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Pearl Block

D’Arcy Jones Architects

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

September 2021


D’Arcy Jones (Principal, Architect AIBC MAA SAA MRAIC)


Jesse Ratcliffe (Project Architect), Jessica Gu (Designer), Rebecca Boese (Designer), Aryze Developments (Builder / Developer)


Aryze Developments


Ema Peter Photography


New Modern
Pearl Block’s first ambition was to dignify its neighbours. It is difficult to successfully insert a new multi-family rowhouse project within an established single-family context without standing out or replicating what is there. The project illustrates that contextual sensitivity and contemporary design can come together to create architecture that fits seamlessly into established residential communities. Newness and tradition can work together with quiet confidence.

The project mimics the colours and materials around it. Textured stucco walls refer to Victoria’s finest heritage houses, doubly functioning like horse blinders to edit views in and out. By using traditional and modern finishes, Pearl Block looks older than it is.

The building’s arrival sequence pays attention to the social and private aspects of the site. The footprint was shrunk to accommodate vehicle turning radiuses, but also to provide a sheltered courtyard. Durable paving with overlooking views from second floor living rooms creates the ambience of a European courtyard that Canadians are not used to, so this one was designed to be immediately appreciated with practical overhangs to play under or get out of the rain.

To maintain the appeal of single-family home at a rowhouse scale, each dwelling has its own roof deck, a “sky-yard”. These decks are surrounded by fence-height parapets. Their height allows all rowhouse occupants to sit in the sun, eat a meal, BBQ, or let children play—all while being completely hidden in a multifamily building, where privacy is preferred but uncommon.


Impossible Site
Pearl Block is a compact cluster of six four-level rowhouses near downtown Victoria, British Columbia. Cranked unit layouts fit like puzzle pieces onto an odd-shaped lot on a low-density residential tree-lined street. The pointy triangular site was considered unbuildable, so it was vacant for sixty-five years.

The project brief was to create new rowhouses for young families who appreciate the qualities of single-family homes but are also interested in living in a more compact way. The site is near the downtown core on a transit route close to shopping and schools. Victoria’s particularly expensive housing crisis provided the incentive to explore a typology for families in the city, while maintaining affordability and craft. Families in Victoria simply cannot afford a house, and small two or three-bedroom apartments don’t serve their needs. The middle ground between a single-family house and an apartment building with shared corridors is unexplored and rare in Canada. This project draws on proven housing model precedents common in other countries with older cities.

Since the lot has no lane and a mature tree blocked the most pragmatic spot for a pedestrian and vehicular entry, the site access is in line with the middle of the site, where putting rectangular floor plans would have been much easier. This challenge was turned into a feature, by transforming a banal car aisle into a central communal courtyard.

By insetting each townhouse’s balcony and orienting windows carefully, neighbouring properties around Pearl Block have preserved their privacy.


New Typology
Pearl Block serves as a case study in typological innovation, improving on the ubiquitous and flawed side-yard facing rowhouse typology by reorienting each home away from close neighbours and towards the shared public courtyard. This gesture is rooted in the good urban design principles Jane Jacobs famously advocated for, putting more eyes on the public realm while clearly showing individual households. Children play in the courtyard while adults socialize. Residents get the privacy they need inside thoughtful unit plans. The building has become an admired civic model for good densification.

Energy-reducing measures are integrated into Pearl Block’s form. Low winter light penetrates deep into the plans to minimize heating needs. Atypical in Victoria, this project is heated with electricity instead of natural gas when the weather gets cold. Deep inset windows and glass doors keep the interior cool in summer months, avoiding the use of air conditioning. The project’s ground level is smaller than the floors above, reducing excavation and use of high-carbon concrete foundations. Rooftop decks support garden beds that retain rainfall, instead of overloading Victoria’s antiquated storm sewer system.

Interior Design
The interiors are thoughtfully designed for how families live. A modest pallet of off-white materials with black millwork recesses hide the inevitable clutter on counters. Inside each rowhouse, a single steel column is exposed and unpainted to become impromptu magnet poles for children’s art. Plywood stair stringers are oversized to become wood-grained guardrails that conceal handprints and pawprints.

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