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60+ Years of Design + Innovation
20 December 2017

HOK’s Canada Story: As Told by Those Who Lived It

Top: Joe Pettipas, Riccardo Mascia, Sharon Turner, Duncan Broyd
Bottom: Bryan Jones, Randa Tukan, Anthony Fieldman

2017 marked the 20th anniversary of HOK’s entry into Canada. In recognition of that milestone, we spoke to several people who oversaw the growth of HOK’s Canadian practice and who now are leading it into the future.

The story of HOK in Canada begins with one client: Nortel, the Canadian technology firm that in the late-1990s would grow to an incredible size (95,000 worldwide employees) and then, as miraculously, cease operations entirely following the collapse of the dot-com bubble. HOK’s Canada practice could have ended there as well. Instead it headed east—thousands of miles east—where the practice in the early- and mid-2000s won commissions to plan and design spectacular new developments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the U.A.E.

Meanwhile, back home in Canada, the practice quietly gained a reputation as one of the nation’s top interior design and workplace firms through projects for clients such as Rogers, Cisco, AOL, Google and TD Bank. Today HOK’s Canada practice—with offices in Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary—is poised for perhaps its greatest story yet with the addition of new design principal Anthony Fieldman and several remarkable projects in the pipeline.

What follows is a glimpse into the past, present and future of the Canada practice as told by:

  • Joe Pettipas: Director of Business Development
  • Riccardo Mascia: HOK’s Executive Committee
  • Sharon Turner: Regional Leader of WorkPlace
  • Duncan Broyd: Managing Principal
  • Bryan Jones: Regional Leader of Planning
  • Randa Tukan: Director of Interiors
  • Anthony Fieldman: Design Principal

Early Days and Nortel

Nortel’s Brampton Campus project converted a 1.2-million-sq.-ft. factory into a corporate headquarters.

Joe Pettipas: HOK in Canada really came together at the behest of Nortel. The request was essentially that if HOK was going to do all this ongoing account work up here, it had better put an office in Canada. So HOK came to Toronto. At the time the Houston office had started doing work on Nortel’s campus in Brampton, Ontario.

Riccardo Mascia: We bought what was then a relatively small firm, Urbana Architects of Toronto, with about five or six people and over the next few years Nortel became HOK’s largest client.

Pettipas: I joined soon after and with the original Urbana partners (the last of whom, Gordon Stratford, just recently retired) started building a team. Within five years we’d grown from a staff of a dozen to 250 people in Toronto and Ottawa.

Sharon Turner: Coming from various firms, our strengths were very different. But there was a common philosophy to build a practice with a culture of knowledge sharing, mentorship, hard work, integrity and, most importantly, respect for each other and our clients.

Pettipas: Nortel’s Brampton campus was unlike anything we had seen. At the time, it was probably the largest single floor plate in North America and perhaps the world. Our consulting team was able to show Nortel that it could save $60 million by taking an unused factory and turning it into its global headquarters. So instead of having two downtown Toronto towers, Nortel moved into a one-story, 1.2- million-sq.-ft. building. We used urban design principles (right) to plan it as a city with neighborhoods and streets all under one roof. The mail delivery guys rode bicycles through the office. It was one of the first campuses or buildings that had amenities like an on-site dry cleaner, bank, travel agency and health facility. They had 3,500 to 4,000 people there. It was a small city.

Mascia: The former head of global real estate for Nortel, David Dunn, was instrumental in our growth in Canada because he envisioned an unusually close partnership developing between us, which became true as Nortel grew (and then contracted) exponentially. The premise was simple: Nortel would give us all kinds of work—we just had to be close, reliable, and nimble to get the work done. It was the precursor to the master service agreements now prevalent, and it led HOK from a hub and spoke organization to a more organic one. You could say that our ability to design KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), a high-design, short-schedule project in Saudi Arabia, has its roots in what we learned working with Nortel.

Pettipas: We had to be ready for anything. In Montreal, Nortel asked us to deliver a new, 450,000-sq.-ft. building for them in 11 months. They hadn’t even purchased the property. Somehow we pulled it off. Those were crazy days. It was unfortunate when Nortel collapsed, and not just because we lost a big client. When you work that closely with a company, you build personal relationships. It was sad to see.

Duncan Broyd: What’s also unusual is that we actually designed Nortel’s Brampton campus twice. Rogers (Canada’s largest communications firm) bought it from Nortel out of bankruptcy and we reconfigured it for them 20 years after we did it for Nortel. So we’ve designed workplaces in the same 1 million-plus-sq.-ft. building for two different companies, which is unique. This speaks to our reputation in the market for solving difficult interior problems and transitioning people through different workplace strategies. And that stems from our Nortel work, with some of the same key people from our interiors and workplace team still involved today in addition to a new cadre of experts.

Turner: Nortel positioned us well for other workplace projects. I’m thinking, for example, of GE Capital’s Information Technology Solutions building in Toronto. As one of the first major projects—300,000 square feet—that we won on the heels of the Nortel work, this was a great team win.

Middle Years, Middle East

Dubai Marina: One of HOK Canada’s first (and biggest) projects in the Middle East.

Pettipas: In the early- and mid-2000s we started working out of the Middle East in a serious way. Our first and most significant project was the Dubai Marina. Bill Valentine (then HOK’s president and design principal) came up to Toronto and spent significant time with us preparing the pitch and drawings for the project. We had a 15-foot drawing—this was before computer-generated images—and I remember all these designers huddled around coloring in the drawing with markers and using White Out to create water swells. People were working 15-hour days to get that pitch out.

Bryan Jones: Ironically, my first day at HOK in 2003 was spent flying to our London office, where I remained for the next six months. At the time, the Toronto landscape architecture team was working with the London studio on a full-service delivery package for Dubai Festival City. For that first half year, I only knew my colleagues back in Toronto through WebEx meetings and phone conversations.

Pettipas: That Middle East work cemented the fact that, as HOK, we had access to the global marketplace. I spent the better part of the decade working on projects overseas. It was far and beyond anything I had imagined I’d be doing yet everything I could have dreamed. It raised the bar. If we were going to play in the global stage as HOK, our Canada practice needed to be HOK. We needed to be as good as our name suggested.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

Mascia: The Canada team opened our Dubai office, and a lot of our work in the Middle East came through Canada to our offices in the U.S. and elsewhere. Dubai Marina is one example of that.

Randa Tukan: Some of my favorite projects were in the Middle East. The Dubai Marina set the benchmark for exceptional mixed-use development in the region. And KAUST was, at the time of its certification, the largest LEED-Platinum project in the world.

Jones: My favorite project during the nearly 10 years I spent servicing overseas projects was the strategic master plan for Boubyan Island in Kuwait (right). We were able to develop a rationale to dramatically reduce the human impact on a fragile ecosystem while satisfying the infrastructure needs for Kuwait’s continued recovery following the Gulf War.

For me, the greatest satisfaction has come while working with my HOK colleagues around the globe. Planning is a small group, and over my 15 years I have collaborated with every HOK planning studio across our firm. Despite the distances and context, we share many traits as designers working together to address the same global challenges.

Renewed Focus on Canada

HOK has earned a reputation as one of Canada’s premier firms for corporate interiors.

Pettipas: The financial crisis of 2008 brought an end to a lot of the work we were doing in the Middle East. To a degree, this was a blessing in disguise. It forced us to concentrate more on our home market. I moved to Calgary and lived there for three years helping that office, which opened in 2007, secure relationships with Imperial Oil and a few other companies.

Broyd: It’s important to recognize our incredibly accomplished workplace and interiors group, led by Sharon, Randa and Robyn Baxter in consulting. This team really kept the momentum going here in Canada with big projects for companies such as Sun Life Financial (image above) and small and midsize interiors projects for firms like Google and CBRE.

Turner: Recently we’ve had the opportunity to expand our reputation as thought leaders in the workplace of the future with projects such as Cisco System’s Canada Headquarters and helping Rogers transform their offices to activity-based environments. The workplace as we know it is in the middle of a huge transformation, and we’re helping to guide its evolution.

Driftscape won the hospitality practice grand prize in the 2016 Radical Innovation Awards.

Tukan: The key to the success of the interiors practice is our commitment to the highest-quality design and delivery on every project. We are always aiming for innovative solutions, whether for large projects such as our rebranding of the Delta Hotels or for small or experimental projects such as Driftscape, our drone hotel concept.

Broyd: To be colloquial, we’re very ‘hot’ in the corporate interiors market. I’d say the same is true in hospitality thanks to some of those projects Randa just named. Landscape architecture is also gaining recognition, recently winning multiple awards for our master plan for Tunney’s Pasture, which reworked a federal campus in Ottawa.

Jones: For me, the projects we’ve completed in Canada are the most special. These are projects that we can apply our expertise to in our own neighborhoods and cities. On the edge of Toronto, for example, our landscape master plan for the Vaughan Healthcare Precinct (right) took what had been a neglected drainage course and transformed it into a cold water stream surrounded by native plant communities and new pedestrian and cycle routes. To have the ability to leave the world in better shape than you found it is incredibly rewarding for the team and is the kind of result we push for at every opportunity.

HOK in Canada: The NExT Chapter

The Core Science Facility at Memorial University drew design inspiration from the icebergs found off the coast of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Pettipas: There’s a ton of excitement moving forward. We’re working on marquee projects across the country. Some we cannot disclose right now while others, such as the Core Science Facility at Memorial University, are expanding our reputation in markets like Science + Technology and Education. Last May we added a new design principal in Anthony Fieldman, who’s committed to excellence both in solution making and in the design process and who is energizing the office.

Fieldman: I see the potential to build on our strengths and elevate the brand of HOK in a holistic design sense. I want us to be considered the design thought leaders throughout Canada without stipulation—in architecture, interiors, planning, furniture and intellectual property. Inside HOK, I want to make us a star in the system—a de facto source of inspiration to show what the architects and designers within our firm are capable of producing.

The Toronto office in 1997 and 2017

Pettipas: Until around 2010 we always referred to ourselves as HOK Canada. Then one day we collectively woke up and said, ‘Yes, of course, we’re Canada. We’re Canadians. But as a practice, we’re HOK. Period.’ That change demonstrates how we’ve matured. We went from a giddy infancy to our teenage years where we tested the limits. Now we’ve become more mature as a practice. Not complacent, mind you, but confident in who we are and what we can do.

Mascia: There’s a saying that it takes 20 years to become an overnight success. People often forget all the hard work that goes into making it.

Fieldman: We’re just getting started. We’ve initiated what I’m calling HOK NExT, which empowers our younger thinkers to investigate and propose ways to advance our practice. This is turning the pyramid upside down and saying to our promising future leaders: ‘If you were given our chair, what would you do?’ We want to hear their wisdom, see their ideas. We want to continue to build a culture of both innovation and knowledge.