Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Young + Wright Architects

originally published in Award Magazine. This profile was written prior to the acquisition of Young + Wright by IBI Group.

Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents.
It was loaned to you by your children.

Kenyan Proverb

In the long term, the economy and the environment are the same thing.
If it’s unenvironmental, it is uneconomical. That is the rule of nature.

Mollie Beattie

An old Toronto house sat unsold for a long time before Young + Wright Architects Inc. turned it into their head office. Staff appreciate it since it sits right across the street from a subway station where the two major lines cross.

The floor of the basement, though, sits several feet above the ceiling of the north-south subway line. Even though about 50 “hockey pucks” separate the two structures and dampen vibrations emanating from the subway tunnel, the ground floor regularly gets a slight shake. And the basement? “You really hear it down there,” Jamie Wright smiles as he notes that some of the pucks likely need to be replaced.

The co-founder and executive director bought the house anyway in a conscious act of sustainable design, well before such acts became popular.

To ramp up the firm’s focus on sustainable design, Wright hired Tom Kolbasenko, Young + Wright’s Director of Sustainable Design, five years ago to help guide it to greener pastures. Sustainability will soon be a core value on every Young + Wright project. Clients can attain a LEED Silver (or higher if they choose) rating on their projects.

And clients are likely to do just that. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program that sets standards for sustainable development. Administered by the Canada Green Building Council, LEED measures how buildings are built, materials used and mechanical systems operated.

“Clients want to attain energy efficiency and they want to be seen as doing the right thing,” says Wright. “They know that it is very marketable.”

Kolbasenko adds that 70 to 80 percent of RFPs ask for LEED certification. “The market is already there.”

For example, energy-efficient homes are more expensive to build, and the notion of bigger mortgages turns off new home shoppers who would otherwise buy green. So General Electric now offers discounted mortgages for people who buy energy-efficient houses. The mortgage may be heavier, but lower utility bills offset the difference.

It’s a great indicator for champions of green. “When a company like GE gets involved, it’s pretty mainstream,” Wright said.

In light of this demand, the results of a recent Building Design & Construction survey of 500 architecture firms prove puzzling. Interest in green seems rampant throughout the industry: 63 percent of responding firms encourage staff to acquire sustainable design expertise.

However, their money doesn’t seem to follow their mouths. Only 11 percent recruited experienced green building professionals, and a measly six percent created a green division within their firms. These statistics seem to reflect an earlier reality. “This was very infertile ground 20 years ago (when Young + Wright began to champion sustainable design),” says Wright.

Kolbasenko joins other LEED-certified colleagues at Young + Wright as the firm goes green. He heads the Sustainable Design studio group along with group co-founder Tom Emodi. Two of the group’s key roles are to create sustainable designs and to consult with other groups on green building. The group performs these roles both within Young + Wright and as consultants to other firms.

Getting the green message out is another one of their roles. Both Kolbasenko and Emodi participate at conferences and both have experience teaching sustainable design: Kolbasenko at the University of Waterloo and Emodi at McGill University in Montreal and Ryerson University in Toronto.

Staff members present at conferences around the world, using Young + Wright projects to show their know-how. In November of 2005, delegates to the Green Build Conference in Atlanta were treated to a feature session in which Kolbasenko explained how Young + Wright rejuvenated the master plan for Regent Park, a Toronto community that has seen better days. The same project served Young + Wright Director Ronji Borooah during his presentation at an October conference in India.

Even before the sustainable design studio group was born, Young + Wright staff actively pursued green development. For instance, Executive Director Neil Munro is a past Director of the Canadian Green Building Council (CaGBC) and a member of the Council’s LEED™ Steering Committee, which provides direction for the development and implementation of all new LEED™ products introduced into the Canadian marketplace.

Young + Wright are currently working with Concert Properties on a Toronto project called Five Corners. The developers want to LEED-certify the project, and Concert Properties also wants to develop their own sustainability policy for future developments. “We’re helping them with that too,” says Kolbasenko. Other groups seeking sustainable design consulting from Young + Wright include the New Cancer Institute in Calgary and the Town of Markham.

In house, the Sustainable Design studio group continues to both evolve and promote green evolution for the rest of the firm’s studio groups. Each group specializes in a specific type of building design – high-rise residential, sports and entertainment, commercial and retail, institutional, master planning, and others. Each studio group has its own expertise, directors, projects, and, as a result, a spirit and unique character not commonly found in project groups embedded in 100-person firms.

It’s a rare way of organizing the firm, Wright admits. “They’re mini-firms within the firm. They can get people and expertise from other groups when they need to,” he says.

The sustainability group has existed for years as an incubator for sustainable design at the firm. It has spread champions of green design (Wright once called them “sleeper agents”) into every other studio group in the firm, ready to “activate” so that sustainability becomes a regular part of Young + Wright’s modus operandi.

The latest practice to join Young + Wright is Vancouver’s Lawrence Doyle Architects Inc. Experts in high-rise residential architecture, the firm now known as Lawrence Doyle Young + Wright brings the Toronto arm’s expertise in other building types to the greenest architectural services market in Canada.

This merger is reflective of other steps the firm has taken in its evolution to date. Richard Young’s firm originally collaborated with that of Jamie Wright for a design for Syntex Pharmaceuticals. The sheer scope of the project was bigger than either firm could handle alone. The joint venture showed what the two could do together.

As the firm grew, Young + Wright came up with the concept of studio groups. As Wright quips: “Neither Richard nor I would want to work in a place that wasn’t like this.”

Further evolution came their way when, in 1987, Rod Robbie won the contract to design a new domed sports stadium with a retractable roof – Toronto’s SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre), home to baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts.

Robbie went to Young + Wright for help with the project. Four years later, they formed an associate firm, Robbie/Young + Wright. Lawrence Doyle Young + Wright is the second such associate firm. Evolution is far from over, as Young + Wright currently enjoys 12 separate joint ventures with outside firms. Four executive directors and ten directors keep all of Young + Wright’s ventures on track.

Organizational rarities don’t end there. “We could be the only architectural practice in the country that has an in-house human resources person,” says Wright. In Tony Fry’s current role, he makes sure managers do performance reviews, facilitates strategic planning sessions and undoes bottlenecks for the business.

Upon arrival at Young + Wright, he audited the firm, then reported that it was the clearest audit he had ever run. “Everybody understands what the firm is about,” says Wright. “Everybody knows that client satisfaction is the most important thing.”

Charles McDiarmid would say much the same. He’s the managing director for the Wickaninnish Inn, situated in Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Completed in two stages, one in 1996 and the second in 2003, the inn has received accolades from the hospitality industry.

To minimize the hotel’s impact on the local environment, Young + Wright designed the hotel to use both salvaged wood and renewable materials, all while keeping the removal of nearby trees to a minimum. Similar principles guided the firm’s design of the Victoria Engineering Building at the University of Victoria.

International projects, a focus on sustainability and a wide range of expertise helped Young + Wright earn a rank of 83rd among architecture firms worldwide, according to World Architecture Magazine. The firm has enjoyed a top-100 ranking several years running.

Meanwhile, back at the office, subways rumble below as studio groups prepare proposals for the village and sports segments of the master plan for the 2014 Halifax Commonwealth Games bid. Their experience designing facilities for the 1994 Vancouver Commonwealth Games, the Rogers Centre, and recreational complexes in Bermuda serve them in this particular bid. Bermuda is becoming a regular destination for Young + Wright staff, as they are also designing a Class A office tower for HSBC that will be US LEED certified.

The offices are rockin’ in more ways than one.