The Albertan Architectural Firm that Has Thrived for 25

S2 Architecture

S2 Architecture is a full-service architectural and high-end interior design firm with studios in Calgary and Edmonton. It was founded in 1993 by Robert Spaetgens, who was soon joined by his former college roommate David Symons.
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“They were like brothers, and have developed a firm that has a bit of a family-oriented feel because of that,” says Brian Corkum, Principal. “They started by focusing primarily on commercial and multi-family residential units. The backbone of the firm was built on quite a bit of multi-family [builds], but it has evolved over the years, and we are now involved in a number of different sectors.”

The award-winning firm’s impressive portfolio includes fire and emergency medical service centres, recreational centres, healthcare facilities, seniors’ residences, and commercial and institutional buildings.

The growing business now employs approximately 85 people in total, with 18 people at its newer Edmonton location. In the last quarter century, it has come a long way from its beginnings as a one-person company operating out of Spaetgens’ basement, due in large part to the company’s consistent ability to exceed client expectations. In fact, 85 percent of the firm’s business comes from repeat clients.

Collaborative culture
Happy workers mean satisfied customers, and at S2 Architecture, employees are embraced as the most valuable asset. “The partnership as a whole tends to be humble leaders and celebrate the success of each of our staff. We do not have a top-down approach, but instead a flat approach with an open-door policy, inclusion, transparency, and consensus building,” Corkum says of the company’s values.

The company’s internal structure is designed to support succession, so people can see a clear path to career growth. Its company-wide profit sharing program provides an incentive for employees to always do their best. Additionally, S2 holds annual career development meetings and reviews, including a personal development review – an online survey that peers can get involved in to evaluate the individual, so it isn’t only done by partners. This provides staff with candid and open constructive criticism that helps them to improve as they advance their careers within the company.

The S2 team, which has five partners at the moment (and growing), makes sure to keep a consistent ratio of leadership to support staff so that junior workers can receive the guidance they need.

For employees who wish to advance their educational pursuits, S2 has an active program where staff can turn for financial support to attend conferences or take courses. Moreover, its internal lunch-and-learn and seminar programs keep the company up-to-date as a whole with best practices. Some of the lunch-and-learn workshops are then accredited through the Alberta Association of Architects (AAA). All of these benefits boost company morale, build skills, and create a positive work environment for the thriving firm.

“We try and keep the company feeling as though it’s a small company even though it may be growing. We do that by providing good support and management,” says Corkum.

S2’s business approach has not gone unnoticed by clients, who frequently give the firm raving reviews and references.

The S2 Architecture portfolio
S2 has a broad portfolio that includes several sectors and a variety of facilities.

In January of 2018, the firm was proud to have won a fairly significant project called the Willow Square Continuing Care Centre in Fort McMurray, through a design-build competition. In collaboration with Pomerleau Inc., S2 Architecture will design and build the $110 million-dollar centre that will come to support 240 jobs and 127 fulltime positions when it opens in 2020. This project is now under construction.

Currently at the end of its design phase as the company commences drawings, another project in the works is the Windermere Fire Station. This much-needed fire station in the City of Edmonton will be a Net Zero facility, meaning that it will be able to produce as much energy as it consumes. The sustainable station will be designed to minimize thermal energy loss, done in collaboration with the Toronto-based design firm gh3*.

Just this August, S2 started construction on a mixed-use facility in Calgary, Alberta with home and community builder, Brookfield Residential and non-profit, Livingston Homeowners Association. The facility will boast 33,000 square feet of indoor space and four acres of outdoor space. The new building will have a gymnasium, a fully operational fire hall, coffee shop, daycare centre, meeting rooms, change rooms, mechanical workshop and a commercial kitchen serving a 125-seat banquet hall.

The outdoor component of the project will be equipped with a splash park, tennis courts, hockey rink, toboggan hill, and landscaped areas for picnics. At full build, this project will be part of a new north Calgary community that will house 30,000 people.

Set to open for school this month is the All Saints High School. S2 Architecture is the prime consultant, architect, and interior designer for the client, the Calgary Catholic School District. The school incorporated a number of recreational components into the design such as a gymnasium, fitness centre, and outdoor playing fields. The modern new school also has a unique “Y” shaped design.

In fact, S2 has completed a number of projects in the educational sector. It has completed seven Brightpath Early Learning & Child Care centres in various locations throughout Canada. Brightpath is a world-class, award-winning, innovative provider of private early childhood education, with headquarters in Calgary.

Just completed is the Pason Centennial Arenas expansion in the Town of Okotoks, south of Calgary. S2 was the architect for this very exciting 48,000 square-foot, $15 million-dollar addition that houses one NHL-sized rink with spectator seating and a leisure ice surface with fireplaces and skate change areas. Home of the Okotoks Oilers minor hockey, the project included multipurpose rooms, change rooms, washrooms with a direct connection to the original arena, and community centre.

“The leisure ice surface is very nice, and we approached this area with some attractive finishes that include a curved brick façade with stained wood mantel and wall mounted acoustic fabric panels throughout. It provides a welcoming space to everyone, whether you are participating in activities at the arena or not,” Jason Dolha, Architectural Technologist at S2 has said.

In 2017, S2 completed the Vogue project: a mixed-use, 35-storey residential development in the west end district of downtown Calgary with a contemporary Art Deco aesthetic. At almost a million square feet, it has a strong podium base and above grade parking, followed by a two-storey amenity level with terrace access. The residential tower is illuminated, making it identifiable in the Calgary skyline.

S2 has also performed a lot of work for the City of Calgary, particularly in the areas of sports and recreation. Its project portfolio includes a recreation facility development and enhancement study – a comprehensive master plan studying over 50 City of Calgary recreation facilities, created to help the city form a long-term capital planning strategy for recreation facility development and enhancement. The facilities that were assessed included aquatic and fitness centres, arenas, athletic parks, golf courses, leisure centres, outdoor pools, two art centres and a sailing school. S2 has performed numerous upgrades and modernizations to many ice rinks, pools, and parks in Calgary.

S2 Architects is also proud of all of the work it has done with Truman Developments, a family-owned developer and builder active in Alberta. The S2/Truman project list includes a West District community, Cambridge Manor, and the Legion sites. In progress is a master plan for a 95-acre community within an established community in west Calgary. As the company website says, “along with the reorganization of the transportation network, the focus of the master plan is the ‘High Street’ or mixed use commercial corridor which will be connected to green spaces including a ten acre park through various pathways, active and passive open spaces and will also incorporate innovative storm water management.”

The Cambridge Manor, located within the West Campus of the University District in Calgary, is a leading-edge residential living, research, and teaching centre set to open in 2020. The community as a whole supports multi-generational needs and age-inclusivity. The builders are Truman and The Brenda Strafford Foundation, and S2 is handling the interior work of the manor.

The Legion is a non-profit organization that offers services for veterans and youth, recreational programs, and community involvement (Meals on Wheels, Boy Scout and Girl Guide program support, etc.). Last year, S2 completed the Kensington Legion’s “Site 1” for Truman Developments, acting as a prime consultant, architect, and interior designer for the 30,000 square-foot revitalization of an aged and previously fiscally unsustainable facility in the West Hillhurst community of Calgary. Today, the facility hosts a private members-only area, meeting rooms, offices and a restaurant at the base, adding revenue streams for this important branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Now, S2 is completing “Site 2” for the Legion: a separate 10-storey mixed-use development containing both residential and retail spaces with several innovative sustainable design elements. It will have a rooftop podium and serene garden, and was thoughtfully designed with a striking stepped profile to reduce the impact of shadowing on neighbouring buildings.

Service and quality for 25 years
This month, S2 Architecture will celebrate its 25th anniversary by hosting an event with clients and industry associates at the recently completed Kensington Legion facility, Site 1; it is the perfect way to honour all of the work and the people who have made the company’s success possible over the last 25 years.

S2’s work for the Kensington Legion even earned it industry recognition. In 2016, the Canadian Institute of Planners bestowed an Award of Merit to the planning project for its model approach to the development approval process, remarking on its appreciation for how community concerns were addressed in the well-written, high-quality graphics submission. Corkum notes that S2 has actually developed a name for the quality of its documents. Many contractors have noted that all of S2’s plans are complete and error-free, which is something that the firm puts effort into maintaining.

This wasn’t the first, nor the last time that S2 has been awarded for its innovation. In 2015, the company won the prestigious Calgary Mayor’s Urban Design Award for its mixed-use design of The Gateway in West Calgary. In 2017, S2’s client, Cove Properties, won the SAM Award for Best Multi-Family Community for The Armory in Currie Barracks – a 58-unit boutique residential development. It is no wonder the firm has been able to win over clients and keep them coming back time and time again.

The bigger picture
Looking to the future of the company – for the next quarter century and beyond – Corkum remarks that the company plans to continue its expansion into the Edmonton market. This is a strategic move for a couple of reasons: it broadens the company’s sector base, both geographically and by project. This helps propel the company’s growth, and the diversification makes it more stable during times of recession.

“The Edmonton expansion has been helpful for us in that it has given us exposure to other clients. It’s given us the ability to chase work in northern Alberta. It helps just to be able to run out to meetings quickly, to have a presence in north Alberta,” he says.

In the longer term, S2 is also considering moving into the British Columbia market, and perhaps even establishing a presence in Vancouver. As of now, no plans have been finalized, but the area seems like an attractive option for S2’s next phase of growth.

It’s important to note that S2’s growth plan isn’t simply focused on expansion, but on obtaining challenging projects. S2 has continuously broadened its capabilities since it was first established, and Corkum believes that access to more sectors contributes to healthy company longevity. “We have a mantra around being a company that has succession over the years – not one that is shut down after the founding partners are retired,” he states.

Part of maintaining a long-term outlook is hiring the right people and providing them with the tools to thrive. The mid-sized business strives to be an employer of choice with various incentives and opportunities for growth, never remaining stagnant.

For instance, in September of last year, Genevieve Giguere made partner. She started with the firm 17 years ago as a junior designer, and is now a respected leader in the industry working toward being the Managing Principal. She is a fire station specialist who is also skilled in project management, large project stakeholder coordination, and seniors’ care. She and the other senior staff feel a true sense of commitment to the Alberta communities in which they work and serve. After hours, many S2 Architecture employees are also local volunteers and public stewards, and S2 encourages involvement in volunteer initiatives.

“We look for many qualities, including good work ethic, leadership, and just happy people when we hire. People who are happy to work in groups and who are supportive of each other,” Corkum says of the collaborative and transparent company. “We focus on giving high-quality service to our clients. That means hiring good people. There is no B-Team. There is only the A-Team. That’s who the clients get.”

These skills are important in a business where trust is crucial. To keep consistency for clients, S2 likes to have the same teammates working with the repeat clients they have already met, so that they aren’t getting somebody new every time and can feel a sense of continuity. S2 Architecture further establishes trust with its clients through partnering for social endeavours and relationship-building activities.

“We also take a cooperative approach to design and billing. It’s not ‘our way’; the decision making is inclusive of the client and us as well as consultants and contractors. Having many specialties around the table improves the output of what we do,” Corkum adds, mentioning that the most important thing for the company to remember is giving good value regardless of the scope or cost of the project.

While every business wants to continue to grow, S2 keeps its eyes on the bigger picture of growth through advancing the qualities that have made its clients return to the firm again and again: its talented people, the attention to detail in its documents, its streamlined processes, its corporate culture and values, and its commitment to bettering the communities of western Canada with every project it undertakes.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 18, 2019, 4:21 PM EDT