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Vancouver promotes 'less as more' in green design

The small, sleek, grey building situated just across from Saskatchewan House in the Concord Pacific lot could be mistaken for another condo sales office, a place to sell visitors a little piece of Vancouver.

But this 220-square-foot structure is a prototype of what designer and architect Michael Katz hopes will be the condo of the future. The goal of this project, called L41 (as in "all for one"), was to design a compact, highly efficient unit that could one day be mass-produced.

"So they could go direct from the manufacturer to wherever the new owner wanted it," he explains.

Katz and his partner, designer Janet Corne, say they worked on the premises of "treading lightly on this earth," and "how small can we build a home and keep it delightful?" They stopped at 220 square feet -- about half the size of a small Vancouver condo.

"It's for a generation that really understands that less can be more," says Katz. Indeed, 'less as more' has been a theme in the Vancouver green building scene throughout the Olympics. The BC Hydro Power Smart Village features a shipping container that has been converted into a home, and at Vancouver House, the city's prototype Laneway House (which is two floors totaling 610 square feet) is on display for visitors.

Katz and Corne took care to ensure that in addition to a small footprint, L41 functions as efficiently as possible in terms of energy and use of space. The front door opens into the kitchen, which has ample counter space, a drawer fridge and freezer, small dishwasher, oven and range. The appliances are high-end and high-efficiency models. "Because we're building small we can afford the little luxuries," says Katz. More importantly, he points out, they are better quality and require less maintenance. The emphasis on style and functionality is echoed throughout -- even the couch, which folds out into a double bed, looks good and is actually comfortable. This, plus bar stools and a chair at a small computer workspace, make seating for seven.

L41 also has a solar heating and heat recovery system, a dual flush toilet, LED lighting, triple-glazed windows and sliding double-glazed patio doors that open out onto a small deck (not included in the 220-square-foot). The entire thing is constructed of beetle-killed, cross-laminated wood panels, and clad in tough-as-nails zinc. Because of its modular design, multiple units can be arranged in any configuration, even stacked on top of one another.

Katz hedges about the total cost of the project, which was built by Ledcor, and sponsored by Canfor, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corportation, BC Housing, Flynn Canada and Inform. "We don't want any price mentioned – especially in print," he says, stressing that the cost of materials will come down when they are mass-produced. According to an information package, the goal is to be able to sell one of these, fully-equipped, for $50,000 -- making it ideal, says Katz, for first-time homebuyers, students, seniors, homeless or even emergency housing.

They are still looking for the right buyer, and Katz acknowledges that mass-production might be a long way off. But they've been encouraged by the response from Olympic visitors who stop in for a peek.

"People come in and they're pleasantly surprised," says Corne. "They go, 'Oh, this is doable.'"

Colleen Kimmett writes about sustainability for The Tyee and others

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