Unlocking Urban Potential with a Housing Over Parking Prototype

While HOP isn’t a brand new idea, our team was inspired by underused parking garages in our own downtown cores to design a prototype to provide affordable housing while enhancing street vibrancy. The prototype embodies MSS’s design principles, demonstrating our commitment to solving problems through modern design.

March 4, 2024

Empty parking lots and garages create concrete wastelands in many city centres, while city councils are struggling to find land to build homes. Housing over parking (HOP) repurposes these spaces to help address the housing crisis. Following a concept proposed by Patrick Simmons, we are excited to share our own HOP prototype. 

While HOP isn’t a brand new idea, our team was inspired by underused parking garages in our own downtown cores to design a prototype to provide affordable housing while enhancing street vibrancy. The prototype embodies MSS’s design principles, demonstrating our commitment to solving problems through modern design.

The concept, which has been percolating as a side project at MSS for over a decade, is based on the idea that cities are designed for people, not cars. Over the last fifty years, since the Second World War, cars have taken over our cities. In Canada, we have more parking spaces than we do cars. A recent report puts the ratio between three to four spaces for each car owned. In some cities, multilevel parking garages take up most of the space in their downtown core. Building overtop of parking is one way of taking our cities back.

At MSS, we studied these downtown parking spaces and thought about how to create structures that could house people as well. The housing over parking prototype was intended to be straightforward and people friendly. We aimed to demystify HOP with a clear visual representation of a fully conceived design, and we're pleased to see it happening. Our detailed diagrams have helped community leaders realize that as a concept, HOP is very achievable and desirable. 

A Modern HOP Prototype Design

The prototype’s design reflects the firm's modern architectural style. One of the fundamental aspects of modern architecture is that the building sits above the ground plane, leaving it free for public use. Many modern buildings are built on columns or pillars, and public use of the city carries on unimpeded beneath them, whether this is in the form of a park, pedestrian traffic, or in this case, parking. 

Our HOP prototype pitches a solution that keeps as many parking spaces on the ground floor as possible but “animates” the streets. We wanted to visually stimulate people walking in the city, to create engaging street fronts that made people feel comfortable. Service retail and amenities are present on the ground floor, and behind that façade, there is still room for parking. 

As well as providing a foundation for engagement and services, the HOP design aligns with our core values of inclusion and diversity in the community. The premise behind affordable housing is that it gives everyone a safe and decent place to live. Our HOP prototype has been designed to bridge gaps for marginalized or lower income families by giving them space to live with easy access to basic amenities or services.

Flexible Typology to Support a Range of Styles and Materials

The MSS HOP prototype presents a flexible structure that supports any style of architecture. All kinds of building systems, technologies, and designs can be used. For the prototype, we’ve chosen a contemporary design, but the typology supports a more traditional look or sustainable materials, such as timber frame construction. 

One of the key differentiators of this prototype is that it offers so much flexibility. Our challenge in designing the HOP prototype has been to convince municipalities of its viability. We’ve had to show the organizations and institutions who own these parking lots what could be accomplished. In this sense, HOP is more of an administrative or even a zoning issue than a design problem. Most of today’s garages were built based on minimum parking requirements, but many cities are changing or removing these requirements altogether.

Advancing Progressive Views of Architecture and Modern Cities

Architects play a fundamental role in changing the way people think about their cities and the provision of housing. In Waterloo Region, local citizen groups have taken the idea to city council, and this has garnered recent media attention. Both the City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo have instructed their staff to look into HOP. Councillors with the Region of Waterloo are voting on a motion to build affordable housing on top of parking lots. Though implementation often takes time, these are all very promising first steps.

Housing over parking is essentially putting more housing in an urban setting. Waterloo Region has focused recently on the need to densify its core areas, to put people where they’re employed alongside the services they need. HOP is a throwback to creating traditional, walkable livable cities. Over the last 70-80 years we’ve moved away from this. More suburban sprawl has required more highways. But there’s a modern movement to revitalize city cores. Any city with a significant downtown has parking lots, and those parking lots are underused and potential locations for housing. 

Design Thinking for the Future

The MSS HOP prototype is a very prescient project. It’s topical right now because of the housing shortage, increasing property prices, and a rising real estate market. Community planners are more open to the idea than they would have been a decade ago, especially when you consider that just four parking spaces are equivalent to an average one-bedroom apartment. Waterloo Region is one of the most progressive municipalities in the world and this is a developmental concept we could take the lead within Canada, possibly even across North America. 

Innovative solutions like our HOP prototype pave an affordable housing path for the future; one that is modern, straightforward, and feasible. The prototype has already inspired several projects and has potential for future application in other urban settings. At MSS, we will continue to support and advocate for HOP with community organizations and political representatives. 

Interested in learning more? Contact us to discuss the HOP prototype with one of our partners.

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