There's Lots to Learn From How They Build in Montreal

Six lovely units fit where one big house gets built in other cities.

screen in front of entrance

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

We have written previously that we don't all have to live in high rises to get dense cities; we should just learn from Montreal. Everybody loves the "plex" housing type that is a great demonstration of "missing middle" housing.

sixplex from exterior

Maxime Brouillet via V2Com

Le Borgne Rizk Architecture just completed two semi-detached triplexes: "A modern interpretation of a traditional Montreal triplex, historically featuring external front staircases. With surrounding residential units mainly designed with internal staircases, the firm focused on a design that would bridge the gap between traditional elements and existing neighbourhood characteristics."

exterior front with screen

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

This is the kind of housing we should be building everywhere in cities in North America. As I wrote in "What's the Right Way to Build in a Climate Crisis," we need "gentle density" that you get with this kind of housing, which is illegal in most cities that devote most of the land to single-family houses. Because in the end, the single biggest factor in the carbon footprint in our cities isn't the amount of insulation in our walls—it's the zoning.

Steep and twisty stairs in Montreal
Steep and twisty stairs in Montreal. Lloyd Alter

The traditional Montreal plexes used to have those exterior twisty deathtrap stairs that are not allowed anymore, but had a great advantage that there were no common corridors or hallways; everyone could go directly into their own unit. This is wonderful for privacy, sound, and smells. Stairs today have to be straighter and easier to climb, but the architects managed to respect the traditions and maintain the separation of entrances.

Entry and stair

Maxime Brouillet via v2com

"External bent metal staircases lead from the ground level to the second level as an aesthetic tribute to triplex designs of yesteryear. Although externally exposed, the staircases are smartly concealed for privacy through the strategic placement of tall trees. The upper-level staircases are contained within a protruding central volume that connects the two triplexes. The upper-level staircases are contained within a protruding central volume that connects the two triplexes. Constructed in a brick pattern, the central volume draws inspiration from the concept of a mashrabiya, an architectural element characteristic of traditional Islamic design. In addition to housing the upper staircases, landings, and entrances, the volume’s brick latticework facilitates the intake of natural light, while offering residents external views without compromising privacy."
second floor plan
Second Floor Plan.

Le Borgne Rizk Architecture

Here on the second-floor plan, you can see how the second-floor occupant goes straight in and the third-floor occupant goes through their own door. This is clever planning. Although they are not required in small buildings like this, one could imagine an elevator being clipped on the front of this with the brick screen moved out. 

We have also noted that small buildings like this are the most carbon-efficient. As architect Piers Taylor noted in The Guardian, “Anything below two storeys and housing isn’t dense enough, anything much over five and it becomes too resource intensive.” Here, we are getting six residential units in the space of one big house—you don't get more efficient than that.

interior of upper unit

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

They are nice inside too. The architects describe the concept:

Ground Floor Plan
Ground Floor Plan.

Le Borgne Rizk Architecture

"Internally, the living spaces are designed as high-end rental units, with very functional, but simple layouts. The front areas of the ground floor and second floor apartments feature single bedrooms and a small office space, with a focus on the backend of the units in the form of large living/dining/kitchen areas. The third-floor units feature double-height ceilings and integrated staircases leading up to a spacious rooftop mezzanine, set back from the street for added privacy, and to respect a city bylaw."
Roof deck

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

The remarkable thing about Montreal's housing is how many people they house, getting densities of over 11,000 people per square kilometer. It is the kind of housing that architect Daniel Parolek called the "missing middle," and that I gave another name to a few years ago:

"There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks Density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity."

Thanks to Le Borgne Rizk Architecture, we are still learning from Montreal. We need a lot more of this—everywhere.