When OCAD University opened its Toronto waterfront campus last year, officials at the country’s oldest postsecondary institution for art and design knew they wanted to deliver a different kind of executive training.
The result was a 14,000-square-foot space in a new office/condominium high rise, with design elements that cater to teaching and learning for a fast-changing workplace. That meant functional, flexible and open training spaces, not formal classrooms and bolted-down desks. It also meant high ceilings and natural light, as well as small studios for hands-on projects. To keep the flexibility required of the space, the university was built with movable walls that become larger when needed as well as flex areas that invite informal collaborations. With its vibrant colour scheme of bright pinks and oranges, the space is a nod to the Sharp Centre for Design housed in OCAD’s “box on stilts” that sits above the main campus in downtown Toronto.
Beyond its minimalist, flexible spaces, the new campus at 130 Queen’s Quay East also offers a lesson in the value of collaboration on design during the early stages of a project – in this case, before completion of the 11-storey office condo by RAW Design (architects) and Rafael + Bigauskas Architects.
“That marriage of architecture and interiors – that integration – is hugely important and is something the Toronto market is missing,” says interior designer Caroline Robbie, a partner with Quadrangle, the firm that configured the new interior spaces.
“There are a few [architecture] firms that do have integrated interior groups, but it is not celebrated here [in Toronto], and a lot of commercial development clients will do the architecture and then hire the interiors,” adds Ms. Robbie, who is also an OCAD graduate. “It is really too disconnected.”
She argues “to get a space really working, you have to be thinking about it from the very beginning. What is the experience going to be like? What do people need to do for it to work for its commercial function?”
As the person responsible for developing the executive training programs at the new campus, Robert Luke asked the same questions.
“My job was to say ‘this is what we are building there’ and these are the functional spaces,” says Mr. Luke, now OCAD vice-president of research and innovation. A designer himself, he imagined the areas for teaching and learning would be “minimal, functional and colourful.”
In this case, the ability to modify design elements before completion of construction paid dividends.
A prime example was the ability to achieve Mr. Luke’s vision of providing informal, collaborative workspace, because Ms. Robbie was able to see the opportunity and change the build prior to completion.
“More often than not, there is often a little bit of flush room in those [mechanical and electrical] rooms and [a recess of] 600 millimetres was not going to make that much of a difference,” Ms. Robbie says, especially as the building was still under construction. “The base building mechanical and electrical engineers were aware that we wanted to push in a little bit on that wall and they were able to accommodate it.”
The result was a set of recessed meeting areas where people could congregate and work together.
Brock Stevenson, senior manager of design and innovation for Daniels Corp., the project builder, says the nooks “are a perfect example” of how early collaboration between the builder (his firm) and the tenant (OCAD) and the designer Quadrangle can help adjust “base building plans and to think about the space. [It meant] we could almost bake-in things that would ultimately improve the function.”
Instead of a blank hallway, the breakout spaces enable small-scale discussions. “It shows it is important to take a sidebar, go and write on a wall and confer with a colleague,” Mr. Luke says. “That is what designers do and why design-thinking is important.”
OCAD U CO’s flexible learning spaces and seating areas appealed to Alwar Pillai, co-founder of Fable Tech Labs, who spent six months in a startup incubator at the campus.
“For us, it was nice to have such a huge space that was very adaptable, with modular furniture you could move around," says Ms. Pillai, whose company advises businesses on making digital products and websites accessible to the disabled. “Any time we had a visitor in a wheelchair or with a guide dog, we were able to adjust the room to make sure we were creating a comfortable environment for our community.”
While Ms. Robbie is a designer, she is intimately familiar with the architectural process.
“I grew up in architecture and watched it my whole life,” says Ms. Robbie, whose late father, Roderick (Rod) Robbie, was a heralded architect who designed Canada’s Expo 67 Pavilion and Toronto’s Rogers Centre and collaborated with British architect Will Alsop on OCAD’s Sharp Centre.
“I know how architects think,” she says. “It is complementary but different than the way interior designers think.” She adds that early discussions between designers and architects need not be adversarial. The discussions over the nook, she says, were collaborative in nature. “Do you need that two feet? No, okay we will grab it.”
Bernard Sin, a partner at Rafael + Bigauskas Architects, one of the architect firms on the Daniels project, sees value in working with designers.
“The earlier, the better,” he says. “Early in the design phase is when people understand what they will do and it’s the best stage to accommodate those needs.” He recalls what happened on a different project when late-stage design changes required cutting into already-poured concrete. “That was very expensive and we had to make modifications to the design to make it work,” he says.
“It’s about cost and time,” he adds. “When you have to make huge openings in concrete, that will delay your project, and time is money.”
At OCAD U CO, the space required for the nooks was modest but sent a larger message about the role of design in promoting collaboration among multiple generations and disciplines in today’s workplace.
“It was about making sure the space created offered as many choices for people to work, [enabling them] to work where and how they wanted to work,” Ms. Robbie says.