Raising the Bar

Altius Architecture
Written by Mark Golombek

Altius Architecture embraces the benefits of the custom design-build in a complete and collaborative approach to architecture. With work that spans the entire province of Ontario, Altius is just as busy in cottage country as it is in downtown Toronto. We spoke with one of its principals, Graham Smith, who brings forth a good argument for his company’s way of thinking.
Cathy Garrido is also a principal with Altius and attended the University of Waterloo with Graham in the early 1990s. Ontario was, at that time, dealing with a severe recession. There were no cooperative education jobs for the students, so the two joined forces, went out into the marketplace and created their own. The company began with a true design-build, where the students worked on the design before physically constructing in hands-on residential work.

“We were doing kitchen and bathroom renovations in Toronto. Then we had the opportunity to work on a house that was designed by Ron Thom in the late 1960s. It was one of the most iconic modernist houses in the country. It took two and a half years to complete, and by that time, we were one of the largest co-op employers at Waterloo, beating out IBM and RIM,” states Graham.

There may have only been seven students working at the co-op by 1995-1996, but most companies only take on two co-op students. By 1997, after university, a group of students did the design work, submitted permit applications and then went through the general contracting process. They were physically building everything designed in-house.

In 1998, the Altius Design Studio was born. In 2002, Cathy became a licensed architect, and the company was incorporated into Altius Architecture. The Altius Design Studio lived on as Altius Construction Management. This made for a unique offering of services.

“We were architects that were doing all of the design work but were still extremely hands on. We had a 1,300 square foot custom cabinetry shop underneath the design studio. We were still custom building all sorts of elements for our clients. We were attempting to recreate the idea of a master builder. It was about being trades people first and architects second,” explains Graham.

This is still the philosophy to this day. Every project is design built, and this makes Altius unique in what it can provide to clients. The client is hiring a single unified team to create their projects, giving them unparalleled control. Otherwise, the client is talking separately to the architects and engineers and any other contractors, which means the ultimate goal can be lost in translation.

Altius specializes in quality modern homes with a strong emphasis on sustainability. In the late nineties, no-one was building modern styles in the cities. The concentration was more on what Graham referred to as “neo-neo historical buildings,” from the British Colonial era. “The kind of stuff that drives us nuts!” By 2000, what Altius was doing with modern design was renamed green design or sustainable design.

“We were not conscious of marketing ourselves as modern building. It was green, and it was sustainable. That’s what contemporary architecture is. We did not re-brand ourselves; the market re-branded us. All of a sudden, people became more interested in modern design because it was more energy efficient and suited to a contemporary lifestyle,” says Graham.

A lot of Altius clients request being off the grid and reducing their carbon footprints. Altius’ goal is to be sustainable by always being conscious of performance. The mechanical system is not there to overcome the failings of the building; it is there to supplement what the building is already doing well by itself. This can be something as simple as proper solar geometry so that homes let the in sun in winter and keep it out in summer.

“We are looking at the total performance of the building in terms of insulation levels, air barriers and vapour barriers. Passive ventilation enables people to take all of the heat out at night without using AC. The building can self-regulate if the customers know how to use their buildings,” explains Graham.

Altius tries to get its clients to be more engaged, but at the end of the day, sustainability and energy efficiency is about comfort and the economics of that comfort. Altius would never build a super insulated building with an expensive mechanical system and solar panels and hot water heaters if it did not make economic sense. The design has to be looked at to ensure that it will make financial sense over the life cycle of the building components.

Half of work done by Altius is in the Greater Toronto Area and the other half is in cottage country, all across Southern Ontario from Windsor up to the Sault Ste. Marie and the Ottawa Valley. For cottage builds, in rural areas to the north of the city, it can be very hard to find qualified people to bid on projects competitively. Altius works in construction management, which is different from general contracting.

Graham explains that the typical general contractor has a small crew of tradesmen with whom he or she regularly works. Although there is an advantage in that one team can do the entire project, the contractor’s primary goal is his own financial situation ahead of that of the client. “Also, they go to the same trades and suppliers time and time again, so it is not competitive,” says Graham.

Generally speaking, according to Graham, the client is not aware of what things cost. When asked how much it costs to build a house – the most annoying question he is asked – his standard answer is: How much does it cost to buy a car? You can spend $20,000 on a Kia or $200,000 on a Bentley.

A construction management team consists of a construction manager, a project manager and members of the design team. The client employs the construction management team directly. The construction management team does not have its own tradespeople.

“We have arms-length relationships with every single trade, everybody who swings a hammer, every supplier, and we do not have anyone on our payroll. We collect a fee, which is a percentage fee on construction costs, and everything else is an open book – transparent accounting – and for the most part, competitive bid,” explains Graham.

There are difficulties in working north of the Toronto. Smaller populations have a smaller pool of tradespeople from which to choose, and they tend to serve an already busy market, whereas Toronto has trades in abundance. Altius tries to keep a group of trades competitive by having them bid against each other for jobs.

Altius will then, through construction management have control over costs by controlling the sources of materials rather than leaving ordering to the contractor. Ordering from trusted suppliers ensures that Altius will have competitive prices on all of the materials. This is communicated to the client who then becomes comfortable with the idea.

“Through this process, the client knows that we can be trusted because we are using a plumber that we are familiar with; we have historical pricing for them to show that they’re being competitive. We compare them to contracts that we have in the city. We are trying to educate the client all the time,” says Graham.

Many architects will just design the building shell, and the client is left to do the kitchen cabinets, floor finishes and lighting. Altius is very holistic in what it does, and interior work has never been separate from the architecture itself.

Cathy is not only an architect but also a registered interior designer with The Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO). This enables Altius to offer a full suite of interior design services that are brought to the client with the professional experience of architects.

“As architects and interior designers, we can do it all. We can coordinate interiors with the building envelope, with structure, which most interior designers are incapable of,” says Graham.

A lot of this work is now being done in Toronto’s Rosedale area. It is a historic conservation district, so very few of the houses can be demolished but must be renovated from the inside. It is a vertically integrated service, in that architects, interior designers and construction managers are involved.

Altius gives clients a unified approach, which makes the company unique. ”We are not sure that there is another firm like us – that does what we do. We are able to bring a level of control and certainty to our clients, in terms of the schedules, the budgets and the flexibility to bring a building in at an enormous budget range.”



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