In the wake of the Olympics building boom, B.C.’s top architectural firms are being forced to look elsewhere for growth. Many are pinning their hopes on an expanded global practice.
It’s October and David Thom is talking about the globalization of the architecture business. It’s an appropriate topic because the managing partner of IBI Group is strolling down a street in London, where the firm recently acquired Nightingale Associates, the U.K.’s largest architectural practice specializing in health-care, science and education. The London trip worked out especially well because it enabled Thom to breakfast with another of IBI’s managing partners, who happened to be passing through en route from the Middle East to Toronto, where he makes his base. The third, incidentally, lives in Israel.
As he walks along, Thom takes me through an assessment of the various places IBI does business. “Canada has been pretty good for us,” he says, adding that eastern Europe is also strong and he’s very optimistic about China and especially India, countries that the firm divides about 85 employees between. On the other hand, “the U.S. has been pounded.” About a quarter of the company’s employees are based stateside, so that’s not ideal. Then again, says Thom, with many U.S. firms in trouble, “we look upon it as a real opportunity to grow cost-effectively.”
With about 2,700 employees (making it the fourth- or sixth-largest practice in the world, depending on measurement methodology), IBI Group is not typical of B.C.’s industry. For one thing, it’s an income trust registered in Ontario, even if the planning and architecture arm that accounts for two-thirds of the firm’s business is run in large part out of Vancouver. The company’s 70-or-so offices around the world are organized in what Thom describes as an “integrated matrix” or “virtual studio,” which allows staff to work on any projects that require their expertise, wherever they happen to be located. Among other advantages, this enables a true 24-7 work environment, thanks to all those offices and time zones. But with 135 employees, the Vancouver office is one of the firm’s largest, hosting significant IT and other support functions and representing home for Thom in his senior management role.
IBI is a one-off global juggernaut with few parallels in Canada, let alone the province. That said, Thom’s London trip is in keeping with the routines followed by increasing numbers of B.C. architects. While a majority of the province’s firms are small offices or sole proprietorships, there are also dozens of larger firms, and many of these are finding they must expand well beyond provincial borders, if they haven’t done so already.
Of course, there have always been a few globetrotting starchitects, a class once exemplified locally by Arthur Erickson. But the current globalization imperative is much more widespread. It has been necessitated by the increasingly complicated size and nature of architectural commissions, with their highly specialized applications, complex sustainability requirements and, in many cases, design-build arrangements that turn architects into project managers if not indeed developers.