Monthly Archives: July 2011

Dickens’ Muse Lives Here

Muses inhabit this part of town. Urban myths of the tough and gritty city are born here.  Even though this place is great for raspy voiced poetry, it is not what we want our real city to be like. This harsh streetscape, lined with a mix of businesses that could use a facelift, makes me wonder how it came to this. I would have thought that a mixed use block of tight knit commercial, with residential on the second floor, near two schools,  a church, a supermarket, varied housing, and an assortment of businesses, all within walking distance to each other, would have been enough to help maintain higher standards. Is it that the street’s balance is tilted to accommodate driving, at the expense of walking? Is it that the neighbourhood hasn’t been able to take ownership of its streets? Or is it that it has entered a cycle of neglect that has infected all the pieces that make up the street?

The empty storefront of a second hand clothing store advertises the contradictions of this site with eloquence. Is that decrepit sign of VERSE, with the first E falling down, there to remind us of the poetic potential of urban decay, or is it just falling down and no one cares?

Designing Our Way Forward

I recently reviewed some of the documentation we produced last year while searching for a new team member for our design firm. As part of the exercise, we asked our shortlisted candidates to submit questions to us, and we shared our answers with all candidates during that phase of the search (which they found refreshing and interesting).

One of the questions put to us was about the downturn of 08 and 09, and how we saw ourselves going forward as a firm. In rereading it this week, I find our answer as apt as ever, so I thought I’d share it.

The recent uncertainty of our economy affected everyone …….

what would you say are the significant strengths, challenges, opportunities

and threats your firm faces within the next five years

and what strategic plans have been set to address them?

My answer at the time, and even now, is this.

I believe the strength we have, as a profession and particularly as a design firm, is our ability to think strategically and see possibilities for relationships and integration that others may not see. Others are trained differently, and often concentrate on a linear, causal linking of things rather than striving for non-linear, integrated relationships. I think the future is bright for our profession, and for design as a way of creating solutions. To succeed, however, we must pursue the opportunities where they arise, and expand the types of projects and situations where our skills can be brought to bear. Since our firm enjoys learning in all its forms, I think we are suited to this.

Our indebted and unsustainable society needs solutions that are integrated, that balance priorities rather than accomplish them individually, and that can make 3 out of 1 and 1 more than ever. Our resources will get scarcer and we will realize that wasteful solutions in whatever field, and solutions that simply pass along problems to others, no longer be sustained. I think we are well-placed to use our skills, as long as they can be appreciated in the marketplace for the value they have. Everyone values product, but great processes are not always supported willingly. We have to make a living to be able to continue offering service.

Architects love what they do, and price themselves very cheaply. We often fight over the work and undercut one another on fees. We really enjoy and believe in what we do, so sometimes we give it away. That’s an enormous problem. The profession often overpromises and constantly overdelivers on important project issues that the client may not even be aware of, while potentially underdelivering on some significant and obvious issues. Think of how consumers buy a house. It’s not usually for the great (or not so great) but unseen construction. It’s often for the skin deep finishes. The appearance of quality can be different from real, longlasting value, but the architect has to deliver them both. Our project role is very central and we are often imposed upon by all sides in the construction equation, from contractor to owner to authority to technical subconsultants. Economic downturns cause everyone in the project chain to cut things even closer to the bone, and cause clients to look for the cheapest way forward in the short term. Those two actions don’t make for longlasting, sustainable buildings and cities of quality.

Our strategy is to consistently seek opportunities (whether in building projects, urban projects, development, or even object and graphic design) that allow us to demonstrate the value of “thinking better, to build better, to enjoy the benefits”. Our clients work hard, and appreciate the indepth understanding that they get from rolling up their sleeves alongside us. The pool of activities that architects are involved with is so small that we are better off pursuing projects at the pool’s edge, and enlarging the pool, than fighting over the contents of the present pool. Our strategies are hopefully tuned to do that.

What are your experiences in the face of these challenges? We’d love your feedback.

Our Treehouse

As a feature project, John MacDonald Architect, along with Storeworks has undertaken the redesign of a residential property here in Kitchener. Located in the  St. Mary’s Historic Conservation District, the home was built in 1948 and features the appeal and charm common to the wartime houses in the neighbourhood.

In need of some TLC, the property is undergoing a total gut and re-design. Featured as a design storm project at JMA, numerous options were discussed and debated with design team members, local realtors, home stagers, and members of the public. Given that the property was built in the 1950s certain amenity and features were missing in the home that most feel are ‘givens’ so to speak, in more recent construction. Features such as an upper floor bathroom, an open concept floor plan and a finished basement were all design elements highlighted by the design storm. In keeping with the heritage designation, and the general aesthetic of the neighbourhood, the exterior finishes were decided early on to be minimal and true to the original colour palate. New siding, new windows and doors and a new roof are the major components of the work in the re-design of the exterior.

Given that the idea was for this to truly be an ‘office’ project, John has taken up the new role as general contractor for the project. Beginning with the total gut, and demolition of the interior walls, flooring, ceilings and the back half of the roof (in order to accommodate the new second storey addition), the project has progressed through to framing, and is currently in the process of being re-roofed (literally as we speak!). In the coming weeks our team will work on electrical, plumbing and mechanical work, followed by drywalling, flooring and finishes- working to a fall completion date.

We’ll be providing updates form time to time on how the project is progressing and the various features we’ll be incorporating that relate to design, history, sustainability and just plain fun.

Like most homeowners we already have a taste of the  joys of renovation and contracting with trades 🙂

In the end, we’ll have a great step by step record of the project in photos and blog posts and we’d love to have you come by for a tour once its all done. Stay posted!