Needs, Numbers, and Nuances: University of British Columbia

Providing a home away from home for students amid housing affordability challenges is a tall task for universities.

This ongoing housing crisis is acutely felt by the University of British Columbia, with just over 20 per cent of its student population living on campus. To combat the absence of suitable off-campus accommodations, the institution adopted a strategic housing plan in 2012 to dramatically expand space for students, staff and faculty. The recently inaugurated tə šxʷhəleləm̓s tə k̓ʷaƛ̓kʷəʔaʔɬ (meaning “The Houses of the Ones Belonging to the Saltwater” in Musquem) is the latest addition to this ongoing initiative.

The Houses of the Ones Belonging to the Saltwater consists of five buildings located around the 1970’s Walter Gage Student Residence precinct.

Investments in housing, investments in students: University of British Columbia

Conceived in a strategic partnership between local practices Ryder Architecture and Hotson Architecture, the 365,900-sq.-ft. project not only adds 940 more beds for upper-year students to UBC’s portfolio but new public amenities as well. Nestled on a narrow northeastern site, the complex comprises five distinct “houses”—each generously bequeathed its own name in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ by the Musqueam Indian Band—that gracefully wrap around existing student residences. “It looks like five buildings,” explains Kai Hotson, founder and principal of his eponymous studio, of the slender profiles, “but many of them are interconnected.” To wit, the individual structures vary in height (between seven and 10 storeys), length and cladding (white and dark brick) to “break up the massing” and “to break down the overall scale,” he says.

A “commonsblock” of communal spaces include spacious study lounges with co-located laundry rooms found in each building, and a large bleacher stair connecting the ground and basement floor levels, creating activity and views between shared student spaces.

The resulting intimacy, transparency and urban connection also extends inward. qʷta:yθən leləm̓ or “Sturgeon House” functions as the main block of the quintet, containing a lounge, study area with a concealed kitchenette, games room and more. Double height volumes and ample glazing are used to channel light deep into subterranean spaces like the fitness centre while emphasizing clarity for trepidatious students acclimatizing to the realities of post-pandemic education. “We know anecdotally, post-COVID, students are a bit more reticent about connecting,” notes Adam James, principal at Ryder Architecture. “I think the design of the spaces helps that.” At its heart is the two-storey bleacher stair, where exposed concrete and elegant fixtures are paired with natural finishes such as warm wood set against the sleek black mullions to give the existing campus character a graphic edge, all while providing a casual environment to rest, connect or work. Additional study spaces, a cafe, sky lounge and other amenities are peppered through the other edifices, each topped by tailored individual studios and two luminous four-bedroom units per floor.

Though an expedited timeline and rolling occupancy required the designers to be agile, it also offered an opportunity to better reflect the needs of residents. In addition to providing more outdoor furnishings, seating and tables were later integrated into the bleachers as students noted “they liked to spend time there, but they didn’t have something comfortable to write or sit on,” says Vivian Chin, design director at Hotson Architecture.

The “hotel” units have a higher specification for interior design and furnishings, including built-in desks, TV/storage units, as well as upgraded corridors featuring glazing at each end for natural daylight, and wall covering elements framed with metal trims and recessed lighting.

If the city’s housing crunch was the impetus for the project, it’s also responsible for one of the most unique features. With short-term rentals like Airbnb also encroaching on affordable hotels, the private residences of “Orca House” (also known as q̓əlɬaləməcən leləm̓) were designed to transition into visitor accommodations during the summer months when campus activity dwindles. Hosting conference attendees, camp goers and other guests, this move creates room for much-needed hospitality infrastructure without removing critical housing stock. Identical in scale to the typical units, these studio spaces—fitted with a private washroom and kitchenette—are delineated through upgraded finishes, integrated furnishings and other custom built-ins. Unlike standard floors where quad units are placed at either end, the elegant corridors terminate in a full-height window, framing vistas toward the grounds. Below, a lobby anchored by a grand tile-clad fireplace further elevates the dorm-cum-hotel. Fittingly, flexibility was paramount: so much so that, even during construction amidst COVID-related closures, the main meeting room near the lobby easily doubled as childcare space for those on-site.

As a testament to its ongoing success as an active part of campus life, students have already settled into the interiors. “Driving past at night, when you can see through the ground-floor glazing,” says James, “all of the study rooms are packed.”

Photography by Adrien Williams

The residences follow two program typologies: typical student housing and upgraded units for summertime hotel use.