Mission 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 increased.

"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 city's skyline.

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 mistakes."

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 architectural firms.

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.

Cardiff University 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 townhome complex.

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 store.

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 said. - 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 Beach Avenue.

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 situation.

"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 interior."

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 roof.

"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 charge."

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 future."     - Vancouver Sun  



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