Rethinking The Urban Landscape

By Rajitha Sivakumaran


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The year 2011 experienced a record-breaking increase in condominium sales in Toronto; 25,992 units were sold in response to the sky-high prices of low-rise homes. According to Urbanation, a market research firm, 2016 is projected to produce digits that are nearly as high. The first quarter of this year has already achieved a 32 percent increase in condominium sales across the GTA compared to the same time in 2015.

This surge in construction is altering the urban landscape of not just Toronto, but of many major cities across North America, and consequently many players are battling on the grounds of a competitive housing market. One such player is the Toronto-based U31 Inc., a full service design firm specializing in the condominium and residential development market, designing sales and presentation centres, model suites, lobbies, corridors and full amenity spaces. The firm has been at the forefront of condominium design well before condominiums became a dominant part of the city landscape. Seventy per cent of work done by U31 lies in the real estate market and focuses on condominium design.

“The condominium is still a relatively new art, a new idea for Toronto and parts of North America,” said Kelly Cray, creative principal at U31. As one of the company’s co-founders, he heads the commercial and development department of the business.

Like the evolving urban environment, U31 has changed and progressed since its inception, adapting and reinventing the art of design as it saw fit. The company traces its history back to 1979, when it emerged under the name of Chapman Design Ltd.

With decades of experience, the company, rebranded as UNION31 in 2011, adopted this emblematic name to illustrate the union of four partners. Cray now manages the firm alongside co-founder and creative principal, Neil Jonsohn, and Nancy Dyson, who manages the financial side. At the end of 2015, the name U31 was introduced, a fresh appellation to reflect the evolution of the firm.

“It’s interesting work. We’ve had a hand in changing Toronto’s landscape. Development work — it’s really exciting to see how it’s evolved over the years and it’s been great to have the opportunity to contribute to change in Toronto,” Cray said.

Toronto, arguably more than any other Canadian city, continues to see its population grow on a yearly basis, and with that comes an urgent demand for housing, in all forms. This is where the condominium comes to play an essential role.

“In Toronto, condos don’t always receive the warmest welcome,” Jonsohn admitted. However, he believes that the condominium is a solution that allows for city growth, allots space for homeowners and preserves the environment. “It is more environmentally sound to build up rather than out. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve contributed to the growth of the city,” he added.

Successful by design

Due to U31’s excellent reputation, work is not limited to the local GTA market; the firm has worked all across Canada in cities like Winnipeg, Halifax, Ottawa and Edmonton, working with various large developers such as Tridel, Concert Properties and Pemberton Group. Currently, the firm is working on a project in Detroit; its previous international endeavours span across New York, New Jersey, Florida and further south to the West Indies.

With a natural eye for design, U31’s resume illustrates both an impressive roster of projects and prestigious awards. In 2015, U31 was recognized at the Canadian Interiors Magazine’s annual design competition, ‘Best of Canada’, for The Roy Presentation Centre (a Starfish Properties development located in Halifax).

This spring, the firm was presented with the BILD (Building Industry & Land Development) award for best mid-rise design for Vandyk Group’s the Craftsman Condominium, and the year prior, received the BILD award for the Craftsman’s presentation centre. Both interior and exterior aspects of the space reflect design principles illustrative of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, where land flows through architecture and becomes one, ultimately creating living quarters that are earthy and natural.

“What we are recognized for is our ability to create different looks. We don’t have one particular style. We make it a priority to tailor each project and the Craftsman was a great example of that,” Jonsohn said.

“One of the reasons we are successful is that we listen and we tailor the designs to the specific needs of the project. We’re open and flexible and interested in what other people at the table have to say. That goes a long way and people appreciate that,” Cray added.

Reputation plays a large role in the company’s success. Toronto’s interior design industry is immense, housing a plethora of designers, and the trade is only becoming more expansive as infrastructure construction continues to soar. Consequently, the competition is fierce. Many designers, who initially were not interested or involved in the condominium business, have jumped on the bandwagon, thereby increasing competition even more.

The U31 team is another important component fueling the company’s growth. The 20 employees at U31 come from varying degrees of experience, ranging from industry veterans to junior designers, and the partners conduct business by encouraging autonomy, which contributes to the final vision. “We really rely on our designers. We guide them as opposed to telling them what to do,” Cray said.

“We face similar challenges as other businesses. It’s about working with the right people. When you find great people, whether these are fellow colleagues, contractors, artists or specialty suppliers, you do what’s necessary to hold on to them. We could do the best set of drawings known to man, but if the contractor doesn’t respect the vision, it doesn’t make a difference,” Jonsohn added.

The future: Climbing prices, attractive amenities and communal living

Real estate prices continue to climb and it has reached a point where consumers are rethinking their home-buying decisions, particularly when ‘x amount’ of dollars fails to fetch an ideal home and falls short of expectations. Space is a major cause for concern that puts condominiums at a disadvantage when compared to low-rise homes, but according to Cray, developers are doing great things with amenity spaces.

“Even though you’re living in a smaller space, you have the opportunity to take advantage of the amenities and enjoy much larger spaces and be more interactive. You’ve got the gym at your fingertips and in some cases a pool,” he said. These perks of condo living generate a lifestyle quite different from residential neighbourhoods, but in Cray’s experience, this way of life is often embraced by everyone from young couples to empty nesters.

The beauty of urban living is especially emphasized by a trend towards integrated communal living and the condominium facilitates movement. Both Cray and Jonsohn have observed a shift towards creating communities rather than just buildings. Presently, the firm is working on a Graywood development near Peter and Adelaide streets in Toronto where one of the main goals is to incorporate communal aspects into urban living, such as integrating local boutique retailers that are relevant to the project vision. This project will also house areas that will serve as points of interaction for communal gathering. The idea is to introduce social infrastructure so that people can live within their immediate community rather than go outside to find it.

Currently, fitness amenities are one of the most important features of a condominium, but even this is in the midst of evolving. Many buildings already have aligned themselves with wellness consultants to engineer better lifestyles and offer specialized fitness classes.

“These amenity spaces are carefully curated for the overall enjoyment of the residents where needs and expectations are met. What’s created is a unique community environment for residents, and we achieve this by employing thoughtful and creative design. A community is being built — it may be a mid to high-rise building, but it’s still a vibrant and engaging community,” Cray said, adding that these spaces serve the same purpose as the local bar or community centre of our colourful urban neighbourhoods and rural towns.