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Ten on the 10th: Victoria architecture Q&A with Greg Damant of Cascadia Architects

Ross Marshall of CBRE Victoria speaks with Greg Damant of Cascadia Architects about architecture in Victoria.

Ten on the 10th: Victoria architecture Q&A with Greg Damant of Cascadia Architects
Citified's Ten on the 10th is a monthly question-and-answer segment connecting our readers with the insight and knowledge of Victoria's top real-estate and business professionals.
April's Ten on the 10th features Greg Damant, co-founder of Cascadia Architects, a Victoria-based architectural firm.
Asking the questions is Ross Marshall, Senior Vice President of the Victoria offices of commercial real-estate brokerage CBRE. As a leader in facilitating large-scale commercial real-estate transactions throughout the Capital Region – which include apartment complexes, industrial retail and office properties, and land/development opportunities – Ross and his team are at the forefront of market-leading real-estate transactions on Vancouver Island.
Would you like to be featured as part of a future Ten on the 10th Q&A? We'd love to hear from you.
Who are Cascadia Architects? What projects have you done that people would recognize?
Cascadia is a 12-person architecture firm here in Victoria. We started in 2012 with just the two partners – Peter Johannknecht and me and have since grown to have a team of architects and technologists doing a whole variety of work in Victoria and on the Island. We work with institutions like VIHA and UVIC, commercial developers and owner-operator businesses as well as private clients doing custom homes. Our most recognizable projects would be the Tall Trees Physiotherapy clinic at Mattick’s Market, the Fort Common District, and the Black & White residences.
You guys just moved into a new office beside Discovery Coffee at the Fort Common – how’s that going?
It’s fantastic to be located in a project that we designed where we can see how it gets used. What we really notice is how important the ‘people spaces’ are, and how people naturally gravitate to, and adopt spaces where they can be comfortable. And what makes them comfortable is the scale and the sense of uniqueness of the place. We see familiar faces every week settled in at Discovery or Chorizo, Fishhook and the Livet, and it feels like home. We’re looking forward to the summer when the Common courtyard is open again.
Is it fun or challenging designing modern architecture in a place like Victoria?
It’s a fun challenge? Actually we prefer to use the word contemporary – for some people the idea of ‘modern architecture’ means mass-produced and an industrial look and feel. What we strive for is to express the individual sense of place and time in all our work, so it’s modern in that it reflects the technology and way we live now, but we try also to celebrate the human element in some way. Sometimes that’s with a grand gesture that creates a landmark to orient yourself, and sometimes it’s with a small detail that feels like a hidden treasure for anyone who slows down and looks closely. We find a lot of people here have an initial preference for traditional buildings but when you spend time and explore what they are really responding to, it’s not the style but the poetic associations they create in their own minds based on things like scale and proportion or even colour. So our goal is always to create the opportunities in design for people to see similar cues that allow them to feel the architecture is responding to their needs.  This is why we like traditional materials like brick. The scale of a brick relates to the size of human hand and there’s an imaginative train of association I think people make from that to building by hand, to craft and community.
How do you guys begin working on a project? What is the research and creative process behind your designs?
It’s very intuitive. We work as a team in the office so everything is collaborative and that naturally extends out to stakeholders and clients and other consulting engineers. We are constantly learning from every project and our thinking evolves with every community meeting or project realization. There are themes for sure, ideas that consistently appear in projects until we feel we get them right, and we try not to force ideas into a project but instead let the project emerge naturally from the process. 
You guys have proposed a few public space projects - some small ones like the Fort Street Parklet and some provocative ones like the Mile Zero look-out and ‘Under the Table and Dreaming’ for Centennial Square. What’s your motivation for these idea projects?
We think it’s so important that everyone thinks critically about design, and these ‘idea’ projects are a way we can help keep a public conversation going about what it takes to make a good City. Unusual or provocative proposals that are hypothetical or temporary always generate discussion and hopefully get people to question the status quo, but in a way that is not threatening. We see so often a right-wrong mentality in the discussion about architecture that usually starts with unquestioned assumptions. If we can use these sort of ‘art projects’ to expand the conversations then that makes them worthwhile.
Your projects cover a wide range of areas – what typology gives you the most pleasure to design?
We really enjoy working with clients who are seriously engaged with the project. Usually that means an Owner/Occupier or a long-term developer – people who will be using the project themselves or retain an interest in it. When the Client is engaged with all aspects of the project and the community where it’s proposed we get meaningful collaboration that always yields the best projects. Also we are most engaged with projects that are willing to push towards better solutions than the status quo. Passive house projects for example, are something we are doing more and more and at bigger scales. With passive house energy-efficiency measures we can actually see how it’s possible to get to carbon-neutral or net zero operational buildings, and that’s a cause for optimism.

But at the same time, isn’t the new Step Code (energy efficiency building code) expected to drive up the cost of new home ownership? What are your clients saying about that?
In the short term, yes, there will be a cost, but I think that will be short-lived. The incremental cost of more efficient building design is largely related to the manufacturing costs. As products like triple-pane glazing become more common the competition will increase and the cost premiums will come down. At the same time, the ‘learning curve’ cost on the labour side will fade quickly. In fact, we are seeing some trades already recognizing efficiencies that come from energy efficient design. So, right now, in Victoria, it’s tough because costs are already really high, but we need to push through that because the benefits will be there.
On the topic of Building Codes, what impact could the new BC Building Code that allows 12 storey wood buildings have on the industry?
That’s a good question. Going that high in wood means using it differently than we have for the last 100+ years. Instead of ‘stick’ building we will be seeing more ‘mass timber’ building that uses pre-manufactured panels of wood like slabs that get bolted together. I think ultimately it will replace concrete for many uses. It’s lighter which is better for seismic design, it’s renewable, and it’s much lower in GHG emissions than concrete. And I think it will push the industry closer to pre-fabrication as the standard of construction, which is something that people have talked about for years but hasn’t happened. So I think the change will be significant but I also think it will take time to become common practise, as everyone watches to see how successful the first projects are financially, and how they perform over time.
Victoria’s had a lot of development in recent years and some people think that’s not a good thing because their City is starting to look and feel different. Is there anything architects can do by design to avoid that?
If you look at historic photos of the downtown core –it was actually more urban and dense in some places like Douglas Street and Yates Street than it is now.  So it’s a bit of a mistake to think that Victoria, like any City, was perfect at any one time. The de-densification of cities is usually a sign of economic decay and that’s just as bad or worse a fate than growth. What we do have a responsibility to do is challenge ourselves and our clients to build with the life of the City or neighbourhood in mind. How can we enrich peoples’ daily activities or foster informal meetings between neighbours? Can we create a beautiful moment for people as they enter or leave a building, or share lunch in a public courtyard? Or choose to be alone but feel safe in a public place for that matter? I think the quality of design can make all the difference to whether people experience change as simply negative or as something more complex, and more positive.
What’s the future of architecture in Victoria and on the island do you think?
I’ve lived in Victoria for most of my life and it’s truly my home. I do believe in the ideas of compact neighbourhoods with networked public parks, energy efficient design, and robust public transportation and transportation alternatives. There are certainly growing pains as the city moves toward a more shared landscape, but I think if we pay attention to always adding space for people, integrating the natural landscape, and creating poetic spaces that are uplifting to use in every new project then we can keep and even improve the qualities that I think make Victoria such a wonderful place to live. C

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