t all started on farms, and farms is where it continues.
For the last four years, Tracey Mactavish and Asher DeGroot have helmed Vancouver-based Motiv Architects: an agriculture-focused firm operating out of the heritage Hamilton Bank Building on Powell Street. But the designers’ partnership first began in 2008, under the auspices of a mutual former employer, which assigned them both to North Vancouver’s City Hall project. It was there, working on the Governor General Medal-winning community building, that Mactavish and DeGroot realized the similarities between their experiences and goals.
She spent her early life on a working farm in rural Alberta, feeling “very connected to the land and the seasons.” He, meanwhile, grew up on a hobby farm in Langley, fantasizing about an architecture career while still playing with Lego. They both attended graduate programs at Halifax’s Dalhousie University School of Architecture, attracted by the emphasis on engaging students in hands-on builds. Both also felt drawn to agricultural architecture—specifically, the way good design can create and affirm connections to the land and foodways, and transform communities big and small.
“We started to realize that we had these overlapping histories and connections to the land,” says DeGroot, “and right from the start that was important to us—though at the time maybe we didn’t know where that was taking us.”
Years later, when first DeGroot and later Mactavish decided to leave their respective roles at established local architecture firms, they discussed becoming a dedicated team. “Where those conversations got to is: how could we start to look at city building and urbanism with the lens of more of a remote context?” says Mactavish. It’s an interesting question, and one that not a lot of firms are answering.
“I really saw that kind of agricultural knowledge and our ability to speak that language and engage with building in the more rural context; it was something that we were interested in bringing to the practice right from the start,” adds DeGroot. “And the importance of food within that context is something we talked about a lot in the beginning: that food has the ability to bring people together and to create a community.” In 2017 the pair launched Motiv, and began pursuing projects integrating education, agriculture, and housing.
One such project is Southlands, an innovative residential-commercial agri-hood. “Its whole ethos is really agricultural urbanism,” explains Mactavish. “Everything is about farming and food and bringing people back to the land and knowing where their food comes from.” The project is part housing, part market, and part working farm, with smaller spaces in between—such as a food business incubator site that Motiv is designing for fledgling entrepreneurs to use as a storefront while developing their brands. Mactavish and DeGroot are also working on the site’s Four Winds brewery hall, which abuts a woonerf: a kind of predominantly car-free, curb-less “living street” where pedestrians may stroll and admire edible landscaping featuring native blueberry bushes, barley, and apple trees.
Agri-hoods like Southlands are one (albeit effective) way of integrating agricultural and urban life. In 2020, Mactavish and DeGroot taught a studio at the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture; it culminated in the creation of a working dairy farm with vertical agriculture, and a farm market in Hasting’s Park in partnership with the Pacific National Exhibition. The project demonstrated the ways that urban space can be used more efficiently to produce food, including animal products. It may sound unusual, but DeGroot points out that the Brazilian city of Curitiba has introduced sheep and shepherds into its urban green spaces to positive effect. As communities increasingly prioritize resilience, food chain security, and sustainability, mainstream interest in innovative urban-agriculture projects like these is growing.
A highly personal Motiv project for DeGroot has been Swallowfield: a contemporary barn created on his parents’ Langley property after the unfortunate destruction of their 100-year-old building some decades past. “We always mourned the loss of that beautiful space we had parties in,” says DeGroot, “and talked about the potential of building something that could be more than just a space to provide for the cows, but a community space—that it could host a concert or an art show, or a long table dinner for 50 people.”
The process of the build itself became an opportunity for connection, with about 40 locals coming together to raise Swallowfield barn and share in a meal of roast pig. “Everyone, whether they worked for 10 days or put up one sheet of plywood, they feel like this is their place and that they had a part in it. It matters to them,” says DeGroot of the barn, which features an asymmetrical cathedral roof and is clad in reclaimed Douglas fir siding. It’s a study of modernization through the lens of rural nostalgia—an elevation of a type of space often overlooked by design, and an apt reflection of Motiv’s community-oriented approach to builds.
More invigorating projects are ahead for the studio, including the construction of Tofino’s new Clayoquot Biosphere Centre—a community space featuring a teaching kitchen for traditional Indigenous recipes and preservation processes—and the creation of a functioning farm and barn to support Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Sustainable Agriculture program.
“We would love, in five or 10 years, if someone in the Lower Mainland is working on a food or agriculture project that needs design, to be part of that conversation,” says DeGroot. Given the magic of their work thus far, that seems highly likely. With a true vision for a more integrated future, Motiv is bringing thoughtful agricultural design into a new reality.