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Drawing From Experience

Wensley Architecture is a mid-sized firm that produces big results on all its projects

At a time when the trend is towards consolidation into large ‘corporate’ architecture firms, it takes a careful balancing act to remain independent, yet retain enough talent and wherewithal to be able to compete for a wide range of projects.

 Such is the case with Vancouver-based Wensley Architecture Ltd (WA). WA is a mid-size firm that caters to a wide range of project types beyond its long-standing specialty for retail and shopping centre design, including an array of residential, office and senior health-care projects. “Ever since Neil Banich and I took over in 2001, one of our main goals has been to become a significant player in a number of other sectors,” says principal Barry Weih. “To accomplish this we developed a team with diverse talents and experience that could deliver in these areas. One key decision was to expand our management and design expertise by adding two associates, David Echaiz-McGrath and Joel Smith, who have really helped us build the firm.”

WA achieves an ideal middle ground between the large conglomerates and boutique companies, and enjoys the strengths of both. In addition to delivering big projects on time and on budget it’s nimble enough to respond to changing needs and evolving trends, while retaining personal working relationships with clients. Governing Weih and Banich’s activities is a commitment to understanding client goals and to follow through efficiently. “We treat every project as unique, and foster a practical approach–which is not to say that we don’t make the most of every design opportunity,” says Banich. “We strongly believe that no matter what the building is for it should benefit the larger community as well as end users.” 

This philosophy has resulted in a steady stream of repeat clients, and a portfolio of notable accomplishments. The duo cites the recently completed City Centre 1 project as one example. City Centre 1 is a 12-storey medical-office building of approximately 183,000 square feet, targeting LEED Gold certification, developed and constructed by the Lark Group to serve the evolving Surrey Memorial Hospital precinct. Weih emphasizes the importance of good interaction between architects and developers. “We find that great projects come from great relationships with our clients and partners,” he explains. “Our work with the Lark Group is a perfect example. We’ve worked together as a team, along with key consultants and stakeholders, on several major projects including City Centre 1 and Laurel Place Care Facility, with excellent results.”

Laurel Place Care Facility is a seniors’ complex-care building in the Surrey Memorial Hospital ‘campus of care’ zone. It consists of 227 care beds including a hospice with resident amenities in a courtyard scheme. “We joint-ventured with M.Saar Architecture for the design of Laurel Place and for Kinsmen Lodge, another seniors’ care facility. Matti Saar’s background in seniors’ health-care was an important factor in the success of these projects, says Weih. “In our profession, many big projects are often the handiwork of a team of mid-sized architecture companies, and that’s one way we’re able to compete successfully with the big design firms”. Seniors’ health-care projects like Kinsmen and Laurel Place have proven to be fulfilling endeavors for WA. “This helps to balance our work in other sectors, such as commercial and residential”.

Weih adds, “Our work in retail with companies such as Wesbild Holdings, First Capital Asset Management, Sobeys Developments, and many others, will always be an important part of our practice. We think Garibaldi Village in Squamish and Crown Isle Shopping Centre in Courtenay are among the best retail projects out there for that type of product.” Banich is quick to emphasize that despite the prevalence of e-shopping, retail has more creative brick and mortar facets than ever, from lifestyle malls to intimate retail design settings. “We’re careful to stay up-to-date on all the latest trends affecting the retail sector,” he says. “In particular mixed-use is a big consideration for most urban retail projects these days.”

[pagebreak]Weih and Banich have broadened the firm’s geographic focus beyond the Lower Mainland. In 2006 they opened an office on Vancouver Island, in part due to the demand for new residential buildings in the area. The WA team has completed over 15 multi-family buildings on the island in recent years, as well as residential projects throughout the Lower Mainland, BC, and in Edmonton. “We have a great team with a lot of experience in all types of residential design, from single-family to high-rise”, says Weih. We often work with residential developers who operate on a ‘design- build model’, where the developer is also the builder.” He cites some noteworthy projects such as The Granderson in Langford, and VIA in New Westminster, both of which were nominated for design awards, and the upcoming Cap West project in North Vancouver.

The digital environment makes it easier to work beyond our immediate geographical area, and allows our Vancouver and Victoria offices to collaborate on projects,” notes Weih. Though he acknowledges the importance of staying current with technological developments such as BIM, Weih points out that, “at the end of the day these are only tools. There’s no substitute for effective dialogue with a client, or the creative process that happens when a designer synthesizes a client’s ideas into an artistic building expression.”

The dramatic growth in West Coast cities continues to create areas of opportunity for WA. “Langford just outside of Victoria is a case in point,” says Weih. “It’s a major growth hub, like Surrey and many other communities. We find that most municipalities encourage new business, and policy-makers actively seek ways to create great projects. Collaborating with people who are so motivated is very rewarding.”

Weih and Banich credit their company’s founder, B. James Wensley, with providing the inspiration behind the firm. ‘B. James’ was one of the foremost architects in Western Canada from the 1960s through the 1980s, a pioneer in modern shopping centre design and a major contributor to Edmonton’s skyline. “Neil joined the company in 1989 and I came along in 1991, and we regarded Jim not only as a mentor but as someone who created a strong legacy in the design and development community. That really helped us get started,” says Weih. “His passion for design combined with his skill for the business side of the profession influenced us enormously, as did his conviction that architects need to focus on the design ends of the client.” Wensley passed away in 2009.

Weih and Banich clicked as business partners from the outset. “Barry has a great ability to organize projects and run the office,” says Banich. “I provide the colour, and we rein each other in when necessary.” Weih says of Banich, “Neil often works his design magic under tight deadlines, and he always delivers.” With its diverse and talented team including associates Echaiz-McGrath and Smith, WA is well prepared to handle the challenge of expanding their vision and practice. In addition to the day-to-day focus on growing and managing their business, staying at the forefront of sustainable building design practice is essential. “There are important big-picture issues around sustainable design, and jurisdictions have increasingly stringent energy regulations, plus some major clients now have a corporate mandate for LEED,” says Weih.

Despite ongoing consolidations in the industry, Weih and Banich are confident about the future of WA and other mid-sized firms. “We believe the architecture business will always be a place where talent and dedication are as important as the size of a company,” says the former. “This is a strong motivator for new professionals entering practice and tends to level the playing field. There will always be room for an entrepreneurial spirit in architecture.”