May 25, 2020

Grey Days and Grey Ways: Vancouver’s Default Colour

Some selected pictures of residential highrise development around the region, taken in the last month or so.  See anything in common?

(Click more for pictures.)

West End




City of North Vancouver



Granville Slopes (Downtown South)


New Yaletown (Downtown South)




Beach (Downtown South)


Grey, grey, grey- running the gamut from blue-grey to green-grey.

PT has asked before: why is grey the default colour for developers and architects in Vancouver, and why has it been that way for half a century?

The last remnants of Expo ’86

In 2009, Vancouver writer Doug Copeland titled us “City of Glass.”  It’s our cliche.


Is it because it’s the cheapest alternative?  Is it considered inoffensive, the curtain-wall equivalent of beige?  Is it our culture – a desire to not stand out in a climate that itself is mild and grey?

I asked urban planner Michael Mortensen for this theory, and he in turn passed the question around to architects, planners and developers.  Here’s the first response:

“ If I had to guess, it’s because grey blends with darkened windows and this is a way of disguising the many millions required by the Window Wall manufacturers (it is a crappy system that has endless limitations on panel sizes that can be achieved).

Vancouvers residential towers look very much alike not because of a lack of imagination, it’s because we are all sentenced to work with cheapest of building systems.

But that’s just a guess . . .”

More to come.  PT welcomes your theories and responses as well.




Posted in


If you love this region and have a view to its future please subscribe, donate, or become a Patron.

Share on


  1. Arthur Erickson.

    He loved the greyness of Vancouver’s climate and promoted the continuity through extensive use of concrete and glass and not much else but the lush greenery of nature to complete the picture. In one documentary I’ve seen it is pretty much his opening words.

  2. Grey is the natural colour of concrete. Concrete is a common construction material for large buildings. To build with a different colour would probably cost more, and would ruffle some feathers.

  3. You ever been to a Design Review Panel meeting? Grey elicits the fewest questions, the fewest objections, and the fewest design iterations. Architects and developers know what works and go with it.

  4. I heard it’s a bit like selling one’s house. That is, get rid of everything that is creative, like stain and carved trim, and replace everything with materials that offend no one rather than impress that special creative someone. After all, aren’t most of these just going to be bland investments for people that couldn’t care less if the condos are attractive?

  5. It’s an evolution of the standard palette – remember in 2009 when Copeland coined ‘City of Glass’ it was the generic green glass condos he was referring to. They were green because it was the cheapest tint available in order to meet the then very minimal energy standards. Nowadays energy requirements are ramping up (although condo developer still get a huge break compared to single family or institutional projects) and the LowE glass coatings come in a variety of colors and transparencies. You can even get very well performing clear coatings – although beyond the budget of most developers.
    It seems to me if the default is colored glass tints and cheap ‘Window Wall’ in lieu of high performance coatings and real ‘curtain wall ‘ grey is still preferable to green.

  6. When the sky is grey, neutral tint building glass reflects grey light. When the sky is bright blue, neutral tint building glass reflects blue light. When the sky is full of white puffy clouds then neutral tint building glass becomes animated with blue and white light. All these effects can be seen in the photos in varying degrees depending on the skylight- diffuse or focused, the time of day, the location of the camera, and the specifics of materials.

    There are a few high-rise buildings with tinted glass. The rose coloured building on Alberni Street comes to mind. One wonders though what it is like to live behind a rose coloured curtain wall.

    The use of concrete as a building material is based on many factors: non-combustibility, strength and endurance, texture etc. it just happens to be a material that is grey in colour. Grey is not the default colour of developers, it’s just that we use a lot of concrete, it’s everywhere and it stands out when we build above the tree canopy..

  7. The greyness is not just the colour of concrete, very little of the raw concrete is left showing after all, and is not just the colour of the sky, although that part is quite right. It has more to do with the architectural fear of anything that isn’t bland. Particularly in this city. Architecture’s official orthodoxy forbids any decoration or ornamentation that is acknowledged as such. Decoration has to take the form of material choice and massing and has to explained away as a part of function or program. Using actual colour would force architects to come out and admit: “yes, we decorate.”

    But in this town in particular, like other places that have grey climates, architects really do need to come out and embrace a bit of colour. Nordic countries, Slavic countries and traditional Newfoundland have colourful towns for the very reason that we need them, it livens the place up when the weather conspires to deaden.

    Now in a nod to good sense, I will admit that the bigger the building probably means the more muted the colour. You can ignore art if you don’t like it, but buildings are not like that.

Subscribe to Viewpoint Vancouver

Get breaking news and fresh views, direct to your inbox.

Join 7,314 other subscribers

Show your Support

Check our Patreon page for stylish coffee mugs, private city tours, and more – or, make a one-time or recurring donation. Thank you for helping shape this place we love.

Popular Articles

See All

All Articles