To design buildings that fit their environment.
Assets Training at
Harvard and experience with Arthur Erickson.
Yield A 25-year-old
company whose over 35 towers have helped define the Vancouver skyline and is
winning contracts in Seattle and China.
Looking toward Vancouver
from his offices in Mount Pleasant, architect James Cheng expresses
satisfaction with the city's development since the early 1980s.
"Vancouver has had an
amazing 20-year-ride," he said.
Cheng isn't surprised that
many of the new projects being built downtown have residential components.
He cited a recent survey reporting that downtown vehicle traffic has
decreased over the past five years. Meanwhile, the downtown population has
"People are now walking more
or riding their bikes to work more, without driving their cars," he said.
"Which is a totally different trend to the typical North American city. So
it's good. It means a lot of our thinking about a sustainable city is
actually working for Vancouver."
After 25 years at the helm
of James K.M. Cheng Architects Inc., the 56-year-old Cheng should
know: He's had a hand in many of the developments and helped shape the
His biggest projects are yet
to come: The 42-storey Shaw Tower now under construction on the Vancouver
waterfront will be completed next year, and the One Harbour Green
condominium development and 600-foot mixed-use tower at 1120 West Georgia
are set for occupancy in 2005 and 2006.
The high-profile projects
have also drawn the attention of clients in the U.S. and China.
"Vancouver has become such a
recognized model city that we're getting offers of work from all over," he
said, Cheng noted projects in California and Seattle, where he does work for
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's investment firm Vulcan
Inc., which is active in real estate development. Last month, Cheng was
scouting projects in Dallas, and he recently won a project in Beijing that
will have about two million square feet of commercial space and one million
square feet of residential.
The reputation and business
his work has brought him have been hard-won. Cheng accepts the common wisdom
that architects don't come into their own till they hit 50.
"You have to do your share
of kitchen renovations," he said. "You have to hone your skills. You don't
become a good architect overnight. You have to make your fair share of
The Hong Kong-born Cheng
worked under Arthur Erickson between 1973 and 1976 after graduating
from the University of Washington. The opportunity allowed him to escape
becoming a U.S. citizen and being a potential Vietnam War draftee. It also
gave him a head start.
"When I was working for
Erickson, it was very exciting because that's when the Robson Law Courts
were being built," Cheng recalled. "I learned a lot working for Erickson."
Cheng left to study design
at Harvard in 1976 but returned to Vancouver with his degree in 1978.
He taught part-time at UBC and seized an opportunity to get involved
in a joint venture with Romses Kwan and Associates in a design
competition for the Chinese Cultural Centre at 50 East Pender Street in
Vancouver. The proposal won, and Cheng was in business.
"I gained some recognition
within the community," he said. "From there I started doing small houses,
apartments, and gradually won bigger and bigger commissions."
Awards and media coverage
buoyed the firm's reputation and drew repeat business and referrals, which
meant Cheng never had to look for work. The firm now posts annual billings
of over $3 million, making it one of the Lower Mainland's top 10
Cheng's design for the
Willow Court townhomes at 730 West 7th Avenue on the Fairview Slopes set the
pace for architectural style in the steep-sloping neighbourhood.
professor John Punter praises Cheng's Fairview Slopes work in his
recent book The Vancouver Achievement: Urban Planning and Design, but
says Cheng's most significant work was at the 888 Beach Avenue apartment and
Calling 888 Beach "one of
the most important pieces of urban design in postwar Vancouver," Punter
notes that the development handles "very high density with consummate ease."
For his part, Cheng says
developments have to work not only in themselves but also in their contexts.
"We believe, as a firm, in
the integration of architecture design, urban design, interior design and
landscape, all as one," he said. "When you want to create an environment for
people, you can't miss one or the other."
In the case of the Shaw
tower, plazas, waterscapes, internal atriums and gardens will add to the
structure's livability, while innovative landscaping and an outdoor
exhibition space for public art are proposed for 1120 West Georgia.
The West Georgia design is
attractive enough that Urban Fare is considering it for a new West End
That kind of response from
users is what makes Cheng successful, said Larry Beasley, Vancouver
City's co-director of planning.
Beasley said major
developments often maximize density at the expense of livability but Cheng
designs projects that appeal to a variety of users.
"He's designing these urban
buildings in a very attractive, comfortable way so that consumers will
spontaneously choose them," Beasley said.
He added that Cheng's
buildings also set the tone for other developments.
"A lot of architects can do
buildings that are rational in and of themselves," he said. "What not a lot
of contemporary architects do very well is respond to a context or create a
context for other buildings. ... [Cheng] really does design with a sense of
the whole neighbourhood."
Cheng visits older sites
when he travels for inspiration regarding current design challenges, and at
home he relaxes with music and loves art, particularly the work of Vancouver
artist Gordon Smith.
He believes the essential
key to successful projects is a strong relationship with stakeholders rather
than particular creative influences.
"My clients are very good.
Most of them would not even buy a site without talking to us first," he
said. "The way we like to do it is to form a team - the developer, the
marketing people and ourselves."
"To build a good team, to build a
good working relationship, integrity is the most important thing," Cheng
Business in Vancouver
Dec. 2-8, 2003
Malcolm Parry photo
Better Building - Award-winning architect
spruces up Vancouver's skyline
Cast your gaze skyward in downtown
Vancouver and there's a good chance one of the lofty, elegant towers will
bear architect James Cheng's signature. One million square feet of Concord
Pacific's three False Creek towers, The Palisades on Alberni Street, 888
His dossier includes just about
every kind of building, from private homes to banks, libraries, colleges and
churches, primarily in Vancouver, but in other B.C. cities as well, not to
mention China, Seattle and Bellevue. San Francisco is a future possibility.
Many have received design awards.
A graduate of Harvard University,
Cheng has been designing exceptional buildings for three decades, with his
own company since 1978. Among his current projects is Escala, and two
neighbouring towers in Coal Harbour.
A conversation with Cheng is an
invigorating tour through architectural precepts, past Michelangelo through
Frank Lloyd Wright to feng shui, the ancient Chinese art that revolves
around the proper orientation of buildings.
For the past 10 to 15 years, James
K.M. Cheng Architects has built predominantly concrete structures, not
woodframe housing, so his company has been not much affected by the leaky
condominium disaster. "Sure, we've had leaks," he says, "but the issue is
how much and how you deal with it."
Every construction site has
thousands of workers, so all it takes is one misplaced nail, punched through
the wrong place, and water can enter the building. Even the bestdesigned
building, he says, planned with "the best details in the world," can fail if
the execution isn't well done.
Controls placed on high, concrete
buildings make them less vulnerable to the problems that have plagued
woodframe buildings, says Cheng. "For example, all these tall buildings have
to be designed for wind and earthquake loading. All the windows have to be
flexible so the building can move from floor to floor in a highwind
"A thirty storey building could
move a foot or more; the Space Needle in Seattle three feet, but it's very
subtle; you can't feel it. Therefore because of that, inherent in this type
of design is better water treatment." His company has been using rainscreen
construction for 10 or 20 years, he says.
"We also build fullsize mockups of
the wall and window systems, anything that might be vulnerable to water
penetration such as window units and all inslab ducts exhaust fans from the
kitchen, bathroom and dryer vents. We subject them to high pressure wind and
rain penetration tests. Then based on those tests we work with the window
manufacturer to make sure that even if water sometimes does come in, the
main thing is that there is a way to get it back out."
Everyone accepts that it is
impossible to build a completely watertight skin for a building, Cheng says.
"Like a boat, so you have to let it out without doing damage to the
Dryer vents have posed significant
problems to highrise buildings. Yet new models which don't require external
vents have proved an effective alternative, says Cheng.
And safeguards are critical, he
adds. "Working with the contractor, we go through every detail beforehand
with the mockup to work out the sequencing of con struction. Then we have an
independent building envelope inspector on site all the way through, and we
have done for years."
While there are no panaceas, Cheng
believes that if builders and architects use a little commonsense things
will improve for the industry. "People really have to think through how
water moves and what temperature does to the building. We're looking at
older buildings with cornices and overhangs and realizing that it's amazing
what a sixinch cornice can do."
He would like to see a more
homogenous building industry, rather than a collection of independent,
segmented subtrades. "What is hurting the construction industry is that
people separate the subtrades. Say I'm a roofer; I don't like to work with
the plumber, so I finish my work and the plumber pokes a hole through my
"A good builder will plan all
these things carefully, so all the mechanical venting is done first, then
the roofer comes in." The problem comes with builders who don't care to
manage the job properly, he says. "They don't care. They come in with a
chainsaw and throw the building up."
Cheng would like to see the early
British or Japanese systems of master builders employed here, using
apprentices. "It is now up to the general contractor to deal with all these
specialized building trades. In the old days the master builder was in
As have many of his colleagues,
Cheng criticizes our building code for wrapping buildings up too tightly,
trapping moisture which leads to rot, all in the name of energy efficiency.
"Our code should become a performance code rather than a prescriptive one."
In Scandinavia and Asia, he notes,
woodframe buildings have endured for thousands of years. "They know
buildings have to breathe. And a lot of European countries understand there
are other paths to achieving energy efficiency."
In addition, Cheng faults our
educational system for focusing too intensely on "architecture with a
capital A. They want to teach only architectural design and they forget that
architecture is half art and half science."
Emphasis, he feels, should be
placed on teaching students the practical details of how buildings come
together, structural systems, rather than concentrating on space and light,
the more ephemeral aspects.
"Over the last 10 to 12 years a
lot of our schools have been very weak in teaching the technical side. Their
explanation is they'll learn in the office. And students say 'I'm a
designer, not a technician. That's not the right attitude. If students come
out disdaining the technical aspects of architecture they're not going to
pay attention to them.
"You still need people to have
ideas and vision that is very important but that should apply equally to
the practical aspects of architecture as well as the formal aspects of
design. The architectural world is split apart between the academic programs
and the building people. What we need is to bring them back together."
The leaky condominium
crisis, he feels, has issued a wakeup call to a lot of dedicated
practitioners, both architects and builders, "to rethink how we build
buildings, instead of how to maximize the square footage, and that leads to
a reexamination of the traditional building methods. This is a healthy
movement which will lead to much more responsible building in the