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The new Vancouver headquarters of Mountain Equipment Co-operative was designed by Proscenium Architecture + Interiors Inc., who’ve worked with MEC since they converted the Mount Pleasant warehouse into their last HQ in 1999. It’s clad in glass, steel and composite cedar. (Ed White/MEC)
The new Vancouver headquarters of Mountain Equipment Co-operative was designed by Proscenium Architecture + Interiors Inc., who’ve worked with MEC since they converted the Mount Pleasant warehouse into their last HQ in 1999. It’s clad in glass, steel and composite cedar. (Ed White/MEC)

Office space

Inside Mountain Equipment Co-op’s modern, woodsy HQ Add to ...

Sandy Treagus is hardly your average chief financial officer. Then again, Mountain Equipment Co-operative is hardly your average company. On a warm February morning in Vancouver, as Mr. Treagus strides through MEC’s headquarters in dark jeans and navy Chuck Taylor sneakers, he’s cut off more than once by employees rushing past hoisting bicycles on their shoulders.

He certainly doesn’t mind. Bikes are a part of life at MEC, and besides, there’s plenty of space for him to manoeuvre around his 375 colleagues. A year ago, at their old HQ, there wouldn’t have been. MEC began leasing the 47,000-square-foot refurbished auto-parts warehouse in Mount Pleasant in 1999, when the company was half its current size. After a prosperous decade, it was a squeeze for everyone.

“For an organization that is so full of energy and activity, it wasn’t enabling that in any way, shape or form,” Mr. Treagus says. So last October, the outdoor sporting-goods retailer moved two kilometres east, into a new 112,000-square-foot building on a former industrial site in False Creek Flats.

MEC’s new headquarters is a four-storey distillation of its corporate culture. There are bike lockers, a bouldering room, a space for yoga and CrossFit classes, and views of the north shore mountains. Its design, too, keeps the 4.3-million-member co-op’s motives in mind: Built to achieve LEED Platinum certification, the company says that it will be 70 per cent more energy efficient than standard commercial buildings, leaving minimal impact on the natural world its members enjoy.

The company sells outdoor gear in 18 stores across six provinces, and has a growing online retail presence, as it tries to bridge the gap between its legacy, extreme-sport-focused membership and the newer, more urban-centric members of the co-op.

A new headquarters “was really about creating a space that would enable us to attract and retain the best people, but also create a sort of energy in the workplace that was about everyone bringing their best stuff every day,” says Mr. Treagus, who, starting in 2008, helped to mastermind the co-op’s move to a new HQ. “I think that’s really what we’ve achieved. The change in energy is actually quite palpable.”

The new headquarters was designed by Proscenium Architecture + Interiors Inc., who’ve worked with MEC since they converted the Mount Pleasant warehouse into their last HQ in 1999. The retailer is leasing the new property from Investor’s Group under a 20-year agreement, with options for two five-year renewals. The design, project architect Ron Clay says, “completely plays into MEC’s idea that you can have a place with a sense of environment, where you can connect with the context around you.”

Outside of downtown but in the heart of the city, False Creek Flats allowed MEC to house its operations away from both stuffy office towers and isolated office parks, in a bike, transit and pedestrian-friendly location across the street from a public park.

Clad in glass, steel and composite cedar, the building’s high windows and slim, Y-shaped profile allow for its whole footprint to be flooded with sunlight, reducing lighting costs. Rainwater is collected from the roof for the building’s non-potable water. It’s heated and cooled by 20 geothermal wells, with fresh air drawn in from three rooftop stacks.

That air is circulated through the building’s raised floors, which are made with easily removable plates to make the space easy to rearrange. Much of the structure is built of wood, a carbon-storing renewable resource that will be easy to disassemble at the end of the building’s life.

Employees can either sit or stand at their desks. Many of the company’s in-house products, like sleeping bags and garments, are designed right here, in plain view of everyone. And the space is rife with both formal and informal meeting rooms; the formal ones are each adorned with a splash of bright colour and a slogan – “cross finish lines,” for example – which, Mr. Treagus says, helps to reinforce MEC’s “bring it” corporate culture.

MEC’s success relies on both innovation and movement. The building’s nerve centre – a grand four-storey central staircase – is meant to be a conduit for both, drawing people up and down the building.

“We looked at the proximity of where everybody needed to sit relative to everybody else, and which departments needed to sit together,” Mr. Treagus says. “If you try to get everybody in one plane, you’d have a football field. So what we tried to do is have this central core that drew everybody together and the different departments off that.”

At the top of the stairs is MEC’s staff lounge, which opens up onto the roof and has sweeping views of the northern mountains. There are elevators, but frankly, the employees prefer the stairs. “Everyone basically runs up those stairs all day,” says Greg Piccini, another project architect with Proscenium. For the rare employee who doesn’t feel like climbing, the stair acts as an echo chamber, so when a colleague calls for them, they’d be embarrassed to take the elevator anyway.

“They’re trying to provide a structure and a building that meets their practical needs, but also encourages their wanting to play and be creative, fun people,” Mr. Clay says.

Building MEC’s headquarters in False Creek Flats was a big help for the city, too. Vancouver is angling to be the world’s “greenest city” by 2020, and city officials want the former tidal flat and industrial hub to be the “greenest place to work in the world,” at the forefront of sustainability and innovation.

The Centre for Digital Media is next door to MEC, and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design is preparing to move to the area soon. The VCC-Clark SkyTrain station is nearby, and a transit referendum will soon decide the possibility of extending the line westward to the University of British Columbia.

The city was more than happy to welcome MEC to the neighbourhood. Brian Jackson, Vancouver’s head of planning, calls the headquarters’ design “very exciting, very leading edge, pushing the envelope in terms of sustainable building technology.”

Sitting at a table just a few metres from the central staircase, Mr. Treagus brings everything back to MEC’s employees. The company built the HQ for them; happy employees deliver great service to the co-op’s members. “We work in a competitive space. A critical piece for us is to actually attract and retain the best people. I say that emphatically – it is our most important goal. If you have the right people, the rest just becomes a whole lot easier.”

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