For architect Marianne Amodio, collaboration with her clients is the path to design nirvana.

It was 2008 and Marianne Amodio was at a crossroads. The Edmonton-born architect had graduated from the University of Manitoba’s architecture program seven years previous, and since moving to Vancouver in 2005, had worked with a number of inspiring people. Two years with eclectic designer Marc Bricault were followed by two years at the mid-sized firm of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden (now Dialog), where she worked closely with principal Bruce Haden. But with the economy pondering a full meltdown, projects were evaporating, and she still had the sizable challenge of completing her registered architect exams looming over her.

“It was a challenging time,” remembers this year’s winner of the Arthur Erickson Memorial Award for an emerging architect—but, she continues, after some serious soul-searching she viewed the conundrum as a positive. “I decided here’s my opportunity, here’s my chance,” she says. She made the decision to go out on her own, and Marianne Amodio Architecture Studio was born … and operating out of the living room of her Fairview Slopes residence.

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“It was Bruce Haden who referred me my very first client,” she remembers: a retail tenant in New Westminster’s River Market needed a reno, and she knocked it out of the park. Another tenant improvement followed, and then another  and another. It was time to leave the living room.

She ensconced herself in a then very up-and-coming Chinatown in a building designed by Richard Henriquez, and set about developing a practice. A bathroom reno (featured in WL’s April 2012 issue) announced her as a new voice in residential design, but it was a pair of bold projects that followed that caught the attention of this year’s judges.

It’s not an understatement to say that the MAD house is one of the most unique homes built in the West in recent memory. “It was a special confluence of factors that led to the success of the project,” says Amodio. An architecturally savvy couple (the husband had a sketch he had done of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel on his wall) wanted to demolish their bland bungalow and start anew with a modern residence that could accommodate their three grown children and their partners. It was the type of off-the-wall request that could sink even a seasoned architect, but Amodio relished the challenge of interpreting the family’s quirky dream into a marvel of contemporary efficiency. An arch and warm use of texture and colour juxtapose with minimalist flooring and a modern, boxy facade. And inside, the families integrate seamlessly within a relatively modest footprint.

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The idea of density also infuses the APT building she renovated, a nondescript 12-storey apartment reimagined as a blueprint for modern living in the increasingly stratospherically priced Vancouver market. A series of suites (some as small 150 square feet) is supported by a slew of amenities housed in a greatly expanded common area: ping-pong tables, yoga studios, art rooms, TV lounges.

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Together the projects represent a thoughtful solution to how we might approach a coming future of urban density, and while the work is modern, it lacks the hard edges endemic in so much contemporary design. Amodio is far from didactic in her choices: she sometimes favours plaster over drywall and a hand-painted tile over a manufactured one, and she harbours the near-heretical thought that occasionally low ceilings work better than high ones for family living. But for her, all these preferences take a back seat to her interaction with her clients: “The process of collaborating with the client is so rewarding,” she says. This spirit of collaboration means that there’s no signature Amodio look—she’s currently finishing a modern duplex in a single-family neighbourhood, a post-and-beam cabin on Keats Island and a steep slope construction in West Vancouver. They’ll all have a modern sensibility but in the end they’ll be bespoke to the clients’ needs.

“It’s the relationships with the clients, that’s what important to me,” she says.

It’s a body of work that judge Jeremy Sturgess described as “bold and ambitious,” and that judge Tom Kundig referred to as “well executed and thoughtful.” And we couldn’t agree more.