Editorial: Community Vision

Do architects ever just trot out blueprints for buildings? As any practitioner knows, they invariably do much more: from shaping programs and seeking approvals to negotiating construction glitches.

Occasionally, architects also help envision the financial framework that kickstarts projects and allows them to thrive in the long term. As Marianne McKenna of KPMB Architects noted in a recent forum on public interest design, “We start projects by asking our clients: ‘What are your sustainable ideas?’” She says, “If you don’t have an economic model that’s sustainable with a good bottom-line strategy, you can’t go forward.”

A handsome community project in Dundas, Ontario exemplifies the proactive use of this expertise by Perkins+Will. When Hamilton amalgamated with its surrounding municipalities in 2001, a list of surplus buildings for sale was drawn up. The list included an old Carnegie library, which had long served as a gallery for the Dundas Art & Craft Association (DACA). “When I heard the news, I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous,’” recalls Perkins+Will Principal Fred Vermeulen, who lives and works in Dundas. “The gallery was a viable venture–it had always been in the black.”

Vermeulen drew from his long experience working on fundraising-supported hospital and university expansions, and suggested that DACA could offer to buy the building from the city. To do so, he joined with board members to create the Dundas Community Arts Foundation (DCAF), separating the ownership of the building from the operations of the gallery. The city agreed to hold a 10-year mortgage interest-free in exchange for the gallery taking on liability for the building. As part of the deal, every dollar that the gallery spent addressing deferred maintenance items listed by the City and upgrades to meet code would be deducted from the mortgage.

After completing some basic repairs, the gallery embarked on a fundraising campaign to restore the building to its former glory. In the process, they realized that they wanted to go further in expanding the building’s use. Vermeulen sketched a narrow atrium addition, built on an adjacent alleyway, that could provide the extra space needed to host receptions, display tall art pieces, open up a multi-functional basement room, upgrade wheelchair access and add a new office.

Nearby, the Dundas Valley School of Art and the Dundas Historical Society Museum were also in need of repair and modernization. To coordinate efforts, the DCAF enlarged its mandate to fundraise for all three arts facilities. A high-powered group of philanthropists got on board, and convinced federal, provincial and municipal governments to each contribute 25 percent of a $12-million campaign. The balance was fundraised in the community. The School of Art renovation (the largest of the three projects) was finished in 2012 by Invizij Architects, with the museum renovations by McCallum Sather Architects and gallery addition by Perkins+Will completed last summer.

The gallery addition itself was also a community effort. Perkins+Will contributed services at cost, and both Vermeulen and project architect Sandy MacIntosh volunteered off-the-clock time to attend weekly evening meetings, garden tours, and other fundraising events. Local manufacturer Aerloc discounted the cost on silicone-sided, cap-free curtain wall for the atrium, and ArcelorMittal (formerly Dofasco) donated funds to support the use of steel in the building project. Perkins+Will put these funds to use by designing minimalist feature stairs that featured steel panels.

The Art & Craft Association is thrilled with the results–they even threw a dinner party for the architects–and the project has infused Perkins+Will’s Dundas office with a broader sense of purpose. “It’s helped create more of a culture around community support and philanthropy,” says Vermeulen. “We as architects have quite a unique skill set. We can make such a difference to a community group that has none of those skills. I take the philosophy that if we can make the difference, we should give away that expertise to support the community.”

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com