60 Years On, DIALOG Design Goes International

Written by Paul Hutchings

You may not have heard of DIALOG Design – but chances are, you know its work.

The Canadian-based architectural firm boasts a sixty-year history of designing buildings and facilities across Canada and, more recently, down into the United States. Its buildings complement neighbourhoods and give neighbours something to talk about. From coast to coast, you will find DIALOG’s footprint in numerous cities and towns, and its projects always seem to make locations a little brighter.

DIALOG’s portfolio is impressive. For just a small taste, let’s go from west to east since DIALOG is western-based.

The University of British Columbia’s new Exchange Residence and bus exchange just opened last year and is already being enjoyed by students. The addition of the WJ Collett Elementary School in Calgary’s Rundle College allows students to explore the notion of creating meaningful and enduring community. Toronto’s Bayview Village now offers a car-free area and a small-town feel in Canada’s biggest city. The Dartmouth General Hospital will add a much-needed proponent to the many challenges of Nova Scotia’s healthcare system upon completion next year. The Emera Innovation Exchange at the Signal Hill campus of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador took an old hotel and turned it into a modern educational facility for years to come.

Rob Adamson has been there for half of DIALOG’s history. He started there right out of school in 1989 and never looked back. The company was founded in 1959 by legendary Calgary architect Martin Cohos and would eventually become DIALOG in 2010 after a merger with HBDH Architects in Vancouver. The name change was part of the merger agreement.

DIALOG has fifty partners in the firm, and according to Adamson, roughly 650 to 750 people across all five of its studios, which are located in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, and the newest office, San Francisco.

There is a reason Adamson is still there apart from the quality of work for which DIALOG has come to be known. “It’s still a great fit for me,” he said. “I never looked back after I joined. We have a collaborative approach that I think works well.”

Adamson explained that DIALOG takes a tactic in its work that includes everyone from the start of a project, so no one is awaiting a turn to give input, which works well for him and his team. DIALOG includes architects, designers, and planners under one roof or one project so that all disciplines start working on a project from the very beginning.

“We don’t design in isolation, with the architects advancing and thinking that the engineers will come on board later, for example,” he said. “The engineers and landscape architects and designers have a big role in a collaborative way to shape the design, so it fits their needs as well. We’re also working with contractors at the start as well, as a lot of the work is P3 (public-private partnership), so that’s another form of collaboration we are involved in.”

And of course, clients are a huge part of the design and building process. “We see clients as an extension of our design team, not necessarily someone we are reporting to, although we do that too, but they are an important part of the design team,” he said. “Some clients can be more challenging, but most really appreciate having their voices heard from the first concept idea thrown out, talked about and discussed as opposed to having to wait until completion.”

Like in any industry, technology is a double-edged sword. For the most part, Adamson said, it offers advantages in equalizing the world. But it does increase client expectations.

He recalled DIALOG’s project at the Calgary Airport, where the company built the international terminal. It had a baggage systems consultant from Denmark, a building science consultant from Germany, and an aviation planning consultant from Australia, with DIALOG offices in Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto all working at the same time.

“It’s better than it was even ten years ago, when we were always on airplanes, and we really do try to stay out of planes as much as we can for environmental reasons,” Adamson explained. “Technology enables us to bring all these different time zones together and able to access information efficiently.”

But a challenge, he added, is that technology does not necessarily allow the firm to work more quickly. And that is what clients expect, which adds pressure. But Adamson said the work still gets done on time, every time, to the client’s satisfaction.

“We draw inspiration from our clients and their visions and programs, as well as from the landscape and storytellers,” he said. “Also, from our interest in the environment, sustainability, from trying to be different.”

There is no project DIALOG will not take on, with one exception. “We won’t do prisons – the notion of incarcerating people. I think it would be challenging to be proud of that.”

The desire to increase the company portfolio led to DIALOG’s expansion into the United States with the opening of its San Francisco office two years ago. However, that move brought some unexpected challenges.

“Our rent in San Francisco is $63 per square foot, while here in Calgary, it’s $18.50 per square foot,” he said with a slight laugh. “It’s orders of magnitude different to operate in American cities, but we’re doing well so far.”

A project in Memphis, in which an old Sears building was turned into a mixed-use facility called the Crosstown Common was what spearheaded DIALOG’s venture south of the border. The company ended up running into the U.S. tax system after 180 days of working there with other firms, and decided to find an anchor point in an American city. DIALOG chose San Francisco because it was a gateway into the lucrative California market, as well as the rest of the country.

After opening in San Francisco, DIALOG staff began learning the nuances of operating in the U.S. Adamson admitted it was more challenging to make inroads with American clients than he thought. In the Bay area, he said, there are entrenched relationships between service providers and engineers, and breaking down those barriers is not easy.

The company also had to learn about the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, a certification program from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which states that businesses must be fifty-one percent owned by and controlled by economically and socially disadvantaged individuals.

“So, with many projects, like airports or hospitals, they’ll dictate to you that you need to have a certain portion of your fee dollar going to firms with disabled people, or firms run by women or firms with veterans,” he said. “These are relationships that we simply did not have going down there, and it became difficult to compete for that work.”

But the locale seems to be working for it so far. DIALOG is currently working on a project in Denver and a few projects in the Bay area.

Adamson seems most proud of his firm’s work with the new Calgary Cancer Centre project. That is a collaboration between DIALOG, PCL Construction, and a host of other firms, and the result will be the second-biggest cancer facility in North America behind the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. He almost sounds giddy when he talks about it.

“It has a giant research component that will come up with better cancer treatment regimes,” he explained. “It’s really interesting because we’re collaborating with the provincial health department, researchers, medical practitioners, and all kinds of other designers.”

Another project that for DIALOG representatives that inspires pride is the international terminal at the Calgary Airport. The $1.6 billion project is the biggest DIALOG has ever delivered. “I’ve done a lot of airport work, and that one was pretty significant for me,” he said. “That’s the biggest in our history, so we’re all very proud.”

Adamson had to pause to think when asked about the future. Making his company one of Canada’s preeminent design firms is something he called a big focus that “takes time to unravel.” He also hopes to make sure DIALOG continues long after “old guys like me,” are retired. In the short term, the ‘old guy’ hopes to make each project sustainable and meaningful for communities. It is why the company is participating in the federal government’s 2030 challenge to make sure all design work is carbon-neutral.

“One thing we don’t want to do is to compete on price,” he said. “We want to be paid fairly and give good value, but we want to be seen as selected based on our skills as opposed to price.”

So, what is the best way to compete? “You provide better service to clients because clients are always willing to pay for good service.

Check out DIALOG at DIALOGdesign.ca.



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