And Here's to Forty More
By Tom Thiessen / BOMA MANITOBA
For a firm that's celebrating 40 years in business, one would expect some grey hair around the office to be the norm.
Apparently it's the exception at 300 Waterfront Drive, home to Winnipeg-based design firm ft3. And the 'next generation takeover' isn't lost on Joanne McFadden.
"Some people joke around here that the average age is looking more like late 20s and early 30s," laughs McFadden, interior designer and one of the firm's five principals. "Suffice to say, when I started I was one of the youngest. And now I'm probably one of the oldest!"
Indeed, there's a youthful, vibrant feel around the ft3 offices, which fits nicely with the hip, chic design of the place. The 48 (and counting) employees enjoy the cutting-edge workspace, streaming with daylight and generous views of the Red River and the burgeoning Exchange District. And the second floor suite, according to McFadden, lends itself well to both recruiting and training the next generation of architects and designers.
"People love this space," she says. "Certainly when we moved here, we were the talk of the design field because we had so many students and other professionals coming and asking if they could work here."
"And we use the space to educate staff as well. Everything is exposed-you can see how a sprinkler system works, the spacing for ducts and sprinkler heads." says McFadden, "and a lot of natural material is exposed here as well."
One striking feature of the firm's board room happens to be the dozens of rock climbing holds bolted into a bare concrete wall. And it's not just a conversation piece, insists McFadden. "Our people can see how materials are set up, how pieces are installed, and how they work together."
Less than 10 years after moving in, ft3 has actually outgrown its 8,000 sq. ft. head office, and so the firm will be looking for its 4th office location in as many decades.
The firm got its start in 1975, beginning with two staff working out of the basement of founder Rudy Friesen. Friesen, who had previously been involved in major Winnipeg projects (with different firms) such as the Manitoba Centennial Centre and Lakeview Square, built his new company's reputation with a focus on school, church, and healthcare projects across western Manitoba.
He was joined by Brian Tokar in 1985, and the addition of more partners led to the creation of Friesen Tokar Reynolds Rhoda Neufeld Architectural Partnership in 1986.
The firm later became known as Friesen Tokar Architects and eventually settled on ft3 Architecture Landscape and Interior Design, in recognition of its commitment to excellence in the three disciplines. At present, McFadden is one of 5 principals at ft3, almost all of whom have Manitoba roots.
The firm's principal interior designer, McFadden hails from Morris, Manitoba. Principal architects Jerald Peters and Marten Duhoux come from Winnipeg and the Netherlands, respectively. Chantal Alary is also a native Winnipegger and Franco Manitoban and is the firm's principal landscape architect. Rock Jerome, originally from Flin Flon, is the principal contract administrator.
To have all facets of design represented at the firm's leadership table is a bit of a coup in the world of local architecture, says McFadden. "We're actually very diverse, and we were very strategic in selecting our core team as well," she says. "For decades, the core team was architecture-based. Now the senior staff and senior management team has expertise in all disciplines."
That approach has certainly seemed to pay off. ft3 has won a plethora of design competitions and awards for projects ranging from The Tractor Shelter (at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach), to the national RCMP Student Dormitory & Campus Entry in Regina, to the recent International Peace Garden Tower competition in partnership with GPP Architecture.
And that success has bred even greater expectations, and more new faces.
"When we first moved here, we were 26 staff, and we actually only designed the space thinking that we would grow to 32," says McFadden. Closing in on 50 staff now, and with the addition of landscape architecture as an area of practice, the office is bursting at the seams with staff (which was not anticipated back in 2007). "So you can see now why we're saying we're maxed," she says with a laugh."
One of the new faces is landscape architectural intern Roxane Gratton.
Gratton, who joined the firm in November 2015, lists ft3's involvement with so many diverse projects as key to professional development for young designers like herself.
"I've been fortunate to assist with the design process and respective construction packages for a handful of projects," says Gratton. "I didn't have any previous experience with health care related projects and so it was a learning curve becoming familiar with accessibility standards at first, however the exposure has made me much more comfortable."
"I've also been involved in the design of Gabrielle-Roy Schoolyard in lle-des-Chenes, and P'tit Bonheur Daycare Yard. Projects that involve children as subjects has been an enjoyable process as it allows us to be playful with our design."
Recently, Gratton has also worked on the conceptual design of a triangular pocket park adjacent to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Diversity of work notwithstanding, the firm's reputation for and commitment to sustainable design is a much sought-after corporate value for new recruits like Gratton and her fresh-faced colleagues.
"ft3's value for innovative, responsible and environmental design provides me with the opportunity to develop my skills as a young professional," she says. "It's a pleasure to be a part of a collaborative and positive work environment every day."
Creating that positive corporate culture is something that's top-of-mind for McFadden and her colleagues, particularly as the 40-year-old firm brings on more "NextGen" members.
"We've got good dynamics here," says McFadden. "You'll notice there are no offices. Everyone's in an open workstation, including the senior partners."
"We value our employees and respect them as professionals. We're all here to learn and learn from each other, and people appreciate it. They appreciate that-staff especially-because they feel valued."
"Certainly on the design platform, there's no hierarchy. Everyone is valued equally."
Big Projects, and More to Come
The egalitarian mindset championed by McFadden and her fellow principals has no doubt been a contributing factor to outstanding projects and repeat clients.
Among those clients is Canadian Mennonite University, which has had a longstanding relationship with ft3. The design firm was instrumental, in consortium with Harold Funk Architects, in first transforming the (now former) Manitoba School for the Deaf in southwest Winnipeg into CMU's main campus.
That was followed by overseeing the design for CMU's Concord Hall Student Residence and most recently, the library learning commons, complete with a covered pedestrian bridge that spans Grant Avenue. That most recent CMU work being a great example, says McFadden "of a major project that utilized architecture, interior design and landscape architecture. It's exquisite."
In addition to the CMU expansion and the aforementioned RCMP Dormitory (awarded to ft3 in a national design competition), high profile projects of late have included Thermea Spa, the Rapid Transit Osborne Station, interior design services for the South Health Campus in Calgary, the emergency department for Grace Hospital, and Dauphin Community Health Centre.
Perhaps the most illustrious Winnipeg project yet for ft3 is 300 Assiniboine, the 400,000 sq. ft. tower rising up alongside the Assiniboine River in downtown Winnipeg. The first apartment high-rise to go up in downtown Winnipeg in 20 years, construction value for 300 Assiniboine will exceed $70 million, with the first occupants slated for a fall 2016 move-in.
It's a project with which McFadden and her colleagues are extremely proud to be involved, of course, particularly given it will serve as a significant contributor to the city's downtown resurgence. At the same time, she's quick to point out the community and health care projects that ft3 continues to be involved with.
"We've been working on some great community projects, including the new fieldhouse at Dakota Community Centre," says McFadden, in reference to the 50,000+ sq. ft. sport and multi-purpose building that's being constructed in the city's south end.
"We also just finished a hostel in Sioux Lookout, attached to the new hospital. It services 29 First Nations communities, and we've done LTC and PCH projects for Kerrobert, Biggar and Rosetown, SK, Fisher Branch, OCN, God's Lake, Peguis. Having expertise in healthcare has led to some significant work with personal care homes."
McFadden maintains that the firm's emphasis on all aspects of design will serve them well in the future, and she hopes ft3 will remain at the top of shortlists for design work of all stripes, including corporate/office, healthcare, housing and community projects. And it does appear that the local firm is poised to capitalize on what McFadden believes is a greater appreciation for all aspects of building design.
"The importance of good design is definitely much more appreciated. Traditionally, some may have looked at architects, interior designers and landscape architects as just a hefty price tag. Now people are really understanding the purpose, the benefits and value of being able to hire professionals."
Some of those professionals, McFadden concedes are starting to look younger than she's used to. But that's okay too.
"Our founders have both recently retired; Brian (Tokar) retired about 5 years ago, and Rudy (Friesen) 2 years ago. Although they're still partners emeritus, they made sure to have a solid transition strategy in place. And we've been able to keep bringing on board great new people, who will definitely help us take on exciting new projects in the future."