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Photography by Janis Nicolay.

From the very beginning, architect Marianne Amodio could see that this home in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood wasn’t going to be any ordinary renovation. “Everyone knew that house. Even before we started working on it, people would ask, ‘Are you working on that big house on Union? I ride by it every day,’” says Amodio. “It was derelict, but really prominent—and it just sparked a lot of people’s imagination.”

Amodio Union House

A 1930 snapshot of the home (left) and a before-reno photo.

And when she met with homeowner Mira Malatestinic, Amodio’s own creative spark started whirring too. The first phone call from Malatestinic came just as Amodio was driving away from a different project, so she pulled over to take the call. “We had the best conversation in the car—we were just talking about art and culture and I thought, wow, that was a really interesting phone call,” she says. “We get calls from clients a lot, but it was immediate—this one was special.”

Amodio Union House

The interior, pre-reno.

Malatestinic was interested in creating a legacy project for her extended family. The big house would be renovated to create a home for her, along with a ground level suite. And, behind the property, she wanted to build another infill building with a few suites that could house her family, including her mother; the lower suite would be a studio. (Malatestinic is incredibly active in the local arts community—creating an art studio in the space was a given.)

Amodio Union House

Amodio and her team at MA+HG Architects went to work crafting a few options for Malatestinic, presenting three to her and her mother. “Two were the path of least resistance—exactly what the city wants us to do,” says Amodio. “And Dinka, Mira’s mom, was there. When I presented what we call the wildcard option—there’s always one that we do that’s just a bit off the beaten path—Dinka said, ‘Oh, no, we have to do that one.’”

Amodio Union House

The attic was rebuilt and reframed with sharp edges, “like it was a piece of furniture,” says architect Marianne Amodio. “It was really important to us that the ceiling was at a point—a lot of times they get just flattened off.”

So they hosted an open house to show the neighbours first. There’s no doubt that Malatestinic’s work in the neighbourhood went a long way with getting everyone on board with their plans for a heritage home streetside and a modern structure on the alley. (Ultimately, they came to the city with a multitude of enthusiastic letters of support.) Malatestinic brought on local artist Reece Terris of Terris Co. to handle the general contracting, which Amodio wasn’t sure about until she started working with him. “He was absolutely the right contractor for the job,” says Amodio. “He understood its artfulness, he understood its quirkiness, and he really just wanted to be a part of it. There was never a problem on that project, there were just solutions—and that is a really rare and beautiful thing.”

Amodio Union House

Geometrics played a big role in the project: in the bathroom, a circle inside a triangle makes for the open entryway.

The project is next door to a four-plex designed by Joe Wai, a prolific architect who’s perhaps best known for designing Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden, and whose projects are dotted throughout the neighbourhood. “We were inspired by that building for the infill,” says Amodio. “We wanted each unit of the building to have individuality, but we also wanted it to appear as though it’s part of the community.”

Amodio Union House

Amodio’s angled design for each unit in the infill—the owner calls it “the octopus”—took inspiration from other forms in the neighbourhood, but it also had a critical function. “This big window would normally just face the back of the principal dwelling,” she says. “By shifting it to the big side yard, it not only makes a presence onto the streetscape, it also just pulls the view away, giving it slightly more privacy.”

Amodio Union House

While Amodio had planned to powder-coat the steel staircase in one of the home’s historical colours, the homeowner loved the rawness of the steel itself. “I remember having to embrace the idea, and change my mindset—and think about how this huge sculptural feature in a raw material was going to fit,” says Amodio. “And at the end of the day, she was bang on about it.”

Throughout all the units, a consistent colour palette is drawn from the only colours they could find on the house, since all of the historical photos were in black and white: pink and a mint green on the original asphalt shingles. And so both became historical colours in the project—as accent walls, as doorways on the infills, on millwork in the kitchen.

It’s a project that celebrates both the heritage of the neighbourhood and the modern direction of today’s architecture, and that underlines how thoughtful design can create smart solutions to density—even in the time of COVID, as Amodio notes.

Amodio Union House

The landscape was designed by Hapa Collaborative, a Vancouver-based landscape architecture practice led by Joseph Fry, who brought in historical elements like the wood block pavers in the courtyard—a nod to the fact that the neighbourhood of Strathcona was once paved in wood blocks.

She’d initially worried a post-COVID world might disrupt all that her team has come to value in their architectural practice. “We were worried about some of our philosophies in the age of COVID,” she says. “We’ve been operating under this idea of social density for so long—is that dead now? But I think what Union proved was an emphatic no. In fact, we just need more of it. The way the courtyard space was used, the way overlooking balconies were used—that Mira was able to live by her mom, that she could see her and not be ‘near’ her. It worked. It all worked out really, really well.”

Originally published May 2021.

Full gallery of photos below.

Amodio Union House

The angles of the bathroom ceiling are emphasized with LED strips, and the walls are lined with metallic penny tiles.

Amodio Union House
Amodio Union House
Amodio Union House
Amodio Union House
Amodio Union House

For the infill, each unit has either a pink or a green door (and Heath tiles line the entry), using the main building’s shingle colours of pink and green. “There’s a moment when you’re standing in the pink door and you can see the pink scallops on the gable of the heritage building—it really connects the two,” says Amodio.

Amodio Union House
Amodio Union House
Amodio Union House