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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Confessions of a Condo Architect

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Image via la Presse


Right after completing her Masters degree in Architecture, Alex got a job with a local firm that designs those condominiums you always see cropping up in the Plateau, Rosemont and Villeray. We have all seen these new constructions and shuddered, or perhaps just sighed it could be worse. The blocks are neither offensive nor inspiring: they’re mediocre at best.

“We’re creating a generation of condos that are really ugly,” Alex says,”It’s as bad as the ‘eighties.  Frankly, I think it’s going to be worse.”

She runs through a list of all-too-familiar features: cramped juliettes where balconies should be; basement apartments with dug-out cours anglaises surrounded with bars that end up looking like jail cells; the use of different tones of brick to break up the façade; the random insertion of incongruous colours to add a semblance of architectural variety…

As Alex describes it, designing condos is a constant give and take between respecting the building code while maximizing the client’s profits that leaves little space for creativity.

Here’s an example: the City of Montreal requires 80% of building fronts to be masonry and monotone bricks in taupe matt, grey anthracite and Champlain orange-red are inexpensive (how cheap it feels to reduce the urban landscape to colours in a catalogue). The most an architect can hope to do is to add a splash of coloured plexiglass, and only if the borough’s CCU lets it through.

Within the envelope, the constraints are event tighter: Alex describes her workdays as “trying to shove too much into a space that’s inherently too small.”

She recalls debating with a colleague about the ethics of sketching a double-bed into the plans when a queen simply wouldn’t fit in the room.

“‘If you can’t fit a Queen-sized bed in your apartment, then it’s not an acceptable apartment,” Alex insists. But most people don’t have much experience reading architectural plans so they don’t necessarily realize what they’re getting.

The developer, on the other hand, knows exactly what they want: “they come to you and say: this is the lot, and we want 8 condos in it.” That leaves room for only a couple two-bedroom apartments, and the rest bachelors, all within the footprint of what was once a duplex or triplex apartment block.

“It’s more profitable to sell more condos than to sell more bedrooms,” Alex points out.

There’s another catch: buildings under three stories fall within part 9 of the building code, which is more lenient in terms of fire safety regulations. But by sinking in a couple basement suites and adding a mezzanine (which must not exceed a certain percentage of the floorspace), it’s possible to squeeze five levels into a building that is officially only three stories high. At least there’s a sliver of good news: just this year the city stopped allowing windowless rooms.

And while we may be in favour of urban density, tightly-packed residential units are not synonymous with density of inhabitants.

“All these properties with great potential are being turned into one single type of real estate that is not family friendly: it’s all geared to young professionals without children. They’re not big enough for a growing family and there’s no flexibility in the space,” says Alex.

Another thing that she laments is that, with the requirement to transform every square inch of the lot into square-footage of floorspace, there’s a tendency to lose the individual entrances, balconies and outdoor staircases that are typical of Montreal’s urban landscape, and that create a dialogue between public and private space.

Of course, being an architect, she also dwells on the aesthetics: “It’s all going to look very 2010,” she sighs, “….and not in a good way.”

targeted development

“Projet à développer / 8 condos / plan d’architect et permis de construction inclus,” the sign says, indicating that this triplex on Christophe Colomb in Rosemont-Petite-Patrie will be torn down and replaced with a condo development.



  1. It really is tragic that facades are getting more and more simplistic and ugly. The ornate masonry of our architecturally rich heritage is disappearing at an alarming rate. Even if you could afford an expert mason worker to make your building pretty, you’d be hard pressed to even find one that could.

  2. Are there any condo developers that stand out for doing quality projects?

  3. What nonsense!
    Thank God nobody listens to you!
    We need to densify the cities so it is a very good thing that oversized appartments are being transformed into smaller condo units. Who has children these days anyways?
    North Americans are spoiled wasteful brats who live above their limits. Appartments are way too big for the # of people living in them. You need to get out of your hole and tour both Europe and Asia to see the real value of space and optimal space usage! People live with 2 kids in appartments the size of your standard 3 1/2.
    As for aesthetics, thank God the city has better taste than you!!! Who wants to end up with ugly buildings like in Toronto!! I sure hope the urban landscape remains homogenous instead of having peacock-like ugly facades!!

    Get real already. If Alex is not happy she can change jobs! Plenty of clever architects with broader minds could occupy her position.

  4. Having spent a good deal of my professional life designing apartments between 1959 and 1995, the most important error that Montrealers and other surrounding municipalities make is to allow apartments with floor areas below ground level. The concentration of Radon gasin such areas is almost guaranteed. I am unable to think of many cities anywhere that allow such accomodation in new buildings. The only people that profit from this are the developers who insist on the last dollar that they can wring from their efforts. It would cost nothing to change the bylaws that allow this dangerous practice. Not to mention the really depressing ambience in such living spaces.

  5. Ouch.. as a Montrealers who love his city, comments like the one from Anasthase are really scaring me. Wake up buddy Montreal is a city, with people living in not a zoo who obey the law of the jungle ! Montreal aint Seoul or Paris where you need to fight over for a piece of land. It has it’s own specificity and lucky for us, if it’s resident can afford to live in decent size apartment for a decent price.

    Anasthase, if you want to buy yourself a 500 sq.ft. condos at the far end of Ville Saint-Laurent, treat yourself, but I doubt those will still be standing up in 30 years !

  6. Well, no-one would say cheap and nasty is better than expensive and creative, and yet we continue to make things cheaply. In fact, most of these new condos are merely replacing the cheap and nasty of the 20s, 30s, and 40s with cheap from the 2010s. And yes, we will have a cheap 2010 look, but then, we had a cheap 1990s look, a cheap 1980s look, a cheap 1960s look, a cheap 1930s look, a cheap…

    And while putting in a double bed or a tiny 2-seater sofa on the plans is indeed cheating, other aspects of these tiny bachelors are much appreciated: bigger windows, better insulation, kitchen fans that vent to the outside, modern electricity, and spaces for washers and dryers, for example. And perhaps 8 tiny condos instead of 3 relatively large full-floor apartments fulfills not only the need of greedy developers but also our more modern society where we move out on our own, rather than waiting until we’re married and with kids on the way, for example.

    Luckily, Montréal’s “Strategy for the inclusion of affordable housing in new residential projects” — aims to even things out, where affordable housing is mixed in with private development, and large 3- or 4- or more bedroom apartments that allow families to live in these new developments, not just singles.

  7. @Anasthase: Are you seriously suggesting developers are cramming more apartments into ever square metre of space out of concern for the improvement of the city? Developers feel that North Americans are spoiled, and want us to be more efficient, make a smaller environmental footprint? It’s not about money at all?

    Thank you condo developers for looking out for our city and our earth!

  8. What is the best way to get involved at a community level? Join the local CCU? I am regularly appalled at what sort of condo architecture passes at the municipal regulatory level. If the city won’t impose aesthitic criteria, what can an informed citizen do about it?

  9. Does the responsibility lie with the property developer, who is entitled to play the game to his or her advantage, or with the City, who sets the rules? It’s the latter in my opinion. Let’s start working to give the City the political capital it needs to write regulations that favour quality homes, not rabbit hutches.

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