B.C. Architects Without Borders

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.

IBI Group managing partner David Thom stands across the street from one of his firm’s major projects: the Ritz building in Vancouver. IBI has a 135-person office in Vancouver and works around the world.

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. 


A rendering of the Wuxi ICI high-tech
industrial park in China, master planned
by IBI Group.

Global architecture trend

And the trend is especially relevant in B.C. During the period leading up to the Olympics, many firms gorged on the building boom, expanding operations and maxing out staff. Hurry-up projects initiated as a result of the federal government’s stimulus program kept the party going an extra few months, and a fresh wave of new office towers and commercial projects seems to be building as institutional investors chase safe investments. Overall, construction is forecast to continue near current levels. Still, many firms face a 2011 reckoning as a host of projects complete. And even if the province has proved to be an island of respectability amid a North American sea of despair and decline, there’s a downside: leaner conditions in the U.S., Eastern Canada and even Europe are driving firms there to bid on B.C. projects that wouldn’t have interested them when times were better. 

A World of Architecture

An image from the master plan for the Chinese town of Haikou, by James Cheng.

The Cheng-designed Azure building in Dallas.

“In the local market, everybody’s really hungry and cutting fees like crazy,” says Thom – a foolish move, in his opinion, since the relatively minor savings that an architect’s discount might represent aren’t important to sophisticated clients. (Fees can be either a percentage, hourly or flat amount and can add up to five to 10 per cent of the project’s total cost. If an architect cuts his fees by 10 per cent, that means as little as half a percentage point off the bill.) While some firms are holding their own or even growing, several others have gone through layoffs, though not on the scale of previous downturns and it’s certainly nothing compared to countries that have been harder hit. Various local architects report a tide of resumés arriving from Europe, especially Ireland, where the property market has been devastated. The most dramatic situation is Iceland, where in 2009 a trade publication reported that 90 per cent of architects had been laid off.

Vancouver architect Bruce Haden (on the phone from Alberta) outlines the current situation as it relates to the health-care sector, one of the few fields that everyone agrees will remain a growth area even if economic conditions continue to flatline. “If you’re doing a half-billion-dollar project in health care, there is a scale requirement,” he says. A very large U.S. firm might have, for example, “one person who’s a specialist in faucet design for hospital showers.”

Haden’s firm, Hotson Bakker Boniface & Haden (responsible for the Granville Island redevelopment and Richmond City Hall, among other local landmarks), recently responded to the new reality by merging with firms based in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto to form a national company branded as, simply, Dialog. Haden’s firm had never looked upon itself as having global or even national ambitions, he says, instead striving to be the locally grounded 100-mile dieter of the architectural world. But the firm developed a reputation in sustainable design even as its new partners in Alberta became experts in office towers. At a time when new towers must be environmentally pristine, there are obvious synergies. Also, he points out, business can be counter-cyclical: “Alberta may be spending more and B.C. nothing, and two years later the situation is reversed.” As well, cross-border mergers provide a handy succession strategy at a time when the generation of architects who came of age during Vancouver’s 1970s development boom is contemplating retirement.


Architects around the world

While Thom is in London and Haden is in Alberta, James Cheng is in China and Bing Thom (no relation to David Thom) is in Washington, D.C. Along with Peter Busby – who helped kick-start the globalization trend a few years ago by merging his firm with U.S. giant Perkins + Will – Cheng and Bing Thom are B.C.’s strongest candidates for the “starchitect” label, so perhaps their travel itineraries are less surprising. That said, the name of Bing Thom’s dinner companion will raise the odd eyebrow. Thom is in Washington worrying over a few final details in preparation for the grand opening of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater on Oct. 25. Among the other guests will be President Obama and the first lady. 

Michael Heenie, the other principal at Bing Thom Architects, is still in Vancouver (he’ll be leaving for D.C. in a couple of days). Sitting inside a meeting room in the BTA offices, he outlines the scope and progress of the $135-million Arena Stage project. The firm was already focusing much of its efforts on the U.S., especially around Fort Worth, Texas, where master planning of former industrial lands it began a decade ago has since led to additional work. Then its design for the Chan Centre at UBC caught the eye of Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith. At the UBC site, Thom insisted on retaining existing plantings of shrubs and trees instead of opening up a view to the ocean, a pattern of preservation often noted in the firm’s work. That appealed to Smith and other Arena Stage supporters, who were resisting calls to abandon their tough neighbourhood and outmoded complex in favour of a new building on another site. Thom responded with a plan that wrapped existing and new buildings inside a glass pavilion, a design that “will make him as famous in the United States as he is in Canada,” wrote the Washington Post’s architecture critic, Phillip Kennicott, who flew to Vancouver before the grand opening to explore such Thom landmarks as Surrey Central City and Richmond’s Aberdeen Place and came away very impressed. Thom is “determined to steer a path independent of the crass salesmanship, egoism and narcissistic display that defines some of the more glamour-hungry architects of the past decade,” Kennicott wrote.

Bing Thom’s Arena Stage renovation in Washinton, D.C.

Ouch. Apparently being a globetrotting starchitect can be something of a double-edged sword. Among Kennicott’s targets was Thom’s one-time mentor, Erickson, whose own Washington work, the Canadian embassy, is not particularly well regarded. But if Thom was cited for letting his work tower higher than his ego, the same is also true of James Cheng, the low-key architect who virtually invented Vancouver’s highrise skyline with his many condo towers at Concord Pacific Place and along Coal Harbour. Fortunately for Cheng, they’ve proved to carry an appeal that extends well beyond Greater Vancouver. Concord Pacific put the firm to work on its Vancouver-like development adjacent the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, while Westbank Projects, builders of the Cheng-designed Fairmont Pacific Rim, did the same with a six-tower project in Nanjing. Cheng and his 35-person office have other projects on the go in China and also worked on the massive (and troubled) City Center project in Las Vegas. “In fact,” laughs Cheng, “I was the one who told them it wasn’t going to work.” Most recently he’s turned to master planning a 1.2-kilometre stretch of riverfront near downtown São Paolo, Brazil, a job he nabbed after the developer happened to stay in the Cheng-designed Shangri-La during an Alaskan cruise, then toured other Cheng buildings in Vancouver and Victoria before giving the architect a call. “I get all my work through referrals,” Cheng says. 

Cheng returned from projects in recently supercharged China and South America “blown away by the technology” he found in buildings there – technology he now plans to incorporate in local projects. He thinks cross-pollination of this sort would be good for B.C. and that other local architects should get more aggressive about seeking work abroad. “Canadians are humble,” he says. “We tend to sit back and wait for people to discover us.” Cheng himself is one of the worst offenders, he admits. The firm doesn’t even have a website, though that situation will soon be rectified. 

Over in London, David Thom is a little more measured about the investment required in leaping into foreign markets. “We’ve been in Asia for five or six years,” he says, “and we expect a big jump in the next two to three years.” But, he adds, “It’s very challenging there. You have to have people on the ground.” Of course, having people on the ground requires something else: having other people in the air. And that’s a reality that architects such as Cheng, Haden, Thom and Thom are coming to know only too well.


The Consultants

Renowned Vancouver architect Bing Thom
is putting some of his team’s planning
smarts into civic research.

Moving beyond blueprints at Bing Thom Works

Over the past decade or two, most architects finally shook off retrogressive postmodern and neo-traditional styles in favour of merely retro neo-modernism. But Bing Thom Architects (BTA) was already onto the next thing: architecture that often emphasizes the organic forms and flowing shapes made possible by computerized design and construction tools. For this and other reasons, the firm thrived. “We could have easily doubled in size,” says principal Michael Heenie. “But fortunately we turned down a lot of work.” 

Fortunately for Vancouver, if not yet for the bottom line at BTA, the firm also decided on another strategy, one that is only now rising to the fore. As business slows, it has attempted to minimize layoffs, instead diverting staff into a sideline called Bing Thom Works (BTW). It’s essentially a think-tank that attempts to answer the questions that the firm’s staff – and a lot of other people – are always asking about Vancouver.

Is the downtown peninsula filled with empty condos? No, determined BTW. Working with BC Hydro, researchers from the firm were able to determine that a single-digit proportion of condos are empty, a fairly standard situation. 

What will happen to Greater Vancouver neighbourhoods if ocean levels rise due to global warming? Plenty. Perhaps surprisingly, governments and universities had not attempted to chart the effects until BTW’s study earlier this year. 

Why does office construction in Vancouver lag residential to such a degree? At least partly because a disproportionate share of business licences are issued to home addresses (with some of the blame for that going to Vancouver’s high commercial property taxes). BTW’s recently released study once again revealed information that no one else had ferreted out – and perhaps provides ammunition to those, among them Heenie, who campaign for a more balanced property-tax regime. 

Running BTW falls mostly to planner Andy Yan, who says the research arm is an extension of the architectural firm in that it “promotes an urban conversation and brings people together.” Ultimately, the intellectually driven projects it undertakes could profit the firm’s more applied side in the same way that primary scientific research often leads to practical applications. Take that empty-condo study, which indicates that about half of Vancouver’s condo units end up as rentals. From a broader policy point of view, the knowledge could ameliorate concerns about a shortage of purpose-built rentals. But it could also give the firm an edge in designing condos better suited to market conditions, ultimately turning BTW’s curiosity-sating research escapades into profit generators. “That’s the hope, anyway,” says Yan.