Integrated Thinking. Inspired Design – An Integrated Approach Where Architecture and Engineering Come Together


NORR has worked on soaring skyscrapers in the Middle East, landmark structures like Toronto’s City Hall, and many other high-profile projects in its eight decade-plus history. Headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, NORR is a full-service architecture, engineering and interior design firm with an international presence and a strong guiding philosophy.

NORR is an architectural company with strong beliefs. Vice President Frank Panici explains that, “We believe that great buildings come together when there is harmony between architecture and engineering. These two combined create optimal buildings. That’s what we strive for and that’s where our integrated practice really excels: finding the optimal architectural and engineering solution for the building. The harmony of both disciplines will result in the best facilities for our clients.”

The underlying goal is to “integrate the architectural aesthetics with the engineering system,” he adds – “basically our approach is integrated thinking combined with inspiring design.”

NORR operates 15 offices in total in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Middle-East. Across all locations, NORR bases its work on “three pillars,” which Panici named for us: “Design excellence, professional excellence and technical excellence. We want to make sure we have people that have all three traits, so they can work on our diverse projects.”

A world of diversity
The diversity of NORR’s portfolio is certainly impressive, going by the long and varied list of successful projects provided by the company, including government facilities, airports, hospitals, residential facilities, casinos, hotels, , transit, sports, and many more.

“In eastern Canada, we do more government, institutional, healthcare, transit projects. In the west, we do a lot of residential mixed-use buildings. In the States it’s a mixed bag of retail, commercial, institutional. In England – institutional, as well as educational,” explains Vice President Chris Pal.

“We have centres of excellence divided by sectors. So, we have a commercial sector, a residential sector and a health sciences sector, et cetera. Essentially we operate Centres of Excellence through our different offices. That’s how we interact with each other in terms of working with different offices. We will have a Centre of Excellence in one of the offices and the other offices will assist and help out with a project,” adds Panici.

Leadership by design
“For example, the Athena project could have achieved Platinum LEED status but the client decided not to go through the certification process. But we did everything one would have done anyway. We’ve been advocates for LEED. Much of LEED is just sound design. The next steps beyond LEED are places like passive house design and low GHG [greenhouse gas] or Zero GHG. We’ve got some designers on staff here who are involved in passive facility design,” he says.

Other big projects NORR has been involved with recently include the New Toronto Courthouse, a $450 million project in collaboration with the world famous architect Renzo Piano (RPBW), a laboratory at the University of Windsor (NORR collaborated with another architectural firm for this assignment providing engineering and lab design services), a Canadian Blood Services facility in Calgary (NORR provided architectural and engineering services), and Union Station in Toronto. The latter is a major transit hub that processes millions of commuters each year.

“We provided innovative architectural and engineering design solutions ensuring operations of the facilities were maintained; trains kept on running as the major renovation and excavation of the lower concourse was being constructed. We had to design every aspect of the project without shutting down the facility. While people may not be pleased with some of the inconveniences that have to happen, they may not understand the complexity of what we’re trying to achieve. We dug down beneath the railway line while they were operating in order to put a two-storey retail mall into the facility,” says Panici. Work at Union Station remains ongoing.

NORR has a rich and impressive heritage. The firm was founded in 1938 in Toronto by architect John Burnett Parkin. Parkin’s creative designs were popular and the firm grew. Within two decades, John B. Parkin Associates employed 180 people and was the best known architectural firm in Canada.

In following years, there were changes to the company structure. A 1969 merger established the firm as a multi-disciplinary business, able to offer both architectural and engineering services. More restructuring occurred in the 1970s and the company became Neish, Owen, Rowland & Roy Architects Engineers. This was later shortened to the simpler NORR.

Operations expanded to the United States and across the ocean. Over the decades, NORR became involved in many prominent projects. The firm was joint venture partner for Toronto City Hall (also called “New City Hall,” this project was a major construction undertaking in the 1960s), and worked on Toronto International Airport and an office building for Bata (the international shoe conglomerate).

Today, the company has 740 staff members and is “wholly employee-owned” thanks to the introduction of an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), says Chris Pal.

According to Pal, being an ESOP company has been hugely advantageous. Collective ownership ensures continuity and means NORR can avoid the kind of corporate succession and share distribution battles that sometimes rack firms when a key partner or owner retires. As for new hires, NORR wants people with talent, expertise and a particular mindset.

“I think getting people who can work together in an integrated environment requires a certain type of attitude. I personally like people who have a wide variety of experiences… It’s good to have an open mind and be open to collaboration. Working together as a team is a key element of what we’re looking for in people,” says Pal.

“We take a look at projects that we’re interested in and assemble the best team possible,” states Panici. We collaborate with world class architects and engineers to ensure that we provide the best design possible for our clients.” This culture of collaboration, integrated thinking and inspired design also helps explain NORR’s longevity and success, he adds. “Our integrated approach has sustained us throughout the years.”

Industry recognition
To maintain the best possible design outcomes on projects, NORR runs a comprehensive quality assurance program. Panici says that each project is led by a Principal in Charge assisted by an architectural project manager who is “responsible for the deliverables – the work plans, schedules, et cetera, with a design architect responsible for the planning and design of the project.” Staff report to the project manager who in turn meets monthly with the Principal in Charge to review the progress of the project and discuss any design and technical issues.

Clearly, this formula has paid dividends, given the recognition NORR has received. A list of awards and distinctions the company has won just over the past three years fills an entire page. Among other honours, in 2018 NORR won a World Architecture Award for a Health Sciences Centre at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and an award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for work on a courthouse in Surrey, British Columbia. The McMaster Health Sciences facility also earned a 2017 Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada Award of Excellence LEED Project.

As an award-winning firm, Panici says NORR recognizes the importance of staying true to “our core values of Integrated Thinking and Inspired Design. We adhere to these values and use technology to assist in achieving these goals. The whole industry is shifting and changing and evolving. We live in a digital world,” he says.

“We’re fully aware,” he says, “of Parametric design, Revit and 3D modelling, 3D visualization, augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D printing. We are fully immersed in the digital arena. Where that leads us we don’t know yet, but obviously we are sort of using those tools to advance our core business, which is delivering architecture and engineering. One of the things we are implementing is how digital design and Internet of Things (IoT) informs our designs and how digital architecture and engineering evolves to achieve great architecture and engineering solutions,” he explains.

“That said, we hope to provide the best design solutions by thinking in an integrated way always pointing to our core values. ‘Doing great work’ is one of the best forms of promotion for NORR,” says Panici. “Our clients start advocating for us. That is how a lot of the sectors have grown. I wouldn’t say it’s word of mouth, but it’s through great work that gets acknowledged.” However, the biggest challenge facing NORR is “finding the right people that are willing to join us on our journey.”

For all that, the near-term goal for the firm is to be “a global leader in our sectors,” and possibly adding more Centres of Excellence, says Panici. The firm hasn’t ruled out new branches in new locations either.

Panici sums up: “I think NORR has a unique footprint in our industry. We approach our projects slightly differently and we use our three pillars of excellence to deliver projects.”

May 7, 2021, 9:38 AM EDT