoiding public involvement. However, that’s far from best practice and most local authorities have basic minimum requirements for notification and consultation. Others step up a rung and “inform” people what is going to happen to them – for minor items where there is little impact or complexity, this may be OK. Those who envision some public opposition or contention in a project may “consult” with the public. The highest rung however is “Partnership”.

I’ve been involved in many public involvement initiatives as a Citizen, as a City Planner, and as a Developer and I’ve seen the benefits that accrue when we work cooperatively on the high rungs of the ladder – particularly for projects that involve scale and a lot of information and complexity. A long time ago I found online an adaptation of Arnstein’s Ladder reworked to illustrate these extra dimensions. It’s a useful tool when considering how you will involve people in your plans.

Public Involvement Matrix

Co-Design – a Case Study

A short distance and a few months away from the location and time of that cautionary tale, I was working on a comprehensive redevelopment opportunity for the 1300 Block of Marine Drive in West Vancouver. At that time, the block was a neglected collection of properties. For more than 50 years, a row of small shops and a parking lot had mostly turned their backs to the waterfront. A fenced-off, remediated gas station site had sat vacant for 14 years on the west end of the block; on the east side, an aging police station awaited replacement. The District owned half the property and the company I work for had assembled the other half.

Notwithstanding the condition of the block, many of the shops, services and restaurants there were still loved by the community. I knew intuitively that the scale and impact of this site required that we involve people deeply in its planning. And I knew that I wanted my team to work with Stanley King and his Co-Design Team.

 “People know best how they want to live; architects know best how to design places people want to live in”

~ Co-Design founder Stanley King

Stanley King is a Vancouver resident who came to BC from the United Kingdom in the 1960s and developed a special type of graphic architectural and planning facilitation that is driven by authentic and deep public participation. The zeitgeist of Vancouver in the late 60s and early 70s was all about citizen participation – from decisions to reject the freeway through the downtown, to planning South False Creek and Granville Island, to the 1972 Habitat for Humanity Exposition – people wanted to be involved in the direction and shape and quality of their city. And Stanley was at the epicentre of all of that from the very beginning.

I’ll describe Co-design from my general experience, and specifically with my work with Stanley King on the Ambleside project with some imagery from that process.

Co-Design: Storytelling and Drawing

Co-design blends two ancient traditions: storytelling and drawing. It’s what humans have been doing for millennia – drawing images while sharing stories and ideas. Co-Design sessions are held in multiple circles of about 10 people. In these small groups, participants share ideas and stories about a site with a talented graphic facilitator who draws these ideas. It moves us away from the 1950s paradigm where “Experts” solve problems to the present day where people and experts can collaborate on solving problems, even wicked problems.

Co-Design is a “High Touch” experience in a “High Tech” age. You can’t do this online. It’s personal – people wear name tags; no hiding behind anonymous emails and blogs; speak for yourself. It’s social and polite – people interact with one another rather than just filling out a survey; they hear each other’s views – sometimes converging, sometimes diverging. And it’s iterative and real time. Facilitators ask questions: “Tell me what you see yourself doing in this place at noon?  Is this what you mean? What else is happening? Who else is there with you? What happens at night? In the summer?  In the winter?”. As they listen, they draw and color images, bringing to life people’s ideas and connecting threads of thought.


Stanley King and the Co-Design Team facilitating an Ideas Fair,
Ambleside West Vancouver, April 2011

But first a site visit …

It is important for people – developers, planners, architects and citizens – to begin by developing an intimate physical understanding of the site they are planning and shaping with their ideas and comments. Its a good idea to take them there to spend some time reflecting on the place. They need to understand the site using all senses – sight, views, light, sound, smell, feel, temperature, mood – even what their stomach is telling them. For mixed-use development opportunities,  the basics of food and refreshments are important! Participants need to consider opportunities, context, constraints and the special features of the site. They need to imagine it through full cycles of nature, morning, noon, evening, night, as well as its progression through all the seasons.

One interesting thing we did in tandem with the Co-Design process was to transform and give over a portion of our vacant gas site to the community as a temporary art greenway with the assistance of Barrie Mowat of the Vancouver Biennale. Barrie donated a sculpture by artist Jaume Pleansa and connected us with Konstantin Dimopoulos who installed the living “Blue Trees” you see in the pictures below.  This flipped the typical marketing paradigm of “Allegation > Explanation > Substantiation” on its head. We truly believed that the community could help us connect this site to the waterfront. And we demonstrated our commitment by putting the substantiation part up front with an experiment that demonstrated much goodwill from the very beginning of the process. This was a transformational opportunity, and we were inviting the community to help.

Now back to the drawing!

A Positive Experience

There is an inherently positive direction to the Co-Design process. Facilitators encourage people to discuss and draw what they would like to see and experience on the site. It is easier to do that than to draw negative ideas (i.e. “No _____ ”) and it is also easier for people to vote on positive ideas. As you will see later – everyone will vote on each idea using a rating system and it gets confusing to assess negative ideas using the rating system. Positive ideas also attract other “piggy-back” ideas as people link one good thing with another.

As people talk and draw and watch their ideas put to paper, something else is also going on at a very deep level : the simple pleasure of pure creativity. Humans are wired for it. So much of our brain is devoted to language, vision and hand movement,  that the very process of watching a talented person draw sets off a pleasant storm of neurotransmitters. It is quite a rewarding experience  …  much better than being “talked at”. And by all means if a person in the group wants to draw, then all the power to them!

Here’s an example of a board produced by the community for the Ambleside project:

Planning the events

Co-Design events require much careful setup. You need to get a good mix of people to attend – reflective of the diversity of the community. It helps to have a number of connected people in the community to help you attract other people to participate in the events. Reach out to the Arts and Culture community in particular – they are natural transformers and bring positive energy to the room.

The venue for Co-Design needs to be carefully considered because sometimes location is a barrier for the participation of some groups. I like holding them in the open in bright, naturally-lit community centre spaces. Want elevated thinking? Pick a room with tall ceilings. Find a place popular with families, and kids and seniors – a good cross section of society.  Many people will attend because they planned to come; many will join in because they are passing by and find participation irresistible. Plan for some extra seats and facilitators.

The events involve plenty of interested people (some at 100+ participants) and require a few hours of their time, so you have to plan well to ensure everyone is comfortable. You need appropriate space for the set-up and format of the particular Co-Design session, and participants’ basic needs need to be met. I even went to the lengths of testing the room set up in SketchUp so I could be sure that the space would work, that people would see the displays, and that people would not be cramped. Consider food and refreshments for longer events and also Co-Design activities for kids to help busy parents participate. These details matter.

A funny story … On the morning of one of these sessions I asked myself, “what is THE one thing could I not live without today?” My answer was “Amplification” – we were in a big room with plenty of seniors, so I packed my electric guitar amp and a microphone into the hatch of my car “just in case”. Sure enough, the Community Centre sound system was not functional that morning. A little intuition saved the day!

Ideas III set up

Some detailed planning ensures things run smoothly

Working in 3 Dimensions

Beyond drawing, it is also possible to work in small groups with scaled building models so people can get a reasonable understanding of potential building massing and height.  This is probably something for a second or third round of Co-Design “Ideas Fairs” once more basic questions and ideas for the site have been asked.  Having a number of inexpensive foam working models allows for multiple tables of participants.  It is also helpful if the models have the built context in place as well – again giving people some frame of reference as opportunities for the subject site are explored.

Shown below are context models developed by James Cheng’s architecture team. They created square foam blocks, each representing a piece of a building floor; these could be arranged on the site in a variety of configurations. The context model also reasonably illustrated the sloping topography of the uphill context. Participants developed about a half dozen different building configurations by playing with the building blocks. Interestingly, through the workshops, they developed terraced forms that opened up views and provided inspiration for James Cheng’s final building design.

Reaching more stakeholders

The Co-design process makes participation easy and it can draw in groups that do not normally get involved in development planning. For example, we brought Co-Design facilitators to elementary and secondary schools to get feedback from children and youth.  At the sessions, they reminded us to be inclusive in our designs and encouraged us to think about environmental quality in a different way – one removed from our sometimes stripped down instrumental view of the world.

Sometimes, they suggested things that are simple but bring everyone delight  – a place to linger, or a shallow water feature with stepping stones. Teenagers reminded us that they need a place “to be” as well, to find association and acceptance. District of West Vancouver Mayor Pamela Goldsmith Jones (now a Member of Parliament) attended this event below just to hear what the youth in the District wanted to see on the site.

We can also reach out to other groups who find participation challenging. People who run businesses, particularly those who run small independent street-front businesses, are often challenged to find time in the evening and weekends to participate in planning events. Again, we brought the Co-Design sessions to them, after shops had closed.

Rating the Ideas

When they are finished, participants in the Co-Design circles sign their drawings and then take the time to review and rate the ideas produced by them and by other groups. Stanley King’s 3-choice rating system is brilliant and tactful:

  • “Go For It”
  • “Needs more design”
  • “Perhaps Somewhere Else”

Rating Device MemoryhomeuserpicturesIMG00116

Once the ratings are done, you can analyse ideas and trends in this feedback. Clusters of support emerge for certain ideas; others  generate less interest. The design of the boards (copyrighted by Stanley King’s firm) features an area for group ratings so the record of the event is pretty much done when participants are finished. Stanley’s boards even feature a fold that allows the boards to stand self-supported on tables, making it easy to display scores of them with minimal set-up and take-down time. I like to have all the boards photographed right away so I can have them shared online ‘real-time’ with the community and the design team.  This builds trust that the ideas communicated at the events are captured and considered as planning and design for the site progresses.

Formal Design

Some developers might initially feel uncomfortable and perhaps think that Co-Design means “handing the pen” over to the community. The fear is of course that lay people don’t completely understand the economics of development and many of the other practical and technical constraints on a site, and of course the public generally does not bear the impacts on construction cost and revenue.

However, the open nature of the Co-Design process does not give participants control of the design. They are expressing interests and desires; ideas and hypotheses; parts of the elephant but not the whole animal.  Given the numbers and variety of people involved, Co-Design cannot possibly produce a cohesive plan that addresses and reconciles all interests and the volume of feedback. Following principles of honesty and transparency, this information must be shared with participants from the outset to avoid misunderstandings and to properly set expectations.

The task of preparing cohesive design options really falls upon the skilled architects and engineers who will pull together plans with the goal of meeting shared interests and ideas.  In my experience design teams are richer for the experience. Certainly they may hear many truisms from members of the public – such as “we want active streets”, “small local stores”, or “green buildings”; but, they’ll also get a variety of ideas they might not have considered. Listening deeply for interests is important.

The results from a Co-Design process can be surprising. I like Stanley King’s story about the genesis of the skating rink in the lower level of Vancouver’s Robson Square, developed as part of the BC Supreme Court complex. There is a National Film Board video link to his 1972 Co-Design sessions with some great shots of Vancouver in that period!


Video Link: “Chairs for Lovers” (NFB, 1972, )

Check Back

Once design options are developed, the design team can then report back to participants, showing how the options incorporate key Co-design ideas. Again the visual record is important; drawings from participants can be illustrated alongside renderings of the proposed options. It is a special feeling to see people’s reactions at meetings when they see their idea make its way through the design process, presented side by side with the architect’s plans: “that’s my idea!”

“It’s one thing to tell your own story; but it is far more powerful and authentic when others tell positive stories about you and the plans for your site.”

~ Michael Mortensen

Those drawings, and photos and video records of the Co-Design events remind everyone that they were included and that they share some of the credit for design and place-making excellence. Simply put, development does not happen to them and their neighbourhood; they were part of the story and when they speak about your development, many people will tell a positive shared story. That’s a powerful thing.

Video: Co-Design Feedback

As an example, here’s an online video record of some of the Co-Design process for the 1300 Block of Ambleside. The feedback from participants is all the testimony one needs about the integrity of the approach. You hear from citizens, politicians and the design team. The strength and depth of our public involvement process helped the District of West Vancouver to pick my firm as it’s development partner for the 1300 Block of Marine Drive.

Co-Design Conclusions

The return on an investment in Co-design is high. If you have a large complex project, you need to partner with the local community to understand their interests and to share your design challenges with them. It’s helpful if you do that early, once you have a reasonable understanding of the features, opportunities and constraints on your site. The process takes time. It is iterative – with a number of steps between one event and the next. It will require resources – facilitators, materials, advertising, meeting space, refreshments, documentation and analysis.  The results speak for themselves: the Community is involved and included; City Leaders and Planners are involved and see the depth of the involvement of the citizens they represent; and your design team is also involved, and they take with them new knowledge and ideas that lead to better buildings and place-making.

Happy to answer questions and listen to your Co-Design stories.
Let me know how I can help with your projects. 

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

Some resources below ….

Co-Design Summary

Codesign steps

Some Tips for Effective Co-Design Processes

  • Begin Early – kick it off with something creative
  • Get help from the community to organize and promote Co-Design Events
  • Pick the Right Venue: Consider all senses. Consider accessibility for young and old
  • Involve the Art & Culture Community
  • Involve Youth & Local Businesses
  • Post Boards and Share Results of Previous Meetings Online
  • Be creative – make participation fun

Co-Design Resources

Arnstein, Sherry (1969)  “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” JAIP, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224

King, Stanley (website)

King, Stanley, with Merinda Conley, Bill Latimer, and Drew Ferrari (1989) “Co-Design: A Process of Design Participation.” Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

Making Apartments Work Harder: the 3rd Bedroom Challenge

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner michael@liveablecityplanning  ©2016

Preamble: This article was referenced in a Vancouver Sun story on April 7, 2016. As a planner, I do think there should be a legitimate debate about what constitutes a third “Bedroom” from the perspective of Planning and Zoning Bylaw requirements. This blog post explores how we can design more efficient 2 bedroom units to potentially yield a third bedroom / flex space (ie. I would not expect that all the examples herein would qualify as “3 Bedroom” units from the perspective of Zoning Bylaws).

We definitely need more 3+ bedroom units in the supply of new development projects. An approach that requires direct outside windows for two bedrooms and some flexibility on the location of a third bedroom is an interesting one that should be explored and tested (pilot projects are a great way to test these issues quickly and get some good post occupancy evaluations).  As part of a broader mix of conventional 3 bedroom units, those 3Bed+ units with an “inboard” bedroom could significantly increase the number of  units suitable for families with children while also addressing affordability.

Michael Mortensen
Updated 7 April 2016

In a previous article, I asked, ‘how can we make our inner suburbs work harder to accommodate more people in housing that is more affordable and fit for purpose, better adapted to the changing demographic of our society?’ The same question can be asked of our existing multi-family areas. How we can make new apartments and smaller homes work harder – particularly to better accommodate families without drastically increasing unit sizes and costs? Read on to see how a couple design experiments can be used to generate a set of principles for getting a 3rd bedroom into an existing two-bedroom floor-plan. What conventions must we challenge? What rules do we need to flex?

header image

Can we turn this into a 3 Bed?

The 3rd bedroom challenge

Space and affordability have always been challenges to accommodating families in high density urban environments where land and construction costs are typically high. The low availability of 3 bedrooms has become a big issue in Greater Vancouver’s political and planning arenas (story here) – there simply are not enough 3 bedroom units being built. Developers generally find that these units require more space and are harder to sell because of their price points. Cities are increasingly moving to require a mix of larger units in new development approvals. This can help with supply but not as much with cost. With high land and construction costs, I think we need to approach the challenge of the third bedroom with a little more creativity and also by looking hard at how we design two bedroom apartments so they can flex more.

From a design perspective, it is fairly easy to design a studio, or a one-bed or two-bed unit within the envelope of a typical apartment. The way our buildings are put together, units are typically 25 to 30 feet deep accessed from a 5 foot wide common area hallway that is connected to a core with stairs and an elevator or two; the width of the apartment can be adjusted to fit the number of bedrooms required. However, you generally need exterior perimeter windows for each bedroom, and this is the major challenge in getting a 3rd bedroom into the mix without drastically expanding the overall floor area of the unit.

Typically a 3 bedroom flat in a slender tower requires a high-value premium corner location. One solution is to allow some “inboard” bedrooms with operable upper clerestory windows that allow for some natural “borrowed” light and ventilation while affording some privacy. City planners have long wrestled with these issues, and from a policy perspective they are often uncomfortable with the livability tradeoffs inherent in living smaller (some of the debate here and also a good summary of the issue by Frances Bula of the Globe and Mail here).

Key interests include

  • Natural Light
  • Adequate Ventilation
  • Visual Privacy
  • Acoustic Separation
  • Storage

A plan from Wesgroup properties illustrated in the Vancouver Sun article illustrates this challenge nicely: “placing all three bedrooms along the exterior walls would require an extra 264 square feet of space. If the condo were sold at a relatively reasonable $600 per square foot, that would add nearly $160,000 to the purchase price”. The “inboard” third bedroom (image on left, below) addresses most of the key interests above with some “borrowed light” and some system of ventilation. I think the plan could be further improved by flipping the location of the bathroom to the more inboard location (pushing the bedroom closer to natural light and ventilation) and perhaps by also shrinking the size of the bathroom, eliminating the tub in favour of a small shower.


Wesgroup Properties space-saving inboard 3rd bedroom

Existing Design Guidelines
The City of Vancouver has had design guidelines in place since 1992 for accommodating families with children in high density environments (here) – the result of a “living and families first” approach to redeveloping many of the older industrial areas in the downtown core. Through the 90s many places were redeveloped complete with parks, schools, day cares, and grocery stores – the infrastructure that’s needed to support families. Many of the City’s guidelines deal with the location of buildings and the arrangement of outdoor play space and common areas. With respect to unit designs, they call for a minimum of 2 bedrooms each with sufficient area to accommodate a single bed, a dresser and a desk or table with some floor space for playing. Acoustic and visual privacy are flagged as key interests that can reduce the feeling of overcrowding. Add to this some space for bulk storage and entries that can accommodate extra coats and the stuff that comes with having kids.

Growing pressure for better design
The pressure for family-friendly units in our downtowns will only grow with the increasing cost of ground-oriented townhouses and single-detached houses. Increasingly, families are trading off space in favour of the convenience and amenity of high density housing in city centre locations. I’ve long had an interest in small space design. In 2005, the New York Times featured my family and others in a story exploring the growth of Vancouver’s downtown “One Family at a Time“. More recently the NYT published an article on “Growing Families Staying Put” in NYC flats.  Local  contributors  in Vancouver include Adrian Cook’s excellent blog 5Kids1Condo which chronicles his family’s compact lifestyle in the propinquity of our lovely downtown.

These wider cultural trends are also reflected in the success of shops like Ikea which make small living easier with furniture and accessories that make better use of existing space. People are hungry to adapt their space for livability, economy or convenience and more intense use.


The need is great and sometimes it sneaks up on you. Many young households living in the downtown eventually start families and find themselves trying to adapt their apartments meet their new living requirements. Some, for example, convert enclosed balconies into an additional bedroom – not the most comfortable arrangement as many are not insulated as indoor spaces. We need to do better.

Feedback on current designs
In 2008, UBC Planning Students conducted a post-occupancy study of North False Creek residents under the direction of former Vancouver Director of Planning and Professor Larry Beasley. They found that families generally sought more flexible, adaptable space with a bit more storage and fewer walls and design constraints (summary here).

The 3rd Bedroom Challenge

Picking up on these themes, I challenged myself to take a few two-bedroom designs currently being marketed in Vancouver and elsewhere to see if I could fit a liveable third bedroom into the same space. What would I have to change? What rules and guidelines would I have to flex?  The Experiments are illustrated below but what follows immediately is a summary of what I learned after playing this game.

Principles for harder working apartments

  • Use Open Concept design
  • FT2ŸHours: Design for “24 hour use of space”
  • Rethink Bedrooms
  • Use Borrowed Light and Alcoves for “Inboard” Bedrooms
  • Use Space Above and Below For Storage
  • Layer  Uses
  • Eliminate Design “Fixes”
  • Rethink Space Priorities
  • Take Advantage of Household Micro Trends

Use Open Concept Design
Open concept designs avoid space-wasting vestibules and hallways. They have more light and air, direct views outside, and they give occupants the perception of more depth and volume. This is particularly effective if the same flooring flows through all of the unit.

FT2ŸHours: Design for 24 hour space
Many people focus on simple square footage as a measure of livability. However as prices for new apartments rise, I think it’s also important to look at the temporal element as well. Some years ago, I coined the term “square-feet-hours” to describe an apartment based on its area but also on the amount of time those square feet can be useful. In my view, an important design goal should be to make expensive real estate flex its function more for the convenience and benefit of its occupants. For example, if a 100 sf space is only useful 8 hours a day, then it should be discounted or valued at “33 FT2ŸHours” on that basis. That’s why some large apartments seem small – too much space is functional for only part of the day. Too often I see unit layouts where 50% or more of the unit is dedicated to bedrooms, built in closets and en-suite bathrooms … all of which are really 8 hour spaces; little open space is left for the other 16 hours of the day.

Accommodating larger households means one has to provide more bedrooms AND more social space (generally ‘open use’ space that can be used 24 hours/day). This forces a wider rethink of the form of bedrooms (see below) and it challenges us to create more flexible shared open space within units.

Rethink Bedroomspattern language

In A Pattern Language (1977) the architect Christopher Alexander questions the concept of a single type of bedroom. He notes that in many cultures there are many types of sleeping quarters.“Bedrooms make no sense” he says. “The valuable space around the bed is good for nothing except access to the bed. And all the other functions – dressing, working, storage of personal  belongings which people stuff uncomfortably into the corners of their bedrooms  – in fact need their own space, and are not at all well met by the left over area around a bed.”

Use Borrowed Light and Alcoves
Alexander is onto something.  There are other ways to create private sleeping spaces and plenty of interesting precedents. Living in the UK and travelling in Europe, I’ve had the opportunity to tour many palaces with grand rooms for receiving visitors and entertaining heads of state; many of these rooms feature an alcove behind curtains or doors which reveal the bed of a past king or some lesser royal. You can find similar design in early North American homes.  Thomas Jefferson (the third President of the United States) placed his bedroom in a hall between two larger rooms. Why? Because he found it convenient! Alcoves – good enough for kings; good enough for Presidents; so why not good enough for us?  There are plenty of interesting alcove designs up on Pinterest that show how families can make better use of space with sleeping alcoves.

Sansoucci Palace

Alcove in the “Voltaire Room”, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam Germany

Jeffersons Bedroom

Jefferson’s Bedroom, Monticello House, Virginia USA

Sleeping Alcove

Contemporary Alcove Beds

Inboard Bedrooms
Squeezed for window perimeter space, one might consider creating an alcove or a small inboard room that has operable upper transom windows that allow for light and air. The concept of new purpose designed bedrooms with borrowed light is contentious in the planning and design community but it has been used in limited applications with guidance to ensure there is enough borrowed light and air circulation (for example, for heritage conversions where the depth of the building compels the solution). This solution could perhaps be extended on a limited basis to a third bedroom where it was not otherwise achievable with direct light. Glass walls and sliding doors offer better light and ventilation.


Inboard bedroom with borrowed light.

Use Space Above and Below For Storage
Storage is another issue for families, particularly those with children who generate a lot of stuff.  Designs that make use of floor to ceiling storage and volumes below furniture (beds, sofas, seating) or flooring are very useful. Here I am also thinking about traditional Japanese house designs that make use of under-floor storage.

Layering Uses: Multi-functionality saves space
Where possible, make floor space do double duty. A good example is a linear kitchen that doubles the use of a hallway corridor for kitchen circulation space.

Eliminating Design fixes: Negative space creates more use options
Decades ago we designed rooms without built in closets. People instead used wardrobes to store clothes and placed these pieces of furniture within rooms as they saw fit. However once you’ve designed and constructed a big walk-in closet, that’s it – there is little flexibility as few people are going to tear out drywall and steel studs and (possibly) re-route wires and sockets if they want to use that space for something else.

By leaving that space open, we can make more use of a bedroom and accommodate an office or storage or another bed. Yes this is leaving a bit of work or expense to the owner or renter, but that’s the way they do things in other places. Consider what you get as a renter in Germany, for example: your flat comes as basically a vanilla shell with a kitchen space that has only electrical outlets and plumbing connections (example below from Munich). You as the tenant bring your own cabinets, counter tops, sinks and appliances.

Rethinking space priorities: Do you really need 3 bathrooms?
In the Pedestrian Pocket Book (1989), Doug Kelbaugh observes,“Europe has its cafes; America it’s bathrooms. What America needs is more espresso, and less plumbing.” Do we really need three bathrooms in an apartment? Just after the Second World War, the average North American family of four lived in about 1,200 sf with generally one full bathroom. All that plumbing requires expensive space, mechanical and electrical services, fixtures, millwork and and finishes. Can we get by with a full bathroom and a second toilet room?

Take advantage of Household Micro Trends
Compact technologies are replacing many large household items. For example, a new iPhone is a bit like a Swiss Army knife: it replaces stereos, land line phones, cameras and video cameras, video players, clocks, alarm clocks, timers – literally dozens of things that probably now sit unused in our drawers. I am also particularly intrigued by new lines of compact adaptable furniture that offer fantastic versatility and allow layered use of precious apartment space. This amazing video by Resource Furniture is well worth your time. Such great ideas for making multiple uses of space convenient and cool.

So on to my experiments … more to follow

3rd Bedroom Experiments

Experiment 1: Eliminate Walk In Closets

In this experiment with an 830 sf 2 bedroom flat, my attention was drawn to the large amount of space dedicated solely to a walk-in closet with access to an en-suite bathroom.

Get rid of closets.jpg

Removing the walk-in closet and the access to the bathroom eliminated a “Design Fix” and opened up enough space to create two queen-sized loft bed sleeping quarters divided by a sound-insulated set of shelves. Each loft has storage below and there is enough room for a long work desk. The sleeping quarters could be fitted with screens for visual and acoustic privacy if needed. If the room was not needed for kids, it could easily be furnished for an adult with options for wardrobes or a small home-office work space.

Some work was needed to create more of a “Master” bedroom out of the other bedroom – primarily through the use of furniture for storage along the wall rather than a typical bed headboard. Notice also the full use of vertical space for storage.This created enough storage so that we could re-purpose the space previously designed as a bedroom closet – converting it into a work station facing the kitchen, re-oriented to the social “24 hour” part of the apartment.

Another view below:

eliminate closets closeup2

Experiment 2: Layer Uses and Add Storage

In the 990 sf two-bedroom apartment below, I was looking for some perimeter wall to use for a third bedroom. The dining nook looked like a good target so I took a page out of Japanese small space design to recreate an eating area with under-seat storage and a double size “Murphy Bed” that could fold down at night.

Futon Nook

The result is a generous flexible eating and sleeping area with plenty of storage. Shown below is a double sized Murphy bed tucked into one wall. Like a ship’s galley, the tabletop can be dropped before the bed is lowered. The downside might be sleeping next to the kitchen with the attendant hum of the fridge. However, the nook could also be screened for visual and acoustic privacy and it does have plenty of natural light and ventilation.

I am interested in your ideas! Let me know what you think. I will probably add a few more examples as I work on them.

Tackling the Supply and Affordability of Housing: Lessons from London

tackling housing

Thoughts on an article by Alex Steffen in the Guardian and an old BBC Documentary.

A thought provoking article flashed across my screen today from Alex Steffen from the Guardian (click on image below for article). And by chance I also came across a surprising BBC VIDEO this week that explains a lot about the UK housing industry.  The two are fantastic as a pair of bookends to some of my recent thinking on housing supply on this little island. I’ve posted the video at the end of this article for your viewing pleasure.

From my vantage in London UK, and my place in the development industry and as a prospective homeowner, I feel this issue quite personally. Housing supply in global cities is a complex, wicked problem. We need to look at the the housing supply systemically and cohesively from the beginning of the supply chain right to the end.


I find the winds of housing policy unpredictable here in the UK – clumsy, blunt and often cross-purposes. The market and industry is not functioning properly – how else can one explain Greater London’s anemic supply of less than 20,000 new units for year, every year for the past decade – in the face of net in-migration of 100,000+ people per year? My hometown of Vancouver BC – a quarter of London’s population – produces about 20,000 units for about 30,000 to 40,000 new migrants annually.

Steffen writes that regional and local government needs a step change in how they plan and review development applications:

“In order to build that kind of housing we need efforts that are new not only in scale, but in approach. We can build some housing incrementally, without changing the skyline or cityscape, but not anything like enough. To produce enough homes to matter, fast enough, we’re going to have to fundamentally alter parts of our cities. That, of course, demands a local government willing and able to plan and permit such widespread change. It also takes an array of home-builders doing the actual work, often in more innovative and low-cost ways …”

Steffen also begins to address some facets of the wicked problem mainly from a design perspective but he stalls at form, forgetting other complex systemic pieces of the puzzle:

Combine compact development on a large scale with a push for more sustainable urbanism, and we can see the outlines of cities that will work in the 21st century take form. We can enable low-consumption lives through better public services and sharing systems. We can convert excess roads and parking lots into great streets, green spaces and parks, making denser neighborhoods nicer to live in then they were before and more resilient to weather extremes. We can promote green building and more sustainable water and energy infrastructure, making rising prosperity even more ecologically frugal. We’re only just glimpsing how much hope for the planet rests on getting cities right.”

What’s missing?

  • A vibrant productive market housing development industry … given the demand, why is the UK’s private development market so stunted? Perhaps it has something to to with the regulatory environment and a history of state intervention in the market over the decades following the Post WWII housing emergency  …. watch the video at the end of this story!
  • Simplify Land and Housing Purchases – Why should a land assembly or home purchase take 6 months or more to process before you have a firm deal and a fixed purchase price?!!! End the insanity and unpredictability of Gazumping (see funny article on same) for land assemblies and for housing purchases. The UK should move to the system we have in Canada and Scotland. Simple, binding agreements of purchase and sale with “subject to” conditions to protect the buyers. The system in the UK is hopelessly tilted in favour of sellers.
  • Foster a Pre-Sale Culture: Pre-sales reduce risk for developers and offer purchasers supply and choice provided there are commensurate protections for buyers (ie. developers bound to deliver what is promised in the marketing agreements). To reduce risk in a business environment where many people do not buy “off-plan”, most developers in the UK build in small phases and trickle units onto the market. This is a major factor in the anemic supply of housing in the UK and in other cities.
  • Reconsider Stamp Duties: These are major extractions from UK homeowners, much higher than those in other developed countries.
  • Move to a “Specific Performance” system for property purchases – Pre-sales need to be backed by enforceable agreements where the purchaser is responsible to close as agreed. Purchasers who enter into binding agreements must put more than their deposits on the line if developers are to take bigger risks and build in larger phases to house more people in less time. Reduced risk = lower costs, faster development timelines and more choice for home hunters.
  • Simplify Section 106 requirements (“Community Amenity Contributions” for my Vancouver friends)
    National and Local governments have progressively downloading their responsibility to invest in social housing to private developers. Tower Hamlets in Greater London for example has a policy requiring 50% social rent units in a development … really?! Who do you think is paying for that at the end of the day? …. you, the end user. Developers DO need to pay their fair share for new physical and social infrastructure, but there needs to be some reasonable quid pro quo system for providing amenities commensurate with intensity. 

But be wary of large State-Driven Housing Development

I am hearing major moves to have local governments and housing management associations jump en masse at scale into the development business to solve the nation’s housing crisis.  Is this a wise idea? I’ll let you decide, but history shows that it’s not their core business.

Housing supply in global cities is a wicked complex problem. We need to look at the problem systemically and cohesively.