Where Diversity Thrives and Design Endures
Defining the Essence of Community for 20 Years By Mary Savage
“Some people dream of great accomplishments, while others stay awake and do them.” - Anonymous
the most successful people in the world were brought together and asked to define success, you would likely hear a different response from each individual in the room, but there would also be an undercurrent of shared philosophies. And when you look at companies that are successful, it is measured by both the small and large victories – successful companies don’t limit themselves, they are not narrowly defined, nor do they rest on their laurels. They are passionate and persistent. They listen to their colleagues and clients – fostering an open exchange. They are experts in their chosen field, but they also aspire to be lifelong learners. They collaborate, create and accomplish great things, and when the task at hand is complete, they move on to the next one. The leaders who embrace this philosophy are a rare breed: they don’t look for accolades. They simply and quietly go about their work, and do it time after time. And in the heart of downtown Calgary, the leaders of S2 Architecture exemplify this mentality. On a spring afternoon, the six partners of S2 gathered to talk candidly about their business, how they define success, community and their vision to create a legacy firm. They didn’t speak of award-winning buildings that freckle the skyline, nor did their egos collide around the room. Much like the way they conduct business, it was an open forum where thoughts flowed freely. At the heart of S2, everything starts by listening: to their clients, to the community and to the younger generations found within the firm.
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The Evolution of Partnership “I started with stars in my eyes … and starting out, the less you know the better. If you realized all the pitfalls, you probably wouldn’t do it.” - David Symons, Architect, Principal
The roots of S2 date back to 1993 when Robert Spaetgens went to work for himself. After one year, he moved the office from his basement to Kensington where David Symons and another architect joined the business as partners. For Spaetgens and Symons, it was the third time they would work together. The first time was in university: they were roommates while studying architecture, during their master’s year, at the University of Manitoba. The second time found them working together at another of Calgary’s successful architectural firms where they spent almost a decade. Spaetgens and Symons were ambitious and progressive thinkers, and ready to take their career to the next level. As fate would play out, Spaetgens and Symons came together for the third time to lead the firm known today as S2. For almost another decade, Spaetgens and Symons grew the business. They hired more architects, technologists and design specialists, landing larger and more prominent projects. In 1997, the firm hired James McLaughlin as an intern
architect. McLaughlin had been recruited some time after graduating from McGill University, and after an intricate interview process with 12 different firms, he chose S2 because of the firm’s mentality. Spaetgens and Symons subscribed to an open mindset and that proved to be the tipping point for McLaughlin. Shortly thereafter, Peter Bradshaw joined S2 although he is not an architect. This move reflected the partners’ insight and ability to expand the firm beyond the traditional perimeters, and they welcomed Bradshaw’s hands-on expertise as a valuable addition. Bradshaw built his career in the construction industry and was drawn to the challenges and opportunities that S2 presented – working as a construction consultant – but he was equally attracted to the firm’s philosophy, thereby making it an easy choice. And a few months later, Craig Bowd joined S2 and like Bradshaw, Bowd is not an architect either. Bowd is a senior technologist and brought decades of expertise in the field of production and technology. During the late 1990s and as the story of hiring Bowd unfolded, Spaetgens, Symons and Bowd
“ ... even at the highest levels of athletic performance, recreational facilities must be inclusive, creating a meaningful experience for both the participant and spectator enriching the sense of community.” Foothills Athletic Park Master Plan, Calgary, Alberta
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had many lengthy conversations. Ultimately, Bowd made the decision to join S2 because of the firm’s leadership style and their approach to business. As the old expression says, “Great minds think alike…” and as Spaetgens and Symons grew the firm, they hired people who mirrored a similar mentality. They hired people who wanted a ground-floor opportunity: to help build the internal S2 infrastructure, shape the leadership and provide opportunities to the younger generation that was not readily available. A pinnacle year for S2 was 2006. They moved their office from Kensington to the ninth floor of TransAlta Campus, Tower One, in the beltline district. And today, S2 continues to call the ninth floor home. The leadership team also expanded that same year with James McLaughlin, Peter Bradshaw and Craig Bowd becoming partners. The move to make both Bradshaw and Bowd partners stressed the importance of disciplines found within architecture, and successful leaders understand the importance of hiring outside your immediate
sphere of influence – sometimes it’s necessary in order to find the best people. Rounding out the year, Linus Murphy joined the firm in 2006, and the following year he became the sixth partner to join S2. When Murphy moved to S2, he brought almost 20 years of experience and was instrumental in developing S2’s extraordinary reputation in the emergency services sector. As the six partners sat around the table and continued their candid discussion, they recalled the early days of forging a career elsewhere where they did not always have the luxury of mentorship, open communication, progressive thinking and working in a respectful environment. Looking back, this type of environment was rare. And it still is today. Collectively, the partners have created a firm that fosters growth, guidance and longevity because they were without it. They are also building a firm that is multigenerational – a legacy firm – that will survive long after the partners have retired, and in doing so they have raised the bar – on everything.
“ ... many efficiencies were realized including, a smaller ecological footprint and decreased operating costs. The new facility also meets the growing demand for emergency services in the city’s northeast with the capacity to accommodate future growth.” Saddle Ridge Multi-Services Centre, Calgary, Alberta
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Commencing the Conversation “The single most important skill we have is not drawing; it’s listening critically. The drawings are how we communicate everything we’ve heard.” - James McLaughlin, Architect, Principal
“We ask the right questions at the right time which enables us to guide the client through a very complex process and respond to their needs for accommodation.” Robert Spaetgens, Architect, Principal
“Our relationships with industry professionals help us understand the trends, the needs and how we support that vision to develop strong communities.” Vicky Couture, Project Lead, Designer
Much like defining success, most people talk about ‘community’ in a context that is relevant to their lives – unless you work in an industry that contributes to shaping a community. From the sidewalk, architecture is a profession where all roads lead to creation: an ultra-sleek highrise with glass walls that touches the clouds to a refurbished historical landmark that has brought new life to a withering community. Structures span the centuries and as towns become cities, each new building provides a glimpse into generations past. The streetscapes and communities are akin to an alluvial fan in the world of prominent designers and architects – or so it would seem. For S2, the design process begins by listening. Their goal is to extract an inevitable array of agendas, opinions and
“ The vision was to create both external and interior spaces for the building that supported the intellectual and social community.” Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California
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interests voiced by the client, and get that information onto the table. As ideas surface, S2 helps convert their goals into principles with an objective to create design that is contextual and meaningful. It is insightful and responsive to both the physical and cultural context of the surrounding environment. It is a reflection of what the client needs, followed by site requirements and environmental considerations. S2 drives the client to achieve design excellence, but more importantly, they know how to navigate the process. Emergency services, schools, highrise residential towers, recreational centres, health clinics, mixed-use developments – all of these structures help communities evolve. It provides a glimpse into S2’s working arena, but it also illustrates their understanding of a much broader picture. As professionals who spend a lifetime helping define communities, the S2 design teams look at more than just the façade and streetscape. Community is also about the people. It is a ‘state of being.’
“We understand what the needs are – even before the client understands that they have a need. We design to solve that problem.” James McLaughlin, Architect, Principal
Community extends beyond a neighbourhood, building or a group of people: it’s a sense of place and what feels comfortable. As an example, S2 has designed community service facilities, recreational, educational and emergency services throughout different quadrants of the city and each building has a different vibe depending on the location. It’s also a sense of place and the people who use that place, how they interact and the relationships that are found within that place. For S2, people are an integral part of the community. They pride themselves on the ability to design and build what’s suitable and appropriate for a particular context and a particular environment. Their philosophy is to deliver outstanding solutions that leave a lasting, positive mark on users and the community. They strive for design excellence and build structures that ‘work’ – in a meaningful and positive way. S2 Architecture | 20 Years | 5
“ … a striking yet elegant design that fits perfectly in the hip new beltline community of downtown Calgary. ” Nuera, Calgary, Alberta
The Continuum of Design “As people transition into a building, they have a continuous experience throughout the space: the outside has to complement the inside.” - Natasha Jalbert, Interior Design Lead
When you step inside a structure, two worlds meet: the interior and exterior work together seamlessly. They reflect a true meeting of the minds – it is the continuum of design. Historically, the firm has offered interior design services, but the partners wanted to expand their vision to provide
a fully-integrated and multidisciplinary approach. Interior design dovetails into architecture by providing ‘functional programming.’ The objective is to create an interior space that’s both comfortable and functional while adhering to the client’s identity and brand. From repurposing or retrofitting an existing
space to working within a new building shell, interior design echoes the same process as architecture. But the key to providing this multidisciplinary approach meant hiring the right individual. In keeping with S2’s leadership mantra, they had to find someone who not only brought substantial experience to the firm, but who also knew how to build and lead the design team. After a three-year search, the partners’ vision started to take shape when they hired Natasha Jalbert, interior design lead. Much like the other professionals found within the S2 world, Jalbert set out to build the interior design team with an integrated, collaborative and empowering approach. It’s a methodology that allows the design team to see past a client’s vision by understanding what they need. From the reception area and workspaces to new furniture and fixtures, interior design enables a client to create a more productive environment that reflects not only their brand, but the corporate cultural and corporate identity as well. For S2, all roads continue to lead back to the craft of listening and in doing so, they complete the life cycle of design – taking S2’s interior design team through the front door where the continuum of design comes to fruition.
“The exterior design of the building focuses on a new image for Canadian Pacific Railway — a modern image which looks to efficiency, streamlined processes and a great future for the railway. We are proud to be a part of the legacy of this 120 year old Canadian company.” Canadian Pacific New Headquarters, Calgary, Alberta
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The Internal Landscape “We may not have all the answers, but we know where to go to get them and that’s an important part of what we do.” - Peter Bradshaw, Contract Administration and Construction, Principal
“The people at S2 are genuine … and that’s what keeps me here.” Jane Kratochvil, Office Manager
“The best decision I made was coming to S2.” Craig Bowd, Production and Technical Services, Principal
Inside the S2 studio, it’s business as usual on the ninth floor: design teams and clients gather – every meeting room is full. From a highrise tower to a fire hall, the small groups collaborate behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls, while an architect, an interior designer and project manager emerge from down the hall. The energy exudes an air of engagement, productivity and transparency. It is an environment where tradition meets innovation and evolution is often pragmatic. It is a world where opposites thrive and input from everyone is encouraged and expected – from intern architects and junior technologists to partners. No question is deemed insignificant and no inquiry is sidestepped. It is, simply put, what you find every day when you enter the milieu of S2.
“Overall, there is an immense amount of respect at S2: from co-worker to co-worker, from partner to co-worker and partner to partner, and that is not something you see every day. It is a pretty unique environment.” Genevieve Giguere, Senior Team Lead, Intern Architect
“The built environment can help maximize the control seniors have on their surroundings and reduce their sense of displacement and anxiety.” Rocky View Lodge, Supportive Living, Crossfield, Alberta
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Beyond the main foyer and boardrooms, the hallway opens to a large, open-concept space where several more groups work together: reading plans on a drafting table or gathered around a large computer screen. The office is void of doors, unless you’re sitting in a boardroom. It’s a cohesive environment where different disciplines work side by side: interior designers, architects and technologists. As they fine-tune the ‘works in progress,’ there is one thing you will never find at S2: a signature style. No two buildings – inside or out – look the same and their self-effacing approach is truly unique. In an industry that’s notorious for prima donnas, you won’t find a single S2 employee bragging about anything as being a signature architectural style as specific to S2. What you will find is a deep-rooted sense of teamwork and responsiveness. Much like the philosophy expressed among the partners, the same mentality is ever-present among the project teams. Their internal community fosters respect and growth, and everyone has a voice. There is an undeniable ambience that is positive and genuine. For the people who call S2 home, their voices are poignant as they describe their work world and this mentality is threaded throughout every relationship, project and meeting.
Photo by Light on Paper Photography.
“Your co-workers have your back … as an intern architect, I can walk up to anyone with a question and they always take the time to answer it. We have a group of experts at S2 and they are willing to share their knowledge, and that’s not something you always find.” Erin Hampson, Intern Architect
Everyone is included in the decisionmaking process and that’s rare. It’s about allowing everyone to be involved and feeling like they have a part of crafting the future of S2.” Brian Corkum, Architect
Project teams work with purpose and passion – communication is open and unassuming. They are progressive and innovative thinkers, yet thoughtful and consistent. They are dedicated and focused. It is an exceptional and unique environment. To capture the essence of a well-designed community in a singular word is nearly impossible and the same rings true of S2’s internal culture. Their approach to business reflects
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Thirty years ago
, an architect was viewed as a master builder and over time, this role has been redefined and somewhat diminished. One of S2’s mandates is to broaden this role by restoring the original principles of a ‘master builder.’ Architecture involves ‘building science’ as well as artful composition and working with code and construction specialists – it is all encompassing. The majority of S2 architects and designers are involved with numerous organizations and act not only as advocates to broaden the role of a master builder, but also to help shape urban, business and environmental development. Their voices contribute to land use redesignations as well as design principles, guidelines and polices. Many of the partners and design teams actively support our communities by fostering goodwill within and for the design industry. Brian Corkum, Architect, sits on the Calgary Subdivision and Development Appeal Board. James McLaughlin, Architect, Principal, was recently appointed to the Urban Design Review Panel (UDRP) and Robert Labonte, Architect, was appointed to the Edmonton Design Committee (EDC) in December 2012. S2 is proud to be a founding firm member of the Consulting Architects of Alberta (CAA). The organization exists today because of firms like S2 who, along with 11 others, helped to spearhead the association. Currently, Linus Murphy, Architect, Principal, sits on the CAA board of directors. The CAA provides a business voice for Alberta architects where they are represented and supported in their practice to build a positive business environment. On the Mount Royal University campus, you will find Natasha Jalbert, S2’s Interior Design Lead teaching at the faculty of interior design. Vicky Couture, Project Lead, is one of only three designers in the city who is also a licensed member of the Calgary Real Estate Board (CREB). Her involvement with CREB keeps her apprised of commercial real estate trends and provides insight into inner-city developments. Indeed, S2 is a strong advocate in shaping urban renewal, developing communities and restoring the guiding principles of a master builder.
an array of core beliefs that – collectively – are much larger than ‘great design.’ And when S2 holds their AGM, it’s akin to an open forum – there are no hidden agendas. The details of the business are an open book – from finances to future plans – no question goes unanswered. And when the partners are asked about the future, they talk about building a legacy firm and all that it entails. S2 Architecture | 20 Years | 9
“Ambitious, pragmatic, vibrant.” Jason Dolha, Sr. Architectural Technologist
“Motivated, adaptable, intelligent.” Michael Evans, Senior Technologist
“Fun and energetic.” Shannon Thomson, Senior Marketing and Graphics Coordinator
“Adaptive, supportive, successful.” Megan Chwiecko, Interior Designer
“Meaningful, creative, communicative.” Jason Curtis, Project Leader
Our people are talented, inspired individuals who bring energy and passion to our culture along with a collaborative spirit to our work. S2 aspires to cultivating a fun and creative work environment that encourages creativity, innovation and teamwork.
“Motivated, friendly, productive.” Cynthia Toyota, Architect
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The team at S2 Architecture in Calgary. Photo by Light on Paper Photography.
“Young, open and aware.”
“Relaxed, professional, respectful.”
Christine Perry, Senior Interior Designer
“Intelligent, social and enduring.” Candice Scott, Jr. Architectural Designer
William Woodcock, Architectural Technologist, Interior Design
“Steady, spirited, committed.” Donald O’Dwyer, Intern Architect
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Living the Legacy: The Edmonton Studio “As architects, we need to instil a certain amount of confidence with the promise that we will get you to where you need to go.” Linus Murphy, Architect, Principal
The team at S2 Architecture in Edmonton. Photo by EPIC Photography.
Two years ago, the S2 partners drafted a list of long-term goals – among them was a desire to create a firm that lived on for many generations. Through research, the partners came to learn that creating a legacy firm was defined by certain characteristics: it is a sustainable entity that thrives for generations; it’s built on strong relationships where everyone is equal; it means being in different markets and continuing to grow; and the partners realized they had already engaged many of these traits. In 20 years, S2 has completed several projects in Edmonton and over time, their presence has gradually been infused in the northern region. They have forged relations with government, developers and clients – encouraging a
more permanent presence within the city of Edmonton. Last year, S2 decided to open an office in the Edmonton market and it was a natural progression in the evolution of the firm. But in order to achieve their goal and in keeping with the leadership philosophy, they had to find the right people. By August 2012, S2 had secured office space on the 20th floor of the Scotia Place tower in the heart of Edmonton’s downtown on Jasper Avenue. With Murphy leading the way, they hired Robert Labonte, Architect. Labonte, schooled at UofA, Dalhousie, McGill, and Harvard, was originally from Edmonton and after spending two decades in the Toronto market, he returned to his roots. Next they hired Brent Conner, a senior S2 Architecture | 20 Years | 12
“We have built a core group of senior people … it’s hard to find good talent, but we are off to a great start.” Robert Labonte, Architect
technologist with a diverse portfolio of work in Western Canada spanning over 20 years, and Erin Hampson, an intern architect, fresh out of the master’s program at Ryerson University. The
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“S2 creates opportunities for participation, engagement and ownership in the daily activities of architectural design.” Jane Lam, Senior Technologist
Edmonton office then welcomed Charles Gushaty, a senior contract administrator and building science specialist with over 29 years of experience working in the Edmonton market, and most recently, Jane Lam, a senior technologist with 25 years of experience throughout Alberta, Eastern Canada and Asia. In December 2012, Labonte was appointed – by unanimous vote – to the Edmonton Design Committee (EDC). The EDC is an organization that is integral to formulating urban design principles, guidelines and polices, and as Edmonton continues to rejuvenate and transform the cityscape, S2 is poised to be a part of the process. Currently, S2 is involved with several projects in Edmonton and the surrounding area. Several EMS stations, a mixed-
Photo by EPIC Photography.
“There are many great opportunities in Edmonton. The political establishment is focused on moving things forward: they are encouraging development, which encourages investment. Over the next decade, there is going to be an amazing amount of redevelopment and S2 is going to be a part of it … and that’s very exciting.” Robert Labonte, Architect
use development, a new fire station, civic offices, public works and operations buildings and a 911 call centre are all underway. For any design, there is a great moment at its inception when it feels like a clean slate. It is a world of possibilities that contribute to ideas taking shape. It is a world of optimism, rejuvenation and significance. But it is also the evolution of many conversations, exploring options and listening to the clients – and this is something S2 does extremely well. As Edmonton undergoes a major transformation, S2 is ready to engage the conversation. Inside S2’s current Edmonton location, the team is preparing to move to their permanent home located at the north end of 124 Avenue. The team wanted to be situated on the edge of ‘revitalization’ and after a bit of searching, they found an ideal location and space. Renovations are currently underway for their new home – 4,400 square feet on the second floor of an owner/operator building. And in keeping with the Calgary studio, they are creating an open and collaborative environment that reflects the philosophy and expression of the firm.
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• New Buildings • Building Renovations • Commercial Construction • Industrial Construction
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The Guiding Principles “Now, more than ever, it is essential that design and planning are geared towards future needs and not simply providing sufficient solutions for current ones.” - Robert Spaetgens, Architect, Principal
As the discussion with the six partners drew to a close, they looked at one another with an undercurrent of excitement in their eyes. It’s the kind of energy that flows freely when you know you’re moving as a united front. They are steadfast, but also keenly aware that growth brings a certain element of unpredictability. Although the conversation brought varying opinions to the table, unequivocally, they all share the same vision: to create a legacy firm. Easy to say, but tough to accomplish and part of what drives this leadership team forward is found looking in the rear-view mirror. When the partners embarked on their careers, the notion of succession planning was not part of the landscape. As wide-eyed junior architects, their voices were rarely heard and it took years of ‘proving yourself’ before a hint of respect seemed attainable. But this particular group thought differently and two decades later, they have built a different firm. In 20 years, adapting to ‘change’ is part of business – it is necessary for growth. But as the partners observed, a handful of things have remained the same: their internal culture, respect for people and their ability to contribute. For S2, these traits will never change and the consistency of their internal community propels them forward: through the change and through the growth. When the partners were asked about defining success, they did not lean back, throw their arms to the sky and speak of ‘great design.’ In fact, they questioned if they should ever truly define ‘success.’ For S2, success it is not measured by awards. It is measured by how they do their jobs – every day. And when they have finished a project, they simply and quietly move onto the next one.
“Our drive for success hasn’t changed in 20 years and I’m not quite sure we’ll know when we’ve reached it. Maybe we’ll never really know and maybe that’s what drives us forward … but we strive to keep our baseline of corporate culture and that is founded in respect for people’s opinions.”
“The ability for people to follow their dreams generates success and we are following a dream to create a legacy firm. It’s a firm that grows beyond us to the betterment of everybody that’s with us.” Peter Bradshaw, Contract Administration and Construction, Principal
As S2 acknowledges their 20th anniversary, they pause from the workday to articulate a moment of gratitude. ‘Thank you’ to the business communities and their industry partners that have been instrumental in helping S2 achieve this milestone. The last question of the afternoon brought the conversation back to the future, and true to form, the six partners came together as one voice. They spoke of design excellence that pushes forward with open minds and watchful eyes. They spoke of inspiration and innovation that continually adapts in an ever-changing environment, and they spoke of a singular goal: to create architecture that is practical, sustainable and thoughtful – simply put, to create beautiful buildings that work.
“It’s not about defining success; it’s our job. It’s our baseline performance. Our minimum expectations are to keep our clients happy … and once we achieve that goal, then we start to measure real success.” Craig Bowd, Production and Technical Services, Principal
David Symons, Architect, Principal
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