GBL Architects bring “Emergent Architecture” to Canada’s West Coast

By Rajitha Sivakumaran


Click to view Brochure

Preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, left the city glittering with building projects. One such development was the 1.4 million square foot Olympic Village, a LEED Platinum community development that was celebrated by the World Architecture News Awards for its urban design qualities. The rezoning and architectural design development for this project was fronted by B.C.-based GBL Architects, which specializes in market housing, commercial space, mixed use and non-market residential design.

Since 1982, the company has played a strong role in the urban landscape of Vancouver and other West Coast cities. Now staffed by a team of 47 specialists, GBL has now completed projects in Alberta, in addition to participating in housing and public space ideas competitions in Oregon, Massachusetts, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Most notable is the work the company has done for the World Health Organization design competition for the redevelopment of their headquarters in Geneva.

Satisfying the needs of the local development communities, making the project viable, workable and feasible, and delivering award-winning buildings remain the primary objectives for GBL Architects.

Emergent Architecture: the philosophy behind the company

The company is heavily influenced by the concept of “Emergent Architecture”, something Stu Lyon, Principal at GBL Architects, described as “fresh and new”, a modern design theme that is reflective of a progressive future. It is one of the driving forces behind the success and uniqueness of the company.

“We’re invested in new technology and contemporary thinking in terms of the way we design our projects,” Lyon said.

From a creative and idealistic point of view, GBL Architects offers the following interpretation of their craft: “Emergent Architecture is fuelled by the notion that great ideas exist just below the surface and within our reach. We are humbled by the reality that the final form of our buildings aren’t always defined by us, that good practice is the acknowledgement of a vast collection of forces that interact throughout the process of creation”.

Clean and compelling designs help distinguish GBL’s projects. The company has been recognized at both the national and international levels, having procured a number of awards for design excellence, such as the one received for the Edgemont Commons project earlier this year. In 2014, GBL was one of the three winners of the ReGEN Boston International Housing Design Competition, which entertained participants from 40 countries. GBL’s commitment to cutting-edge technology, sustainability and community development led to the Best Multi-Family Project award by the Canadian Home Builders Association for the Prelude project in 2015.

Catering to the needs of the public

“One of the most important things for us is to deliver an aesthetically great project,” Lyon said. Part of the attractiveness behind GBL’s creations lies in its ability to cater to the needs of the future: affordability, livability and sustainability.

Although architects don’t have much control over Vancouver’s real estate pricing, GBL works diligently with their developers to design residential units that meet affordability objectives.

“We’re very conscious of the design of residences,” Lyon said, adding that access to daylight, view and general layout of the unit and the space it occupies within the community are fundamental aspects of design.

Energy sustainability is another key factor incorporated into the design process. As part of the Vancouver Olympic Village project, GBL designed the first Net Zero multi-unit residential building in North America. Energy sustainability was the main feature of such a design, where power sources are housed onsite. Over a period of time, the project delivers as much power or energy back to the grid as it consumes, informed Lyon.

Opportunities that excite GBL

Every potential project is viewed as an art form, consisting of the creation itself and the landscape it occupies. When visualizing a project, Lyon tends to contextualize the relationship between the new building and its environment. The result is a project that preserves the uniqueness of its context — a highly attractive quality that often captures the attention of surrounding people.

Taking into consideration colour, shape and the environment, GBL finds ways to influence people’s lives through architecture. Creating new build environments in a way that will enhance the everyday life of people presents challenges that the architects avidly embrace.

Architectural challenges, creative solutions

When working in urban areas, restrictions from by-laws present what Lyon called “an interesting challenge”. Instead of running from these challenges, GBL Architects tackles architectural obstacles head on with creative solutions.

“When there’s a lot of issues and there are lots of players and interesting hurdles — to get through that — those all contribute to making an interesting project,” Lyon said. “This is something we enjoy doing and have a strong reputation for doing.”

Despite the occasional legal obstacle, GBL is committed to maintaining solid relations with governing bodies.

“We work very closely with the City of Vancouver and other local cities and municipalities. We have redeemed strong relationships with them, having worked with them over the years — it’s a big part of our working life,” Lyon said.

A philanthropic skyline

Designing upmarket hotels, shopping complexes and theatres is only one aspect of the company’s business. GBL has also been involved in a number of projects that require more compassionate objectives. Managed by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, GBL designed First Place, a non-market residential building in Vancouver to house the homeless. In working with the City of Vancouver, GBL completed the project with Net Zero, non-market housing designed for the elderly.

Projects south of the border have been inspired by similar intentions. Last year, GBL received an impressive second place in a design competition hosted by the American Institute of Architects (Portland division). The project focused on designs that would cater to the housing needs of Portland’s homeless population.

Bountiful British Columbia and everlasting opportunities

Practicing the craft of design in large metropolitan areas benefits both the architects at GBL and the urban environment. An urban dweller at heart, Lyon emphasizes that “cities are such wonderful places … they’re irresistible.”

British Columbia, being a bountiful province, offers a steady stream of new opportunities for the company, making the usually highly prioritized notion of expansion less of a priority for GBL. “We need to address and service our clients locally, but if the opportunity (for expansion) arose we would certainly be excited to pursue it,” Lyon said.

For now, the firm looks forward to using innovative designs to highlight the emerging architectural trends of the constantly changing urban landscape.

For more information on GBL Architects, visit