By Tina Barton
Architecture. When you encounter this word, what comes to mind?
The typical non-architect might think: Buildings. Bridges. Community disputes…
To many, architecture represents a mysterious industry from which all shiny, tall buildings sprout. But architecture is so much more. It is a cornerstone of society, fusing the themes of history, modernity, futurism, culture and art.
With Ottawa Architecture Week on the horizon (September 29 – October 5, 2014), it’s time to bring insider perspectives to the outside world. Several members of the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects (ORSA) shared their views on everything from the fundamentals of architecture to industry myths. (Biggest misconception? That all architects are rich).
From this column, the public will discover the building blocks of architecture; commercial property and home owners will better understand the value of architects and how to successfully work together; industry insiders may learn a “secret” or two about negotiating the machinery of government and approvals.
- Roberto Campos
- Director, Rubin & Rotman (Ottawa)
- Toon Dreessen
- Vice-President, Farrow Dreessen Architects
- Ryan Koolwine
- Principal, project1studio
- Jessie Smith
- Associate, CSV Architects
The following selection of responses has been lightly edited and condensed.
1. What are the first considerations for an architect when beginning a new project?
Ryan Koolwine: Whether the project is in keeping with the firm’s strategic goals… if not, then what’s the point? Also, assessing a client’s understanding of the financial and construction processes in place for a development project.
Toon Dreessen: Is the project feasible? Does the client have the resources to carry out this project, or are they looking to the architect to do everything and what is the risk to me if I do? Does the client have a realistic timeline and budget?
Roberto Campos: For us, we try not to have too many preconceptions as to what the client might want. Part of our job when working with our clients is to try and flush out what they actually want and need.
2. What’s the typical process for determining the design of a building, and what other considerations need to be taken into account?
Ryan Koolwine: Design is dictated by the intended use of the building, and then a thorough analysis of the immediate context of the project. We want our work to speak to its surroundings; in some cases that means diverging from the existing, and in other cases our response is quieter. Changes to zoning are a constant challenge, but we’ve found that well-considered design that pays attention to the street and to the public realm has a habit of finding its way through a lot of the hurdles that the planning department will put in front of you.
Toon Dreessen: Zoning and land use are a key factor, but not always the first thing as sometimes land use policies have not caught up to design standards, community needs or other factors. Considering the efficiency of the structural and mechanical design is a key factor. Relationships with the community, and the existing and future built form are all considered.
Roberto Campos: Every building type and client type is different. Some want to remain fully invested in the design process with us, which we encourage. Others are very hands off, which isn’t necessarily easier for us as architects. Designing buildings is seldom a singular act and very much the result of a team’s effort.
3. What type of people are involved in such a project, and what role do they each play?
Jessie Smith: The architect – usually the connection point between the client, consultants, and authorities – plays a key role in keeping the project on schedule and on budget. Within the architecture firm, there are technologists and technicians who have a wealth of knowledge about construction methods and do most of the construction detailing and drafting. Intern architects fall somewhere between technologists and architects, depending on their experience level. Interns need to fulfill Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) requirements to gain experience in a range of tasks, including drafting and detailing, site review, costing, and project management.
Toon Dreessen: Recognizing the talents of everyone involved is important. Sometimes the client provides great design ideas without even realizing it. The roles of an intern and project architect combined with the talents of an excellent technologist are key; structural, mechanical, electrical, acoustical and civil engineers are all key too, as are landscape architects, interior designers and, of course, construction managers, who provide valuable input into constructability, past experience and budgets.
4. What’s the average time from conceptualization to breaking ground to completion, or no such thing?
Ryan Koolwine: It can vary drastically. We have one project that will be in construction eight weeks after we were awarded the project. Another might break ground in two years.
Toon Dreessen: On a typical project, I warn clients that while the theoretical time frame for a planning approval is three-to-four months, in practice it is six-to-nine months, not counting Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeals or community opposition. This is in addition to the two-to-three months of concept design that lead up to a typical project before a site plan application is submitted. The timeline can be compressed, as working drawings for permit and tender can be developed during the site plan application review, but in general I tell clients to expect a one-year time frame.
5. What role does the municipal government play in reviewing/facilitating a development?
Jessie Smith: The municipal government regulates the zoning and site plan, administers the building code, issues building permits, reviews the construction progress, and issues occupancy permits. They also identify and protect heritage properties.
Ryan Koolwine: In most cases, municipal government impedes development, and is slow to react to the changing character of urban neighbourhoods. There are some rollouts that are coming, in which the city will initiate the re-zoning of a property, but these are infrequent events. While we understand that the city does need to respond to the demands of the residents of existing mature neighborhoods, the typical response involves reducing the permitted construction envelope, which in turn will have an impact on the architectural quality of these infill projects.
Toon Dreessen: Honestly, I don’t think that other than the permit/development review process (which is generally excellent) municipal staff play any key role that improves things. Municipal planning staff can be very instrumental in the success of a project but, in my humble opinion, are hamstrung by inefficient engineering reviews, conflicting guidelines and design standards, and their job is further hampered by an inefficient and poorly managed Urban Design Review Panel process that provides little added benefit to projects because it comes too late in the process to be effective and, in large part, fails to adequately recognize the context in which some projects are designed, resulting in higher costs to the owner and delayed approvals, costing tax-payers and owners.
6. How much control does the municipal government have in influencing the design?
Ryan Koolwine: In terms of the finer elements of design, such as materials, they have little influence. For larger elements, such as the massing and siting of a building, they can have a huge influence. On the business side, parking requirements, development charges, and cash in-lieu of parkland fees can go a long way in terms of derailing a project. Ottawa also tends to adopt the strictest interpretation of the building code, which in itself has a huge impact on what can be designed.
Toon Dreessen: Unfortunately, too much. There are two basic issues:
(1) When a project complies with zoning and setbacks (i.e., fits on the site and is a permitted use), the “design review” should consist ONLY of technical review and compliance: Do we fit on the site, does the number of parking spaces match what is required, does the stormwater management design work? Then, approval should be received in a month or so, allowing for minor variances from the requirements when needed;
(2) When a project is not a permitted use, or needs to go through a rezoning application, then there needs to be a more efficient design review panel process made up of peers with local experience who understand the local context. Local government can support this through carefully articulated guidelines, such as relating the percentage of open public space to allowances for increased density, or relating the number of social housing units to the total number of units in a building.
7. What role does the provincial government play, if any?
Ryan Koolwine: Not a great deal for the work we do. Smaller developments can receive HST rebates to assist in the pro-forma of a project, but we don’t tend to get too involved in these aspects of the project.
Toon Dreessen: The provincial government needs to address two major issues:
(1) Resolve issues associated with site plan applications to provide better guidance to municipalities and reduce the economic impact of delayed approvals;
(2) Resolve issues of procurement and contracting associated with provincially funded projects, so that a level playing field is provided for everyone.
Jessie Smith: The provincial government writes the building code (which is administered municipally). They also administer environmental protection.
8. What are some of the common challenges, and best practices to overcome them?
Ryan Koolwine: Managing client expectations, and managing workloads. Open and effective communication are the key to both.
Jessie Smith: There is a unique challenge or set of challenges with each project. Knowing or anticipating all the potential landmines that may be encountered in a specific project is the hardest part. Every site has its own set of restrictions and every client has their own quirks. Learning from each experience, sharing knowledge with colleagues, and keeping an open dialogue can help head off potential surprises. This is a career in which you never stop learning.
9. What is the biggest myth about architects?
Ryan Koolwine: That we are rich! Seriously, I think the biggest myth is that architects are expensive. Most of our projects are developments, and in a competitive market you need to find a way to differentiate your product. This is where the value of an architect is often undersold by architects, and overlooked by developers. A good architect can be a catalyst for not only increasing the unit yield of a site, but can also design it in such a way that it becomes appealing. Nicer spaces, nicer projects tend to sell faster. So, if you consider it from this point of view, the architect can create exponentially more value than the cost of their fee.
Toon Dreessen: That we make a lot of money, that we work on really exciting projects that are eye-catching and award winning, and that we live a glamorous lifestyle.
Jessie Smith: That the services of architects are not useful for small projects, our fees are too high, our services are not worth the price. I’ve never understood why people will pay 6% of their house price so readily for a realtor but hesitate to pay the same amount for the professional fees of an architect, whose services will likely save them money in the long run and will result in a much better project.
10. What is the one burning question that hasn’t yet been addressed?
Ryan Koolwine: Why do we do what we do? Because we believe that the quality of the built environment is profoundly important to how people live and interact with each other. We believe that we have the ability to affect change by crafting well-considered projects that are beautiful, efficient and engaging.
Toon Dreessen: Should I encourage someone (like a high school student) to become an architect? Yes, if we can encourage more people to be interested in design, we can help bring back and support a culture of design excellence where suburban tract housing, and bland and uninspiring infill and over-built monstrosities are not acceptable. We can encourage people to think of design and how design affects their life, and the health of the planet through good architecture that helps fight climate change, makes people feel better and more productive. The fact is we are too few, as a proportion of the population, to have a major impact on the Canadian worldview. Encouraging more people to be involved in architecture, and understand how important it is, means that more people will come to see architecture as the valuable cultural marker that it is.
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