Architects DCABy Anna Guy

If you work or live in the Ottawa area, you have felt the influence of Architects DCA (formally known as Dreessen Cardinal Architects). For over 30 years, the firm’s creative and lasting designs have been chosen for commercial, retail, office, industrial and institutional settings, and have fostered a loyal client base by delivering projects on time, on budget, and with the respect of the individual needs and specialities of each setting.

Toon Dreessen, President, heads up the collective of highly-skilled and uniquely talented architects and technicians. He is a graduate of Carleton University and recipient of the Alpha Rho Chi graduation medal. Toon became a member of the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) and a member of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (RAIC) in 2005. In 2016, Toon was honored by his peers and inducted into the College of Fellows of the RAIC.

“I’ve always been fascinated with architecture. I loved the drawings of buildings I used to see when I visited my mom’s work after school when she worked as a graphic artist in a landscape architect’s office,” says Dreessen, of his earliest influences. “As I learned more about architecture, it showed me that there is a huge impact that architects can have on the environment, affecting how people feel, their mental and physical health and how the building fits into the city, community or climate.”

Dreessen started working in architectural drawing during his third year at Carleton as a member of the Students Design Clinic; these early projects were houses, porches, renovations and small additions. Demand for Dreessen’s work increased to the extent that, when he earned his licence in 2005, he was able to immediately open his own practice while continuing to work in another architecture office. In 2007, he devoted his full time energies to his own practice and in 2012, having established a proven track record, Dreessen merged with Farrow Architects, an established Ottawa practice with roots dating back to the 1970s. Three years later, Dreessen acquired majority share ownership of the firm and, later that year, the husband and wife team of Farrow Architects retired.

“The company is founded on delivering excellence. We have a vision to be a successful architecture practice with a reputation for quality, where our designs are durable and beautiful and are created by a dedicated team,” says Dreessen. “This applies to all that we do and is exemplified in our ISO 9001:2015 Certification. This vision can be applied to all ranges of projects, across all spectrums and is manifested in different ways depending on the needs of the client and project.”


The B350 Laboratory (Harriet Brooks Lab) at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the 360 Lofts Condo, and the Orleans Veterinary Hospital, each exemplify the Dreessen touch in their own way. The B350 Laboratory, one of the first in Canada to seek LEED Silver certification under the newer guidelines, including process energy, a difficult thing to achieve in a laboratory setting, introduced a new way of workplace design for the campus, incorporating collaboration and openness for a facility used to an earlier era of large private, enclosed, offices.

The 360 Lofts Condo was, at the time, the tallest wood frame structure in Ottawa. The infill condo was built in 2012 and won a City of Ottawa Urban Design Award of Merit and Ontario WoodWorks Award of Excellence. “The project is in the Byward Market, with dynamic form, durable materials, and good urbanism, providing a legacy of quality for the Market, without resorting to a cookie-cutter development model. It hides parking from the street and increases the quality of built urban form,” says Dreessen. “The building shows my interest in quality, unique, infill development, pushing the technical boundaries of conventional construction.”

The Orleans Veterinary Hospital brought a new facility to the growing suburb east of Ottawa. “It was my first foray into veterinary hospitals and it was a great experience,” says Dreessen. “Balancing the needs of a well-designed, beautiful, building, with the durability required, to serve the needs of animals first and foremost in design thinking was a tough, but a rewarding experience. Considering how nervous animals need to be comforted, and make their owners feel welcome, and giving the space needed for the veterinarians and staff to work resulted in a functional, creative, layout. The building was integrated with the site and provides a unique boutique retail experience in their building, along with a full surgical suite, care and exam rooms, treatment facilities and a dedicated staff area to relax from the rigours of a stressful job, complete with roof top patio, and overlook into the treatment areas below.”

The building has been a huge success, bringing in a steady stream of clients to the owners, increasing their ability to care for animals in a new, state-of-the-art facility. This shows the value of a positive client relationship, where the trust placed in the relationship works well to create a great building that meets the needs of the owners, patients and community.

Dreessen is an outspoken advocate for design and architecture regulations in his area, and is a passionate author on many topics. “The challenge [with working in a conservative city like Ottawa] is finding that balance and respecting the formality of certain institutions, coupled with a more conservative mind-set. One of the challenges in Ottawa is the overlapping jurisdictions: we have a local design panel, as well as design submissions with the National Capital Commission for some projects. We have a federal government with a certain national identity that may not always align with the visual/built form identity of a growing city, as well as influences from the technology sector that help shape a growing vibrancy to our built form.”

“Really key to this is finding elected officials who have a vision for excellence in built form. They become champions of the idea that architecture matters and see the value in a positive engagement with the public, and the profession, to make buildings integral parts of the city.”

What factors does Ottawa bring to Dreessen’s work? “Ottawa has a lot to offer,” he says. “My designs tend to reflect our nature as people: we know that there is a conservative streak to the city, but a bit of pop, and colour, now and then, can be fun. Making a subtle detail work really well, to stand out just right, makes a difference. On the Orleans Veterinary Hospital, we used a roman style brick. It might not sound like much, but the very long, thin, bricks help accentuate the design of the building and make it a bit unique.”

“We like to work with local materials, craftsmanship and skills to build on the community around us, and reflect who we are, as a culture. This is important locally, because Ottawa isn’t Toronto, Vancouver or Thunder Bay; its got its own culture, ideas and context. But at a bigger scale, I’d like to think that the buildings I design reflect Canada as a whole, in some way, and are reflective of both Canada, Ontario and Ottawa.”

Dreessen advocates for a national architecture policy “designed to suit the society we want”. Apart from simply achieving a vision for a client, Dreessen sees how architecture can impact the entire community in various ways, such as responding to natural disasters, preserving farmland, innovating materials and technology, developing approaches to social justice and equity, fostering culture, increasing accessibility, and inclusiveness. “How can we design spaces to uplift the human spirt,” he says, “while responding to today’s economic needs, and building for a future?” Buildings last for generations, or should, he continues, and if we want a better city, or a better outcome from Requests for Proposal, we need ask better questions, engage in a better process.

Through his blogs, Dreessen is raising the public appreciation of, and understanding of architecture. “If we’re not sure what “well designed” means, we need, as a society, to learn a bit more about what architecture is, how it works, what impact it has on our lives.”

As the firm looks towards its fourth decade, Dreessen hopes to grow and expand while continuing to deliver excellence. He says he wishes to continue to challenge the accepted norm of low-price procurement and work to build a reputation where architects are seen as collaborators, and partners, with great clients to deliver excellent projects, on time and on budget.

“I also see myself continuing to grow a public advocacy model that shows that architects care about the entirety of the built environment, from bike lanes to buildings, and that all aspects of our society can be improved thinking through the lens of architecture (design thinking),” continues Dreessen. “I see the firm growing as we take on projects in a variety of scales, sizes and models, to challenge the assumptions that “architects draft plans” to show that #architectscanhelp and to be recognized in the Ottawa Valley, and the National Capital Region, as the go-to firm for innovation, ideas and excellence. And that as time progresses, that the firm become known nationally as leaders in the field, blending traditional practice, advocacy, research, writing, publication, innovation and leadership to show that #architecturematters.”