The six-story mixed-use Yu building at the University of British Columbia is organized aroung a three-tiered courtyard to maximize natural light in all units. (Latreille Delage Photography/Perkins-Will)

The six-story mixed-use Yu building at the University of British Columbia is organized aroung a three-tiered courtyard to maximize natural light in all units. (Latreille Delage Photography/Perkins-Will)

A strong Asian presence in the marketplace prompts Vancouver real estate practitioners to turn to feng shui principles.

It was about four or five years ago when Vancouver feng shui consultant Marlyna Los experienced an uptick in calls from area real estate agents and developers. “They had bought a lot on spec and had developed it, or flipped a house and tried to get it ready for a sale, because the house next door had sold for up to 20 to 30 percent more than asking price,” she says. “And yet when they put their own property on the market, they were not getting the same premium.”

What was the difference? The house next door was perceived as having good feng shui.

An ancient Chinese art developed to help people live in harmony with their environment, feng shui has its roots in Taoist philosophy, which similarly emphasizes harmony with nature. Practitioners draw on a complex array of traditional principles and methods to analyze the positive and destructive energies that flow through a given location.

In Chinese, feng means wind and shui means water. Land forms, such as mountains, rocks, and buildings, shape the flow of wind and therefore energy. The most propitious site for a dwelling lies in a protected relationship with other landforms—for example, the top of a ridge or a cliff would be considered an unprotected spot for a house, while proximity to rolling hills, forests, or round buildings can provide good energy. The goal of feng shui is to balance the energies of a specific place to provide health and good fortune to the people who will inhabit it.

Los tells her clients that location plays the biggest role in feng shui. “Seventy percent of the energy inside a house is determined by the energy outside,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what you do in the house if the outside location doesn’t have good feng shui.”

The Vancouver area is known for its excellent feng shui, according to Vancouver-based feng shui consultant Sherman Tai. The North Shore Mountains and the waters of the Salish Sea both provide good energy. “We have relatively fewer natural disasters like earthquakes or snowstorms or hurricanes,” he says. “Geographically, from a feng shui point of view, British Columbia is a lucky place.”

These factors made the area attractive to immigrants from countries where familiarity with feng shui is prevalent. During China’s Mao era, the communists banned feng shui as part of a larger effort to stamp out old traditions, and so awareness of the practice among current generations is not as widespread in mainland China as it is in some other Asian countries. “Most of the feng shui masters fled to Malaysia and Taiwan and Hong Kong,” Los says. During the 1980s, after the British government agreed to let Hong Kong revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, emigration from Hong Kong accelerated. Many of the new arrivals sought to purchase sites and buildings that aligned with feng shui principles.

Residents and visitors traverse a bridge over a water feature before entering the building lobby. (Latrielle Delage Photography/Perkins + Will)

Residents and visitors traverse a bridge over a water feature before entering the building lobby. (Latrielle Delage Photography/Perkins + Will)

Elements of Feng Shui

In 1997, the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, British Columbia, hired Tai to advise architects on the design of a new city hall. Chinese-speaking people made up one-third of the city’s population. Tai made a variety of recommendations, including rounding the edges of the water feature near the entrance and eliminating the fireplace from the atrium. Completed in 2000, the city hall was believed to be the first municipal building in the province to involve a feng shui consultant.

Originally a mechanical engineer, Tai has been offering feng shui consulting since emigrating from Hong Kong to Canada in 1990. His clients include HSBC in Canada and a variety of private developers. He consulted on the design of the Richmond Olympic Oval for the 2010 Winter Olympics as well as multifamily residential projects under construction around the Oval.

Feng shui is not a religion or superstition, says Tai. “Feng shui is only the skill of living that has been used for thousands of years and that can create a harmonic and happy living environment.” When called to analyze a property, Tai visits the site and measures all the relevant data and information and then gives recommendations. “I consider the landscaping and all the relevant arrangements, including the colors, the materials, and how you can balance the five elements, because feng shui depends on the unity of the five elements—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth,” he says. “Then I coordinate with the interior designer and the architectural team and I give recommendations according to my measurements.”

It is difficult to make generalizations about applying feng shui, because every project is different depending on its site. “I cannot apply the same theory I use in Hong Kong to New York or Vancouver, because the geography is different,” Tai says. “Even the weather, temperature, [and] humidity are different. So we have our own principles or phenomena to calculate depending on the kind of environment.”

In addition to responding to the site’s geography, the feng shui principles applied vary depending on the building’s use. “A school has a different type of feng shui principles than an old folks’ home,” Los says. “A hospital has a different set of feng shui principles in the sense that it’s being supported by public money. So making sure it makes money isn’t the goal of the feng shui, it’s getting people healthy.”

Los has worked on several health care projects for the Lark Group, a property development, construction, and management company headquartered in Surrey, British Columbia. For one recent assignment, she was asked to give input into the company’s bid to build a new mental health facility at Vancouver General Hospital. “I indicated where I wanted the front door to be, where I wanted the elevators to be, the traffic flow through the building,” she says. “There are formulas that guide us in how to direct traffic through a building. It’s all dependent on the outside features—where’s the highest land form, where’s the lowest land form? A lot of it is actually common sense as well. The architects went from there and created the plan.”

Tranquility at Home: Harmony

Feng shui’s emphasis on balance can appeal to consumers’ desire for tranquil living environments. The marketing website for Harmony—a 16-story residential tower in Richmond being developed by local firm Townline and the Vancouver-based Peterson Group—highlights the calming advantages of the site’s water feature and bridge, yoga rooms, and 15,000-square-foot (1,400 sq m) rooftop deck with a trellised Zen garden.

In designing the building, Vancouver firm Rafii Architects drew inspiration from Chinese culture, with vertical strips of punched metalwork running up the exterior, referencing paper-cutting traditions.

Foad Rafii, principal of Rafii Architects, says he has been incorporating aspects of feng shui into residential buildings for nearly three decades. “We have been working so many years here that we know quite a bit about the basics of feng shui.” But if a high proportion of the market for a project consists of a population that the developer believes values feng shui, then a feng shui expert will be brought on board as well.

In this case, Tai was brought in to review the design for Harmony. Rafii says that Tai had the architects rotate the tower eight degrees from its original position to better align the orientation with surrounding land forms. Public art that was part of the project was also reviewed to ensure it did not go against feng shui principles.

Extensive landscaping affords residents views of and access to nature at the Yu building. (Latrielle Delage Photography/Perkins +Will)

Extensive landscaping affords residents views of and access to nature at the Yu building. (Latrielle Delage Photography/Perkins +Will)

Balance in the Landscape: Concord Gardens

Concord Gardens, a multitower master-planned community in Richmond designed by Vancouver-based GBL Architects, includes a 68,000-square-foot (6,300 sq m) community park. Locally based Concord Pacific Developments involved feng shui consultant Tai to review the landscape design, according to Derek Lee, principal of PWL Partnership Landscape Architects. Concord Pacific has a long history of designing projects that draw on feng shui principles, and many of the buyers to whom Concord Pacific caters are from Asia, he says. Although the development company is based in Vancouver, its principal shareholder is Hong Kong–based investor Li Ka-shing.

Tai reviewed the overall design concepts for the open spaces, streetscapes, courtyards, and park spaces. “He took into consideration the elements that we were using,” Lee says. “So for example, we are balancing water, hard landscaping, and soft landscaping, and he looked at them in the context of qi—energy flow—and had insightful ideas about how those elements work together.”

Water plays a significant role in the landscaping, referencing Richmond’s status as an alluvial archipelago. “We wanted to celebrate that in the courtyards and the park,” Lee says. “We knew that we were creating streams, and the water features needed to have some directionality to them. Feng shui helped us organize that framework of water and decide where it needs to pool.” In feng shui, it is preferable to have water flow toward the site rather than away, because water represents good energy. Tai also helped with the balance between hardscaping and softscaping, the placement of boulders, and the selection of the optimal locations for planting. The first phase of Concord Gardens is slated for completion in 2016.

“A lot of the principles lead to good design,” says Lee. “I think that whether a client is requesting it or not, it’s certainly something that we would want to use more and more.”

Sustainability and Feng Shui: Yu

A number of the principles of feng shui are congruent with the principles of green design. The design of Yu, a mixed-use building in the Wesbrook Village neighborhood of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, reflects the overlap. The local office of Perkins+Will designed Yu as Beijing-based developer Modern Green’s first residential project outside China. Completed in 2012, the six-story building includes 90 one- to three-bedroom condominiums, 16 townhouses, and a ground-floor research and development center intended to showcase sustainable technologies.

The project’s dual focus is exemplified in the building’s name, Yu. “Yu is ‘jade’ in Chinese,” says Horace Lau, Perkins+Will’s regional development manager for the Asia Pacific region. “In feng shui, jade has been used for its abilities to create a feeling of harmony and balance. Jade is also used as a protection and good luck feng shui stone.” In addition, jade’s color is meant to reference the project’s emphasis on sustainable design; the project is targeting gold certification under the university’s own Residential Environmental Assessment Program (REAP) green rating system.

The building is configured around three courtyards, which gives every residence at least some southern exposure to facilitate natural daylighting, and it allows for cross-ventilation in all units. “Cross-ventilation is one of the best ways to encourage natural airflow through a room without mechanical assistance,” Lau says. “So that’s feng. Shui is water. In Yu, there are a lot of fountains in the southeast corner of the building. As a rule, in feng shui, water elements are most welcomed in the north, east, or southeast. Water represents good fortune.” The water is placed so that visitors walk across the water feature via a bridge before entering the lobby. “The fountains are placed by the residential lobby area, so every day you go in and out and hear the sound of the water. Clear water, especially when moving, attracts qi. Qi, in turn, attracts oxygen, which allows negative ions to fill the air. This is why we find it energizing to be by water like an ocean or a waterfall.”

A rendering of Harmony, a 16-story residential tower in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. The building is set back from the street and incorporates extensive landscaping to help create a relaxing experience for occupants. (Rafii Architects)

A rendering of Harmony, a 16-story residential tower in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. The building is set back from the street and incorporates extensive landscaping to help create a relaxing experience for occupants. (Rafii Architects)

Ancient Principles, Global Practice

As China’s economy slows, the country’s wealthiest investors are moving more of their money into commercial real estate around the globe. Recent high-profile purchases include the Shanghai-based Fosun International’s purchase of One Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York for $725 million last fall and Hong Kong–based Chow Tai Fook Endowment Industry Investment Development’s purchase of a $1.9 billion portion of the Dubai Pearl mixed-use community in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year. These kinds of investments may bring an even more widespread application of feng shui principles to the built environment around the world.

However, that depends on the individual investor’s preferences, just as it does in Vancouver. “One of the misconceptions I find is that the Chinese all follow those principles of feng shui, and that’s not necessarily true,” says Lee. “We’ve experienced immigration in Vancouver with different demographics. Back in the early 1980s and 1990s, a lot of the Chinese who had moved here came from Hong Kong, and because Hong Kong never experienced the Cultural Revolution, the culture of feng shui was thriving there.” But in the last ten or 15 years, Lee notes, the demographic group has changed. “We’re experiencing a lot of immigration from mainland China. The mainland Chinese—especially this new generation—has had no real experience with those traditional forms of feng shui and other principles, simply because of the Cultural Revolution.”

In addition, feng shui is not something that only the Chinese are interested in, Tai notes. “Whether you’re Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, African, all kinds of human beings would like to have a harmonic and happy living environment.” In his experience, feng shui is even bigger in Los Angeles and New York than in British Columbia. “Especially New York, especially the financial companies—they have been using feng shui for more than 20 years, in a low-profile way.”

As the global economy expands—partly fueled by China’s rise—and transforms businesses and cultures around the world, perhaps it is no surprise that more Western countries are looking to these ancient traditions for help navigating the complexities of contemporary life. “The old feng shui masters used to walk the mountains to look for where the qi was,” Los says. “Today, because we live in temperature-regulated buildings, food is bought at the grocery store, water is pumped hundreds of miles, and electricity . . . we have no idea where energy comes from. So we choose to live in places that don’t support us. But there’s still the principle that the environment has energy. The Asian masters would say that where you live has a 33 percent effect on your destiny. The Chinese don’t see destiny as a random event. They see luck as something that you can create.”

Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture and urban planning writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.