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Formwerks’ Jim Bussey on Architecture in Vancouver

Recently, we had a chance to sit down with Jim Bussey of Formwerks Architectural Inc., to find out his views on Vancouver architecture and where it’s headed. With 28 years of experience working on renovations and townhouses, his insight into Vancouver’s real estate scene is valuable and inspiring.

He has created a niche market with clients by interpreting their needs and wishes into architecture that is both functional and artistic. His buildings are a reflection of comfort and tradition combined with a warmth that can be lacking in some of today’s more mainstream buildings. We asked him a few questions and here are his thoughts.

How would you define architecture?

It’s the creation of buildings. We strive to be responsive to the users needs. We also ensure that we are fulfilling community needs as well. We want to be responsible to the environment, while always keeping an eye on the owner, and eventual resale value.


What do you see as one of the biggest architectural change in past 28 years?

Regulations and standards is one. Size of the available component parts of the building is another. There wasn’t that much variety 30 years ago, in terms of sources of materials available to build. Now it’s worldwide. It’s a recognition that you can get manufactured brands coming in from any point of the globe and you can get it quickly now. There has been a skyrocketing of materials available and it does add to the complexity. With that comes increased costs. Larger houses means more stuff is required to fill them. Because there is a propensity towards brand name, more refinement of tastes and luxury are more important.

How has being an architect changed in the last 20+ years?

It hasn’t. There might be new thinking, but the principles have always been the same We have always considered where the sun comes up, heat gain of the building, loads of heat, where the sun goes down as well as general practicality of sites, materials (local versus sourcing from around the world). There is definitely a new thinking about sustainability. Focus has increased but it’s always been the intention for architects. Things haven’t really changed, architects still think of all these things, but much more specific, and governed by agencies, whether by government or NGO which have impact as well.


What are some trends in other parts of the world that are coming to Vancouver?

Definitely the European style and look, as evidenced by Vancouver House. European buildings are slightly different in nature, they tend to be a little bit more progressive and more adventuresome than before. It will be interesting to see what vigor that will bring to the architectural scene of Vancouver.

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What are some of the differences between dealing with commercial buildings and residential? How do you tackle them differently?

More regulations for commercial but there is a growing awareness that there should be more practicality and sustainability placed on residential properties, more and more. Energy conservation, green houses, etc. Though it was thought about by architects before, it’s more in the public realm and up for discussion much more than before. And regulated. It was easier to regulate commercial buildings versus residential, but now, even single family houses are asked to be more sustainable. Regulation is becoming more complete across the board.

What are your thoughts on Heritage classification?

I applaud that in the city. Being able to maintain the diversity that is in the city now. I feel the need to preserve the diversity in this city. Heritage cities are great and prevents the city from the “sameness” pervades that threatens massive developments. Change is very rapid but we need to prevent sameness. Every version of the Vancouver Special all have a kind of “sameness” to it, and the rapidness of how the city is changing at this point is alarming. And the diversity of the city, which everyone likes, is welcomed. However, people’s personal interests are trampled by the city, by authority and they don’t like that. The key to balance private interests and community interests.

What are some cultural differences between local buyers and those overseas?

The differences are huge. Local buyers tend to be moving to downsize from a larger home. Overseas buyers are more interested in upsizing. The new land isn’t a culture that is immediately understandable to them. They are looking for luxury items, brand-name goods and high-end everything. As newcomers to the country, their judgement is that it must be expensive yet they are scared that they will be ripped off as well. I try to put myself in the place of a new immigrant in places I’ve traveled to. More unusual places, say India or the Middle East, if I went to build a building there, what would I be confronted with. To help overcome these fears, I just try to be honest. Being honest and bringing value has been implicit. I’m not seeing them as a way to set up a retirement fund.

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Do you only build new houses now, or do you still do renovations?

No, lots of renovations. Renovations can be harder than a new house, depending on how far you take it. If you have to replace all the structural and upgrade all the mechanical, electrical, then by and large, it’s simpler to tear down and build. Renovation could be just a new kitchen. The houses that we are renovating right now are being renovated for a specific reason. It could be due to an existing non-conformity (height, view). If you are entitled to renovate it, then I will advise you to suffer the difficulties and indignities of a renovation in order to preserve something that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve.

Some architects have said that the key to building a great home is to balance design, with creativity and problem-solving? Your thoughts on this viewpoint?

There’s no difference between those three things. I don’t see them as problems. I just see it as creativity will create a solution. A proper solution doesn’t have problems. It’s just a way of defining these things and I just don’t want to see things as problems.

Tell me about a typical client?

There isn’t such thing as a typical client but there are similarities amongst clients. Everybody wants good value. Everybody want to have fun. Everybody wants to do the right thing. Everybody wants to be heard. The clients who get the best houses from me are the clients that speak clearly about what it is they want and then allow me to give it to them, without them designing it. When clients tell me how to do something and it has nothing to do with their preferences, rather the technical aspect of things; I wonder if they would do the same thing to a surgeon. It seems to be part of human nature that people want to control the outcome, but if they place their trust in me, they always get a better product. It’s fine to tell me what you want, but I don’t want them to tell me how to do it. For example, one client came to me and didn’t really know what kind of house he wanted. So instead of asking him what house he wanted, I asked him what he wanted to be. “If you weren’t what you were, what would you like to be?” He wanted to be a Miami drug lord, so I designed a house for him that reflected that lifestyle. He was overjoyed. It was like the druglord became apparent in the house. You could see it, get it, feel it.

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What gets you out of bed in the morning? What inspires you?

I want to give people what they want. Look past the big TV, but they would rather be. And I can express that in their houses. Every house on this wall is remarkably different, and that’s because I am interpreting each client’s needs and response. Some people say there is a similarity, and I’m not sure what that is, because I just see the differences. I like the calls where it’s six month after I’ve delivered the house, and my client calls and says “the sun is coming through the window in the kitchen, I just made the most delicious omelette of my life and I’m eating it now. Thank you!”

A fascinating enrichment to the city inspires me. If you take 16th and Granville, it used to be a wooded lot and now there is something akin to English style row homes. I think being able to enrich the city fascinates me. Being able to walk through the city and see the various projects that I created.

Advice for new architect students?

Work hard, you need for any job at any level. No substitute. Love what you do. If you’d rather do something else, do it. Be curious the world around, and how that world impacts the people that are using that world, how the built form impacts people, increase happiness and pleasure of people.

Why the expansion to Boutique Properties?

Let’s talk about the genealogy of how I got here. When I first started out in the industry, I focused on single-family housing, after doing sundeck and garage additions, smaller projects like that. Then I moved onto larger houses, character homes and really enjoyed the process. And the turning point was when I paired up with Polygon to translate this to multi-family homes. We have been working with them for 20 years and was enjoying the collaboration very much. I believe our efforts lead to the raising of the bar for townhomes. Our goal was to translate the character of single family homes into multi-family projects. I realized that I have an aptitude and instinct for doing it for myself. We are focused on boutique exclusively, no highrises and we’re not redeveloping a big section of the city. We look for places that are practically bottom of the barrel, where there is not much competition. The Boutique Properties branch allows me to be creative without being dictated to by the client.

We focus solely on boutique homes, not high-rises. And I do love the freedom of being able to create something that is uniquely my vision. And it’s fun. The reward in being architect, for me, is to be able to walk down the street, see a nice building and think to myself, I did that.

A building is not a balance sheet, a legal dissertation, no academic value but, it stands the test of time. It’s a reflection of how I think as well my form of artistic expression. And ultimately, it’s also my marketing department. If you Googled “Residential architecture Vancouver “, we wouldn’t come up in the Top 20. However, we have built more single-family houses than anyone in Vancouver in the history of the city. I will only work on a building if it has character, or else I’m not providing value or service to my clients. I will only work on projects where I feel I can add value.

We were asked to do a commercial project on 5th Avenue and I rarely turn down the opportunity to do something for somebody. And we agreed because it was a character commercial building, not a mall or boring office building. Character is key to what I do.

Have a question or comment for Jim Bussey? Use the comment section below.