Victoria by Domus_Ray Chan Photography
Credit: Ray Chan Photography. Victoria by Domus

Despite their social and environmental benefits, courtyards remain rare in Vancouver apartment buildings

When I went to visit a friend in very suburban Tsawwassen recently for the first time in years, I felt bad for him as I parked in his building’s lot. Sigh, I thought. Another bland and boxy apartment that plonks hapless residents right on a heavy-traffic street with not much around.

But that gloomy take flipped on its head when I got to his place on the third floor. Besides the fact that Pierre, an architect, had created a beautiful designer-y space, the apartment felt, unexpectedly, like a sanctuary. Its south-facing windows and sundeck looked out over an interior courtyard, a small green oasis with a stream burbling through it. Traffic noise had disappeared. Overall, delightful.

It was a revelation to be in an apartment like that in Vancouver, where I have (sadly) come to expect that crazy land prices, the tight economics of building anything and a general propensity to stick with conventional design have produced a lot of big rectangular boxes filled with rows of long, narrow apartments that can feel like lab-experiment cages. When there is any outdoor space, it’s for useless front and side lawns that match the single-house pattern of useless front and side yards.

It turns out, as I discovered by putting out the call on Twitter to my dedicated urbanist followers, that there are more than a few of these hidden around the region, some of them legacies of a less frantic housing situation in the city, some of them very, very new. People excitedly sent me aerial shots of a couple dozen buildings, showing the tree-filled inner courtyards.

There were a few love letters to them. Our friends got married in this courtyard in our co-housing building in North Van, said Brady Faught. “So many families adore this place because of the courtyard—ability to make dinner with community watching kids play,” said Janet Moore (Main and 19th). “Always looks great in the snow, and the cross ventilation in the heat wave was [OK emoji],” wrote Madalinavich Kanidi-Parotski about her home near Royal Oak in Burnaby.

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It’s a form of building you’d think planners—well, really, everyone—in Vancouver would be all in for. After all, this is a city where the fear of riling up the traditional house-and-yard neighbourhoods is so terrifying for many councils that apartments are often relegated to 1) former industrial land, 2) existing apartment zones (which means old stuff is torn down for new), but mostly, 3) major traffic routes. That last menu item means apartment dwellers end up becoming a form of human dike protecting the house-and-yard people from car emissions and noise.

The obvious solution, if that’s how we’re going to allot space to people in the region, is to do everything possible to make those apartments more livable within themselves.

Some architects and developers are already excited about the idea. For Richard Wittstock, CEO of Domus Group, the appeal is in providing a way for people to have social connections. His company just opened and rented out a building in North Vancouver designed around that.

The Victoria, from the outside, doesn’t look all that different from the other ’60s-style apartments in the area, except for having less square footage of useless lawn surrounding the building. But when you go through the front entrance, you’re immediately in an open-air courtyard punctuated with benches and trees. There are outdoor metal staircases and walkways everywhere in the building designed by architect Sandra Moore and UBC architecture professor Inge Roecker. Besides the courtyard, it has a large roof deck with planter boxes, plus two more outdoor plazas on other levels.

“I think it’s a better way to do rental buildings,” Wittstock says. “You see people multiple times a day. You get to know each other.” Parents are often the biggest fans of buildings with courtyards, because those semi-private interior spaces give them a place to let their children play that they can monitor easily.

Ryan Bragg, an architect with Perkins&Will who’s involved in the design of a courtyard apartment building for PCI Developments in Port Moody, is a fan for another reason: “Environmentally, they’re a huge benefit.” The cross-ventilation that happens when an apartment has windows on two sides means air conditioning is needed less, or not at all. There’s more light. And there’s less requirement for expensive, energy-consuming mechanical systems to provide cooling.

Vancouver’s former chief planner, Brent Toderian, is also an enthusiast. He lives at the Espana in Chinatown, a 1,000-person complex with a tower and stacked townhouses that has a large courtyard on the second floor. (Apparently, Vancouver is a leader in the concept of the elevated courtyard.) “We use it as a secondary park,” Toderian says.

But he also cautions that this doesn’t mean courtyards should be in every building. Size and details are important. A water feature in the Espana’s courtyard provides instant, calming white noise that blocks the sound of the SkyTrain, crowd cheers from the nearby stadiums and street traffic. A courtyard that is too small, not well planned, dark because the well it’s in is too deep—that’s not going to make anything more livable.

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Shared common spaces can be noisy, too, in a not-neighbourly way. For three years, Robbie McDonald lived in the Rise near Cambie and Broadway—a place normally beyond her household’s means, but her partner got an artist live/work award. McDonald appreciated the cherry blossoms she could see in the courtyard and the communal herb garden, but she found that the lawn and barbecues were “taken over by the young party kids on the weekend.” So there might be some unintended consequence if city planners decided to start requiring courtyards in every new apartment building.

However, there seems to be little chance of that so far.

The City of North Vancouver is encouraging them by, for example, allowing the outdoor stairs and walkways to be exempted from the typical calculation of the limit on buildable space.

But that’s not the case everywhere. In Vancouver, inner courtyards are specifically banned through design guidelines in areas like the densified Cambie corridor and Norquay Village district. And, realistically, many developers don’t even consider them elsewhere because they say they can’t make the budget calculus.

So when families go looking, as UBC health researcher Wyeth Wasserman did, there’s not a lot to choose from. He eventually found a beautiful, award-winning complex from the ’90s at Kingsway and Slocan, the Duchess, with two sets of 10 townhouses framing two courtyards. Wasserman and his family love it. But, he admits, it’s unlikely that any developer could build something similar today, given land prices.