Skip to main content

Toon Dreessen is president of Architects DCA. He is a past president of the Ontario Association of Architects.

Residents of Ottawa deserve better places. Better buildings for social events, learning and forging community. Places that are accessible, welcoming and resilient in the face of a changing climate and the city’s evolving needs. Residents deserve access to clean and safe public washrooms at transit stations, parks and public markets. The people of Ottawa should have a built environment they can be proud of, one that lifts the human spirit and supports both an equitable economy and sustainable future.

So why don’t we build these places?

Ottawa lacks the vision for excellence that would come from the leadership provided by a city architect and a robust municipal architectural policy. We’re comfortable letting the federal government and National Capital Commission take responsibility for most of the public realm – the museums, Parliament buildings, experimental farm, canal or Ottawa River parkways. But no municipal building in Ottawa has ever been recognized with a Governor-General’s Medal in Architecture, and we collect few prizes at provincial design awards.

This is a choice. We choose not to put washrooms at every LRT station. We choose not to invest in the ByWard Market, the second-most visited tourist destination in the city. We choose, annually, to allocate just a tiny fraction of our budget for buildings and parks. We let billions of dollars’ worth of buildings crumble from neglect because we choose not to make sustainable investments.

Although we’re the capital of a G7 country, we pale in comparison to similar-sized cities around the world when it comes to providing the sort of quality spaces that lift the human spirit and creating lasting legacies for future generations. We need leadership in championing design excellence that is paired with development of a municipal architectural policy. Such a policy can inform an Official Plan, but also decision making on cultural heritage, well-being, economic vitality and reconciliation. This would be similar to policies that exist in comparable cities around the world as well as in the province of Quebec.

But that would address only half the problem.

The way architects are commissioned in Ottawa is driven by a hiring process that puts design last. The focus is on risk avoidance and low fees. The result is mediocre public buildings that do a disservice to the people of Ottawa and the wider economy.

If the city wants to hire an architect for a project, they won’t consider a firm that hasn’t done the same kind of project before, multiple times and recently. The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic Alex Bozikovic discussed this last year when questioning why Toronto won’t make great buildings. If you’ve designed apartment buildings, but not affordable housing in that city, you won’t be considered for such projects. If you worked on them while employed at a firm, and then start your own practice, it’s the same story.

Similarly, in Ottawa, a firm essentially can’t get a contract to design a washroom, for example, unless it has City of Ottawa washrooms in their portfolio. Such an approach means the people of Ottawa don’t get the benefit of a wider range of creative ideas.

Imagine if the only new music was from artists who had released at least three albums in the past five years. We’d never see new music.

The city also assumes that if three architects meet the minimum qualifications, the bid with the lowest price is best. That might be true if you are buying toilet paper or plywood: These are physical things that can be quantified. But creative ideas can’t. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities published a guide that explains this.

Suppose, for example, a $2-million building costs $200,000 to design, but carries $9-million in lifetime operating costs for utilities and services. If a creative architect invests more time in the design, spending 10 per cent more in fees, and saves 5 per cent annually on utility costs, a city might end up spending $20,000 more initially but saving $450,000 over the life of the building. A better hiring process would make this kind of scenario possible.

Ottawa’s current process of commissioning architects also imposes one-sided contracts that are often unfair. For example, contract conditions require a firm to transfer its intellectual property to the city; in doing so, it forfeits its copyright and requires permission from the city to reuse, modify or adapt part of its own design for a future project. Architectural firms are further dissuaded from bidding because of conditions that impose an unreasonable transfer of risk.

If we want to be the city we aspire to be, the public needs to demand better. This requires political will to invest in our places, our people and our future.

Our public sector needs to reform its approach to hiring and commissioning architects and engineers. Creating durable, beautiful and uplifting buildings, parks and social infrastructure requires the creative talents, skills and abilities of interested firms that make Ottawa their home.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe