Over the past 25 years, Calgary’s skyline has transformed. Its size, shape and colour have, at varying times and to varying degrees, morphed to include new homes, office towers, apartment buildings, schools, hotels, churches, hospitals, malls, fire halls, recreation centres, community spaces and other prescribed edifices. Each new building has, in its own way, altered the face of the city. The Calgary of 1993 looks little like the Calgary of today.
Behind much of this change is S2 Architecture. The firm – which has grown from a single-man operation in 1993 to an 88-person full-service architectural and interior design firm with offices in Calgary, Edmonton and recently Vancouver – has designed a multitude of projects in an array of sectors in Alberta and beyond. Throughout all the growth and change, S2 has remained true to its roots.
“Our core is design, both architectural and interiors,” says Robert Spaetgens, founding partner and Principal. “We believe in the continuity of design. It’s not just the building, it’s the experience you have in the building. The continuity of a comprehensive experience.”
It’s this approach that has guided S2 since inception. Twenty-five years in, the firm has completed over 1,600 projects in a variety of sectors including commercial, education, emergency services, health care, hospitality, mixed-use, public works, religious, residential, retail, seniors, and sports and recreation. Clients run the gamut from public bodies to private developers. No matter the type of project, design is always based on what the client wants.
“As a firm we don’t have a signature type of building,” David Symons, Principal, explains. “We really respond to the client in terms of what their needs are. That flexibility and collaboration is one of the key reasons we have seen a lot of success.”
Together, Spaetgens and Symons have led the firm through all of that success. Both from Calgary, the young men met in the 1970s on the first day of classes at the University of Manitoba. They were both obtaining their masters in architecture.
“He was the only other guy from Calgary,” Symons reveals with a chuckle, “so we became roommates and went on to work together at another firm in Calgary. Bob then went on his own and the following year I joined him. It’s been steady growth ever since.”
Originally Robert Spaetgens Architect Ltd. in the beginning, transformed to Symons Spaetgens Evans in 1994, and in 2003 the firm name was changed to S2 Architecture. Today, there are five partners in addition to Spaetgens and Symons: Linus Murphy, Brian Corkum, Genevieve Giguere, Peter Streith, who joined as the Edmonton partner in September 2018 and Robert Lange, who joined as the Vancouver partner in November 2018.
Opened in 2013, S2’s Edmonton studio was its first outside Calgary and a major milestone for the firm. “Much of the work we were doing in Calgary brought in clients from Edmonton,” Symons explains. “We eventually had enough work there that we could open an office.”
“But we needed a resident partner in Edmonton,” adds Spaetgens. “Linus [Murphy], who established the Edmonton office, put a lot of effort into it and was on the road a lot. So we really did need someone in Edmonton with boots on the ground.” Streith, an accomplished architect from the Edmonton area, joined S2 from another firm and now leads the Edmonton studio.
S2’s partners joined in different ways. Giguere has been with the firm for 18 years, beginning as a junior architect and became a partner in 2016. Corkum and Murphy both came from other firms and have been partners at S2 for five and 10 years respectively.
S2 is all about its people. “The success of the firm over the last 25 years has been largely attributed to the people,” Spaetgens says. “We have a lot of exceptional projects, a great reputation for design and technology, but really, the key has been attracting the right people.”
S2’s culture, which is one of inclusion, respect and collaboration, helps attract those star recruits. So does the fact that S2 is a legacy firm. “We’re a firm that lasts longer than the two founding partners,” says Spaetgens. “When people join they know that after the old guys leave, a strong firm will remain. Getting in on the ground floor of a growing, sustainable firm is very attractive.”
Of its 88 employees, many are core people who have been with S2 for many years. “We promote from within where possible and as often as possible,” Symons says.
Attracting and maintaining the right people, in turn, has led to growth in various sectors. “We’ve been able to bring on high-end people who have attracted the clients,” Spaetgens explains. “It’s a bit of a risk and a bit of an investment to bring on these high-end people before the projects are there, but it’s worked.”
One growing sector is emergency services. To date, the firm has designed 39 projects including fire stations, EMS response centres, and emergency vehicle and equipment maintenance facilities in Alberta and B.C. The Royal Vista Fire Station, a four-bay, 23,680-square-foot multi-services facility, completed in 2016 for the City of Calgary, is just one example. In addition to responding to prairie-style design guidelines established for the industrial park, Royal Vista showcases a rain garden as a storm-water management technique. It is designed to LEED Gold standard and houses a fire service and prevention bureau, animal bylaw services, EMS, police services and community space available to the public.
Twenty-five years is a good chunk of time, and S2 has seen its share of ups and downs. “The economy has really influenced how we’ve grown over the years,” Symons explains. “We’ve managed to plow our way through some bad economic times by foreseeing the problem before it became a problem. We’ve always been fairly proactive, watching for signs in the economy.”
As the senior partners, Symons and Spaetgens view part of their responsibility as anticipating where future work may lie. “It varies,” Spaetgens explains. “There were times when retail was strong, and then mixed-use residential, and now the seniors sector is strong. In fact, we have eight projects related to seniors in the office right now.”
One of these is Cambridge Manor, a 240-unit state-of-the-art senior living facility within Calgary’s University District. The thoughtfully designed, innovative complex will provide a lively community for residents and seniors. The project just broke ground this year and is set to open in 2020.
In addition to architectural and interior design, S2 provides master-planning services, as it has with the West District – a master-planned project comprised of 95 acres within an established community in west Calgary. “We started with the master-planning stage and now there are two buildings under construction and four in the process of development permit or working drawings,” Symons says. “We’ve been part of that vision from the beginning and are now working with the developer [Truman] to realize that vision. That’s a project that will probably be on the books for another 10 years.”
West District is a mixed-use project, one of several designed by S2. These projects blend commercial, office, retail, hospitality and residential. Vogue, a 35-storey mixed-use residential development located in the west end of downtown Calgary, is a notable example. Completed in 2017, the concept design is based upon developing a symmetrical contemporary art deco esthetic.
In addition to designing from the ground up, S2 undertakes many improvement projects as well. One such project is an approximately 2,300-square-foot tenant improvement project for CivicWorks Planning + Design. S2’s interior design solution involved an open floor plan that utilized demountable partitions to designate private offices and meeting rooms, and a custom millwork ‘work wall’ running the length of the space was created to provide essential storage and office functions.
For all projects, the firm uses leading technology and sustainable building practices, including LEED rating systems. “But our greatest differentiator is our people and our culture,” Spaetgens reiterates. “You go to another architectural firm and they offer what we offer and we ask the same questions. But we ask the client what they are looking for. We try to be empathetic to the client as opposed to selling us. Part of us getting the work is us understanding the client and what it is that they do.”
Accordingly, S2 enjoys an approximately 85 per cent client-return rate. “We’re not out looking for clients on every job; they’re coming back to us,” Spaetgens says.
“That’s the beauty of having your market spread over the private and public as much as you can,” Spaetgens smiles. “You’re not putting all your eggs in one industry or one type of client. Because when one is busy the other one probably is not.”
Geographically too, S2 has diversified. “We’ve worked in Russia, Europe and down in California [the firm designed the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego],” says Symons. “Today our focus is Western Canada and we have a lot of work in B.C. Our new Vancouver office is anticipated to be very busy.”
The partners will continue to grow both the Edmonton and Vancouver offices now having resident principals in those cities . “And then world domination,” Symons grins. “But that’s a few years down the road”.
Neither partner articulates plans for retirement though. “We love doing what we’re doing,” Symons says. “Our profession is very fortunate. Once we’ve completed a project it’s there, we can see it. We help build your city and that’s a fulfilling thing to be able to do.”
Spaetgens offers a seasoned perspective, “With age comes a bit of wisdom perhaps. We’ve been through the ups and downs in the economy so many times before so we’re more relaxed about it. We can sit amongst the partnership and calm everyone down: don’t worry we’ve been through this many times before, we’ll go through it again, here’s what we have to do. But relax and enjoy yourselves.”
With 130 projects (in all stages from initial concept to warranty) on the books right now, S2 will no doubt continue to build Calgary, in addition to other locales, for many years to come. The entire S2 team has as much to be proud of as to look forward to.