WHERE: 950 Humboldt Street
WHO: Chow Low Hammond Architect Inc.

Pacifica Housing hired architect Paul Hammond with a clear mandate: design a social housing project that neighbours and residents wouldn’t recognize as social housing. As you walk along historic Humboldt St. and approach the modern design of Camas Gardens, you can tell he succeeded—and then some.

Officially opened in 2011, in a partnership between the City of Victoria and the provincial and federal governments, Camas Gardens provides 44 units to those at risk of homelessness, with a focus on residents with mental-health and addiction issues.

Hammond knew the stigma associated social housing and the risk of community backlash, so the partners held public hearings around the design. He also says that architects of social housing get criticized for using public dollars to make a building that “looks nice.” Camas Gardens came under budget, at $7.2 million, no more expensive than a similar type of structure. It was built as a public resource for the next 70 years that would fit into its downtown neighbourhood.

Several factors informed Camas Gardens’ LEED gold rating. Hammond used passive solar design, with elongated units in the south-facing building, to allow for 75 per cent daylight in all spaces and views from 90 per cent of habitable spaces. An overhang protects the warm wood used on the walls around the courtyard and the Westral window shutters provides partial shade for the windows. More than 75 per cent of construction waste was diverted from landfill and 20 per cent of the materials were extracted or manufactured locally. An air-to-water heat pump and solar-water heating system supply water to the in-floor radiant heating and cooling system, so that residents can feel the warmth on their feet against the durable concrete floors. Hammond’s team used dark-red recycled glass to create what he calls “a poor man’s terrazzo.” High-efficiency LED lighting, durable aluminum windows, low-emission paints, and cohesive and wood materials also helped earn LEED gold.

Each suite contains a full kitchen, while a downstairs community kitchen provides space for larger gatherings and monthly communal meals plus access to the courtyard for summer barbeques. On Sundays, the baking group meets and shares goodies with the Monday coffee group. The full kitchen and dining area also allow local chefs, including staff from The Fairmont Empress, to mentor and cook for residents.

“This place helped me feel safe to go through my recovery,” says Kat, a resident who has lived on the street and in other housing complexes. She likes the double-lock system on both the outside and inside doors, a special vestibule designed by Hammond to to help residents shed any unwanted visitors. Unlike other buildings in which she has lived, residents at Camas Gardens visit each other’s suites and yet still enjoy a calm atmosphere. “The weekend is so quiet you can hear a pin drop,” says Kat,  “and I’m not used to that.”

The layout of rooms, stairways, and hallways emphasize visibility and allows residents to choose how and when they interact with each other. “You can see on the ground floor that there’s quite a bit of transparency,” says Hammond. “The facility is serviced 24-7 with staffing, so visibility, safety, and security was paramount.”

A common room for outside resources, such as street nurses, partially blocks the courtyard and gives residents privacy. On the floor above sits the library and an art supply room. The adjoining patio offers views of the neighbourhood and houses the community garden. Soil and seeds are available for residents who want to get their hands dirty.

The high-reflective membrane roof combines with the rain garden that wraps around the lower floors to cut down on the heat island effect of any new building. The garden also keeps water from city drains and acts as a green roof over the attached garage. The building received zoning variance to allow for only seven parking spaces, offset by secure and monitored bicycle storage in the courtyard.

Camas Gardens won multiple awards for sustainability and design. More importantly, this green building provides a safe and beautiful place for residents such as Kat to fit into the neighbourhood, just like anyone else.

— Quinn MacDonald

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