Developing a multiplex - the city of Vancouver's term for a small multifamily building - involves far more work than you probably thought, and not doing adequate research could get you in some serious trouble.
Over the course of this series of articles, I will walk through the steps that I as an architect take to design a hypothetical multiplex in Vancouver. For this theoretical project, the location is a property chosen at random from the map, and the client - whom I've named "Ava" is entirely fictional (including her AI-generated photo). I will also be walking through the process for a houseplex in Victoria in a separate series of articles, starting with Part 1 (link).
The articles demonstrate first the work involved before design begins - the pre-design phase - and then the work through the design phase. Most owners - homeowners, amateur and professional developers, and their architects - rush into design without enough research. The results are delays, additional design fees, and construction cost extras down the road. I go into that in greater detail in my article and video, Your Architect Needs To Do These FOUR Things Before Drawing ANYTHING. My pre-design research digs up considerations, and it works through choices to avoid paying extra later.
You will gain an understanding of most things to research if you are considering to build. I won't get much into the legalities of real estate transactions or fees and other soft costs involved in any real estate development; my role as the architect is the design consultant. By the end of this first article, you'll see we first establish a clear picture of the client's motivation to ensure the project develops a strong, consistent direction.
First, the reason why Ava is interested in a multiplex is the new zoning regulation for Adding Missing Middle Housing that was passed by Vancouver City Council in September (2023). We need to perform a quick check first to see if this development applies to Ava. The property Ava's curious about developing is on Fremlin St., near 46 Ave. It's a 18.3m x 36.6 m (60' x 120') lot that is zoned R1-1.
Bylaw No. 13817 is an amendment bylaw that changes the Zoning Regulation Bylaw 3575 to permit multifamily buildings described in the new zoning district R1-1 ("Residential Inclusive") - Ava's zone. So far so good. This amendment also doesn't apply to any property that has heritage conservation restrictions on it. Ava's property isn't a heritage situation in any way, so still good. Also, the new rules don't apply to panhandle lots or waterfront lots, so it appears that we can indeed take advantage of the new density with Ava's mid-block lot. You should note that how *many* units are permitted often is dictated by the *size* of the lot.
The new R1-1 District Schedule is 17 pages long and the R1-1 Housing Options Guide is 70 pages long, but instead of looking immediately at the property and launching into what we can build, we need to learn WHY we are designing and HOW we need to design; we need to return to the source: Ava.
I could have five different clients each with identical properties to Ava, and each would have a different set of needs, priorities, and values. The results would be different buildings. One owner may want to develop at absolute minimum cost and flip the property. Is she flipping a whole rental building, or is she stratifying it and selling the units? Another owner may want to maximize the rental size even if it means extra requirements to satisfy for the city. Yet another owner may want a high-quality building because her family will occupy some of the units.
If this was your project, consider what particular needs and priorities that you have. Since it's your initiative and partly or entirely your money, you'd want to make sure the design was JUST RIGHT. What would you want to ensure made its way into the design of the building - something that just couldn't be left to someone else speaking on your behalf? How would you feel if nobody asked you if there was anything personally important to you?
Ava's lived in Vancouver since she was four. She's 39 and married, with a six-year-old boy (no plans for more children). She works for one of the big banks as a financial products sales agent. She enjoys yoga, loves dancing, admits to being a workaholic, and is a bit of a foodie.
She and her partner have been living in a condo downtown for the past seven years.
Her parents are now roughly 70 and are still living in their house in Kerrisdale. Three years ago, Ava and her parents pooled their savings and bought an older house to the East of her parents' place. They're still renting the house to the tenants who were living when they bought the property, but their plans were to build a new, bigger house as a shared home for Ava's family and her parents when they grow too old to be living independently. The property is in the same general area as Ava's parents' current home, so they won't need to make much of an adjustment but instead will continue to enjoy the neighbourhood they've grown to be a part of.
The first exercise I take a client through is building the Project Pillars. These are the things that are most important to you and which will drive every decision going forward. They may be abstract or physical, objective or subjective. Regardless, you will have your own blend of priorities that establishes the "DNA" behind the final design. Ava's job is to scan through the 70+ options I present and pick the top 3 that matter most to her and her parents. She plans to live in this building once completed, but she's also money-minded; her choices will reflect both personal priorities and investment factors.
Ava's a very social (and ambitious) creature, and this has fueled her success in her career. When she's not working - which is rare - she's either attending or hosting get-togethers with friends or business acquaintances. Ava thrives on social activity in both her personal life and her career. She doesn't mix the two, though; she wants space to entertain guests and also space for having her parents over without feeling crowded.
In her role at work, she spends most of her time working from home and some meeting with clients at their offices. Ergo, she needs a diversity of spaces to keep her family life, daily working life, and business social life all separate.
One thing that Ava loves about condo life is not having to do house maintenance. She enjoys having all the amenities with none of the headache. She maintains a great deal of control over her environment, but owning a house has always raised a little anxiety over becoming a slave to keep it in excellent shape. The last thing she wants is to feel as though her environment is deteriorating around her while she's working to grow her career and her family.
The follow-up priority to low maintenance is resale value. Ava doesn't intend to move at least until her parents are both gone and her son has started or completed post-secondary studies. While living in a multiplex of her design would give Ava and her family more room than the 2-bedroom condo, she wants more than just that. She does plan to sell the multiplex in the future and wants to maximize the return on her investment to acquire additional properties.
Rental Return On Investment
Ava's keen to the cost-benefit analysis of any investment. If possible, she wants to keep her condo and her parents to continue to own their old house. Maximizing the rental revenue means as many dwelling units as possible.... which means a higher construction cost. While she and her parents can leverage their existing homes, she'll need as much revenue as possible to offset the mortgage on the new building. Ava hasn't worked as hard as she has just to feel house-poor and definitely does not want her parents forced to live frugally in their last years.
Obviously, Ava wants to keep the cost of construction down, but her biggest priority is maximizing revenue potential She could build a duplex or triplex for significantly less money, but that limits her earning potential and likely ultimate resale value. Next, I ask Ava to rank these four concepts in order of importance to her. This forces her to exercise them as priorities - something she'll have to do later at different points in the project. She orders them as follows from most to less important:
Rental Return On Investment
At this point, these are really just words to me. In Ava's mind however, they mean far more and have many connotations. I ask Ava to explain to me how we know what each of these things means - when each has been successfully achieved.
Successful Rental Return On Investment
Ava's not presently concerned with tenant turnover, so she will be as aggressive as possible with the price of rent. She has only ever rented to one tenant, and she doesn't have plans to grow a large rental business with dozens of tenants. Ava intends to have as many tenants as possible at the highest rent level possible. She's targeting high-end tenants, so the units should look and perform like high-end homes.
For Ava to entertain friends, family, and her professional network, she needs not only to have lots of space but have different spaces to suit different events.
If it's a nice day, nobody wants to be stuck indoors; she'll need an outdoor space for her guests. This might be a deck, it might be an alfresco area - we're not identifying specific solutions here - only the fundamental needs and priorities.
She wants her friends and family to feel at home, so perhaps a gathering space suited to professional occasions would be separate from spaces for casual get-togethers. Her family includes nieces, nephews, cousins, her brother and his family, and aunties and aunts. A diversity of places for separate conversations or activity to happen is important.
Since Ava has a young child, some family space with the inevitable disarray of her son's home life should be out of sight of those intended for professional events and also out of the way of other spaces for adults who don't want to be stepping on LEGO.
Networking events should feel professional and not as though they're being held right next to someone's kitchen nor constantly reminding attendees that they're in someone's home - even though they are.
Successful Low Maintenance
Ava's brother has a house in the suburbs, and every time she talks to him, he mentions some type of work he's been doing on the house. It's either repair, replacement, or cleaning out gutters or drains. While Ava could hire a property management company to perform all these tasks, she's already stretching her finances with construction and insists on keeping operations cost low.
As well, Ava wants the building to be constructed of things that last as long as practically possible. She understands durable materials may cost somewhat more, but if eliminating some future replacement cost is feasible, she will choose durability.
Successful Resale Value
When the building is complete, Ava will hire an assessor to provide an estimate of the building's resale value. Provided the building's design for longevity also is successful, the multiplex will hold its value in the future.
Now that Ava has identified which aspects of the project are most important, we can start to look at the permitting process with the Planning Department, and I'll walk through that in my next article.
Are you considering building a multiplex or houseplex in Victoria, Vancouver, or any other city that has adopted the small multifamily type of building? You may want to read my Permitting Guide page or download my Design Process Guide, Project Roadmap, or Project Planning Pack.
The #1 cause of budget overruns is rushing into design before completing research and analysis. This is like a doctor rushing a patient to surgery without a proper diagnosis. An out of control project is stressful, very expensive, and unnecessary.
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