‘A city without intention is just a bunch of buildings,’ local architect argues

Ottawa-based architect Andrew Reeves remembers a night about eight years ago when he was attending an industry awards dinner at the Shaw Centre. His attention had been focused not so much on the prize that he’d won for best bathroom design, but on a building off in the distance.

That building, still under construction at the time, was the landmark office tower Performance Court. It was also the future headquarters for Shopify. Reeves and his firm, Linebox Studio, had been hired to shape what would eventually become 170,000 square feet of office space spanning 10 floors for the fast-growing e-commerce company.

Reeves was holding his trophy but looking across the street at the big job that lay ahead. “I was freaking out, going, ‘This is everything. This is my career. If we don’t deliver this thing…’”

Not only did Linebox get the job done on time, but the end results were met with awe and excitement at the official opening of Shopify’s new headquarters at 150 Elgin St. in October 2014. There was more Shopify work to come for Linebox – until the pandemic hit in 2020. That’s when the multinational company announced that the vast majority of its employees would work remotely on a permanent basis.

“Right away, I was, like, ‘It’s over, it’s done,’” Reeves recalls of the contracts his firm had with Shopify to design new office spaces in a handful of other Canadian cities. Reeves was disappointed, but he understood and even agreed with CEO Tobi Lütke’s decision, recognizing that Shopify, a publicly traded company, was growing faster than it could build places to work for its thousands of employees. It also wanted to embrace the potential of the digital world and remote working concepts.

On the one hand, Linebox lost 60 per cent of its business as a result of the announcement. On the other hand, Reeves saw an opportunity for the firm to further diversify and to reinvigorate itself with new challenges, while embracing its roots as a forward-thinking architecture and design studio. Linebox also has offices in Toronto and Montreal.

Leaving comfort zone

“We are better than we were before because we were forced to get outside our comfort zones,” says Reeves, who works with the commercial, residential, office, mixed-used, multi-unit and hospitality sectors. Clients include Ottawa-based CLV Group, Vancouver-based software company Hootsuite and UK-based private health-care provider Harley Street Clinic, to name a few.

Reeves says his company was able to develop a more robust and resilient business model, as one does when soldiering through a pandemic.

“We kind of have that ‘Band of Brothers’ feel,” jokes Reeves, who thinks and talks fast.

The native of Windsor earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in architecture at Carleton University. Reeves spent 10 years with BBB Architects, which was behind the Shaw Center and Ottawa airport expansion. In 2005, Reeves launched Linebox, which he runs with his wife, chief operating officer Melissa Reeves. They’re both past recipients of Forty Under 40 awards.

“As an architect, there’s never been more exciting times,” says Reeves of how his industry has been reshaped by COVID-19. “We’ve had an opportunity to redefine everything – our homes, offices, hotels. They’re all being questioned. COVID will fade away and will be something like the common flu, but the human psyche is going to remain changed for a long time.

“We’re defining who we are, we’re defining how workspace can work, we’re defining our culture. To be working with clients who are in the middle of all that is super powerful. That is the thing that gets me going, like in my early days with Shopify.”

Organizations are now trying to decide what the future of the workplace will be for them, Reeves acknowledges.

“I don’t have the answer to say whether you should be working digitally or not. It’s more about them figuring out what their game plan is and then coming to us.”

Linebox, which has a team of 15 people, has decided on a flex-work arrangement of three days in the office and two days at home. Reeves feels the in-person interaction is important for the transfer of wisdom, knowledge and ideas and in building strong trust patterns.

“I know, personally, as a small entrepreneur, a huge part of my motivation to keep Linebox healthy is the people that are there. The fact that ‘Jon’ just bought a new house, got married and had a kid motivates me to keep the firm going. When all that starts disappearing and I don’t even know these people anymore and they’re just a Zoom call, it changes how you do business,” says Reeves, speaking at the former headquarters of Shopify.

Linebox moved into the space last year, after flexible workplace provider TCC Canada arranged to sublease up to 100,000 square feet of Shopify’s old stomping grounds. It’s currently using just under 50,000 square feet and hopes to fill the balance over the coming nine to 19 months, depending on the recovery time of the pandemic, according to TCC Canada president Sean Cochrane.

“It’s been awesome watching these offices live on for somebody else,” says Reeves, who views the office space as Shopify’s legacy. “There’s no need to tear or rip things out or reinvent the office in here. If you walk around, this is what the future office was then and what it is now.”

Better than home

Hands down, Shopify ran one of the coolest offices, with its yoga room, indoor slide, gourmet cafeteria and other enviable amenities. It created themed floors with authentic details, not Disneyworld-like facades. Its internal staircase meant its employees could skip the elevator when they wanted to visit someone on another floor. Meeting rooms and office stations were created in thoughtful ways to suit all work styles and personalities. There was even a secret hidden doorway in the CEO’s office, in case he wanted some alone time.

The office wasn’t just like home, it was better than home. And that’s what made the commute worth it.

“I applaud Shopify so much,” says Reeves. “As they take on the world, the buildings they leave behind are fostering, who knows, the next Shopify, the next great startup that may come out of this same space.”

It’s an investment in design that Reeves really respects.

“I find Ottawa, as a city, a bit lost,” he acknowledges. “It’s frustrating as an architect to see opportunity wasted or watered down. We’ll be dead and gone and it’s still there, so what are you building: junk or good stuff?”

“I find Ottawa, as a city, a bit lost. It’s frustrating as an architect to see opportunity wasted or watered down.”

He feels the downtown core has, in recent years, constructed too many undistinguished glass towers and grey, generic buildings, leaving it lacking in character, vision and identity.

“I’m very worried about the downtown,” says Reeves. If remote work means fewer people need to come downtown, will they even come at all, he asks. “A city without intention is just a bunch of buildings.”

Reeves believes the ByWard Market needs to be a destination spot designated solely for pedestrians, on par with Old Montreal and the historic neighborhood of Quebec City. He’d also like to see the Senators’ home arena relocated to the city centre.

“It shouldn’t be a question. It should just happen. You have to make it happen. There’s no ‘what if or maybe not’. These are major moves for a city.”

There are promising developments, recognizes Reeves, who cites the new carbon-neutral waterfront community Zibi as an example. There are also unique features to the City of Ottawa that Reeves believes distinguishes it, including its proximity to nature and its French culture.

“One of the best things to ever happen to Ottawa is that we’re next to Quebec.”

With provincial and municipal elections around the corner and pandemic restrictions fading, the wind of change is in the air, says Reeves.

“I remain ‘negatively optimistic’. It’s a time for great change. We need to start thinking about those big moves and thinking, from every little building to every big building, how it’s something that’s permanent, it’s an investment, it’s something that outlasts us all. And we need to be proud of that because Ottawa is just sitting there and it needs a kick in the ass, maybe.”

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