Award-winning designer of Google’s newest Canadian location

By Cheryl Long

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The portfolio of work by Robertson Simmons Architects was outstanding even before the Kitchener, Ont.-based firm became involved in one of Waterloo Region’s most anticipated architectural projects. But they’ve gained greater notoriety as the designers of the building set to house Google’s newest and largest office in Canada.

The Breithaupt Block, located in the heart of the southern Ontario city, is a restored industrial building dating back to the early 1900s. It was purchased in 2009 by Perimeter Development Corp., which later sold 50 per cent of its stake to Toronto-based Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust.  Robertson Simmons (RSai) was brought in to redesign the building, which is being transformed into a five-storey structure that still retains a sense of the original building’s history.

It’s the kind of work that one would expect to see in larger centres like Toronto. “The Waterloo Region is relatively small and the development industry in the region is not like that in a larger city,” said Patrick Simmons, one of the partners at RSai. “(Perimeter Development) brought a new level of sophistication and expertise to downtown Kitchener. We’ve learned a lot from them.”

The project earned additional recognition for RSai when the Breithaupt Block received the NAIOP Real Estate Excellence (REX) award earlier this year for Office Development of the Year. The award recognizes outstanding achievements in the office, industrial, retail and mixed-use real estate industry in the Greater Toronto Area, choosing recipients based on a combination of results, skills and values. In addition, the restoration received a Canadian Urban Institute Brownie Award in 2014 for Best Overall Project.

Google moving into new urban development

A combination of restored early 20th-century industrial architecture and 21st-century new construction, the Breithaupt Block is set to become of the city’s most prestigious urban developments. Approximately 185,000 square feet of its space, including a new three-storey addition, will be leased by Google. Its distinctive blue glass exterior with iconic Google logo, rooftop deck and interior slide will be just a few of the office’s unique features.

Simmons joined the firm in 1992 after completing a graduate degree from Harvard University.  Over the years, he has seen RSai grow and evolve to a point where they’re able to compete with architectural firms from Toronto and other Canadian cities. That’s due, in part, to the company’s long history dating back to 1946 and the decades of expertise that’s been gathered, particularly in the areas of office buildings and educational facilities. Their design portfolio features more than two million square feet of corporate space and over four million square feet in educational projects, from child-care centres to post-secondary institutions. The company’s aim is to work with clients in a collaborative environment, finding inspiration in multiple perspectives and disciplines.

“We’ve been very lucky for the whole history of our firm, but particularly the last 10 years, to attract the kind of clients who want to innovate,” Simmons said. “They want to work with a design firm that can take them in new directions.”

Innovation is a key ingredient

Innovation is one of the reasons behind RSai’s success, allowing the company to keep existing clients and attract new ones. “We can count quite a few projects in our portfolio over the last 10 or 20 years that are firsts for technical innovation,” Simmons explained. It has also helped the company build and retain a highly-skilled team divided between their head office in Kitchener and a second in Toronto. Their expertise ranges from architecture and interiors to sustainability and a concept they call Hyper-Speed AbilityTM, which meets the rapid growth needs of clients often found in the technology and health-care sectors.

Being located in Waterloo Region, which reflects a unique combination of traditional influences and modern advancement — the area has been nicknamed Canada’s Technology Triangle — is a source of inspiration for RSai.

“It’s uniquely situated in the middle of southern Ontario, it has a very broad economic base, it’s got an extraordinary river running through the region, and a history of hard-working craftsmen that have built the community to where it is,” Simmons said. “There’s an architectural style that’s been maturing over the last century that we draw from, there’s the tech community which brings sort of a vitality and technical innovation with it, and there’s also the broader influences from Toronto — a thriving economy and a very sophisticated architectural design sensibility.”

In addition, the firm has developed its own style over the past few decades and in the last 10 years in particular, so it’s not uncommon to have other firms and clients look to their team to take a leadership role in a project, he added.

Strong commitment to charitable work

The partners and staff at RSai also demonstrate a strong commitment to not-for-profit work, supporting various foundations and charities in and around the community. Last year, a team of 10 volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity townhome development site in Kitchener and this year, RSai took part in a fund-raising event for KidsAbility, an organization committed to helping children and youth with complex special needs reach their full potential. A little farther from home, the firm has been assisting with the construction of an orphanage in India by designing the two-storey residence that will provide a home for up to 150 girls.  

Collaborating with other firms and keeping an eye out for new opportunities are among RSai’s plans for growth. This summer, they moved into a new office location in Kitchener.

“Sometimes it takes hard work and a great portfolio to attract the kind of luck that we’ve had in the last 10 years, so I’m grateful for it,” Simmons said, “but I’m also very proud of the staff that we have and my partners to be able to put the work in place to attract that kind of fortune.”

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