Five years ago, Waterloo, Ontario, alone would have qualified as Silicon Valley North. But today, that term encompasses a number of cities: Toronto has added the largest number of tech jobs globally in the last half-decade years. Ottawa, according to a CBRE report that measures job growth, population trends and education levels, is Canada’s next-highest ranked tech destination, narrowly edging out Montreal. Along with heavyweights like Hootsuite, Vancouver is producing promising prospects like Article, Buddybuild and Finn.ai. We could go on.
As Canadian tech companies continue to surge, so, too, does the demand for inspirational, flexible and productive workspaces. Here are five that stand out.
Designed by: Linebox Studio
A global e-commerce platform, Shopify is headquartered in Ottawa. And last year, the tech titan tapped local architecture firm Linebox to design a space that could accommodate 2,500 additional employees, settling on an office tower on Laurier Street. The firm, which is also designing Shopify outposts in Montreal, Toronto and Waterloo, delivered a project with 10 individually themed floors – with space for ping-pong and yoga.
“For us, the challenge to design their 100,000-plus-square-feet HQ was to design a space worthy of a company like Shopify who, themselves, are disrupting norms,” says lead architect Andrew Reeves. “One of the really impressive things about Shopify is that, as an organization, they are very aware that a work space needs to work well for both introverts and extroverts, and that understanding is also core to the design approach.”
Inside, there’s also a 1920s-themed speakeasy floor with a hidden library; a 1960s-inspired mid-century modern floor; a sauna-themed meeting room; a snowboard-themed executive space, echoing the company’s outdoorsy roots; and a “mountain floor,” complete with cedar and copper tents (above).
Designing that many themed floors was a challenge – “it’s very iterative,” says Reeves – that also had extremely tight deadlines. Linebox says the design and build of the first four floors was completed entirely in 11 months. With an intense time crunch, nailing down the details proved challenging. “We have a philosophy at Linebox that we call ‘Quality of Space,’ which is the notion of designing a space to its best potential, considering light, acoustics, materiality, context, use and flow,” says Reeves. “Thinking about Quality of Space across dozens upon dozens of different kinds of spaces – the devil is in the details.”
As impressive as Shopify’s themed floors are, it’s still geared towards productivity. And Reeves points out that Shopify wanted to create opportunities for accidental encounters, retreats for individual work and nooks with residential qualities. “The companies we have been working with are interested in creating a ‘home,’ ” says Reeves. “This approach means that much like a home, the office reflects the individual corporate characters and culture of a company… our best clients want their offices to nurture their inhabitants, be welcoming.” Fait accompli.
Designed by: Article
Though customers know Vancouver’s Article for its handsome Scandi-inspired designs, it’s not strictly a furniture company. Article was founded by software engineers, and it expects to break $200 million in profit in 2018, which Betakit says would make the e-tailer one of Canada’s top 10 tech companies. Indeed, the company is growing at a staggering rate, so it chose a space it could comfortably fit in: a 115,000-square-foot industrial manufacturing facility with stunning views of nearby Strathcona Park and the North Shore Mountains.
Architect Elizabeth McKenzie was tapped for the bones of the renovation – which included new poured-concrete floors and exposed timber beams – but the interior design was completed in-house and led by Maureen Welton, Article’s VP of creative and design. “The Article office embodies the evolution of not only tech workplaces, but the modern office,” says Welton. “The way people work has changed. There is a convergence between work and life… Their home spaces need to be functional and productive. In parallel, modern workplaces have become more livable, bringing the comfort and amenities you would find at home into the office.”
The blend of residential and office can be found throughout Article’s headquarters. The kitchen and the individual workspaces sit at the centre of the floorplan, with light-filled communal lounges and meeting rooms orbiting the central space. The residential aspects can also be found in the building’s lower level, which include bike lockers and a jam space for the musically inclined.
Welton’s favourite feature, she says, is a “dramatic two-storey atrium” that features soaring white walls, clerestory windows and skylights, a custom-made neon sign by Endeavour Neon and a rotating mix of Article’s newest creations: Mecana chairs are featured throughout, as well is the Madera line – its desks nestled between pillars and its extendable dining table anchoring meeting rooms.
The Madera collection is of particular interest to the office, as it was created by Article’s industrial designers specifically for the space. “We identified that we needed a specific kind of desk to maximize the space between the posts,” says Welton. “These desks are made of American oak, able to withstand rigorous daily use and take on a beautiful surface patina over time… We realized in the design process the desk would also meet our customers’ needs.” They’re now available for purchase on Article’s website.
Designed by: Dubbeldam Architecture + Design
Slack, Wired declared, has won the office-messaging war. With more than 500,000 businesses using the service – and more coming since the acquisition of Hipchat, one of its primary competitors – the Vancouver-founded, San Francisco-based app has gone global. For its Toronto office, the company hired local firm Dubbeldam to convert a mid-rise former knitting factory. “One of Slack’s company values is craftsmanship and for all their office spaces they seek buildings that have character and history as a place of ‘making’ and ‘craft,’” says principal Heather Dubbeldam. “Their offices are often occupying former industrial buildings and they like to make them ‘productive’ again.”
For Dubbeldam, the concept of “threads of communication” was paramount – Slack, after all, is an app built around communication. “We took inspiration from the former looms, yarn and industrial knitting processes,” says Dubbeldam. “And since Slack is a messaging app, we developed a concept of ‘threads of communication’, playing with both the company product and paying homage to the history of making.”
The three-storey office is connected by continuous, zigzagging light fixtures, which the firm says “knits” together breakout rooms, open work spaces, phone booths, lounges, board rooms and a café. Many of those spaces – defined by pops of colour corresponding to Slack’s logo – ended up being flexible, if unintentionally so. “As an architect you always imagine the spaces you design being used in a certain way, but seeing this come to fruition – groups chatting in the lounge, pairs meeting in one of the wall niches, someone spelling out a humorous message on the peg board – has been rewarding,” says Dubbeldam.
The knitting theme can be found in a number of details. The workspace’s café, for instance, includes diagonal wooden slats, evoking the image of tapestries, and Kathryn Walter of Felt Studio wrapped Slack Toronto’s entrance in layers of industrial felt. Coloured network cables further reinforce the motif.
Playful as it is, Dubbeldam also says that Slack Toronto’s office was designed for productivity. “This is a contemporary workplace that favours mobility, where employees are free to work on their laptops from anywhere in the space instead of being relegated to a desk,” she says. “As more offices embrace this café culture, it is important that the design makes the employees feel comfortable to be productive.”
Designed by: Linebox Studio
After noticing that employees were holding meetings in hallways, Klipfolio CEO Allan Wille decided that the Ottawa-based company had outgrown its previous office. So the firm, which specializes in custom dashboards and business analytics, selected a space that it could comfortably grow into – namely, a former cinema in the city’s World Exchange Plaza. For Linebox, this presented a wonderful challenge: with double-height ceilings and mezzanine catwalks, it was a blank canvas. “When you can take a challenge and transform it into a major feature of the project,” says lead architect Andrew Reeves, “that’s exciting. We were able to turn the challenge into a major opportunity.”
Reeves is right: the space’s defining features were borne of challenges. Due to the double-height ceiling, Linebox was able create workspaces on mezzanines, install a splashy mural and create an open-concept core with sprawling views.
A custom-made feature staircase (above) is one of the firm’s biggest additions. But its most whimsical may be the colourful conduits that rise above workspaces, which responded to a constraint: Linebox wasn’t able to cut into the space’s floor slab, so it opted to run data and power cables through conduits it painted to match Klipfolio’s dashboards. It resulted in a colourful “feature avenue” that adds intrigue to the work stations below.
Throughout, the “beauty of this bare but oh-so-interesting space” was exposed, but there are also a number of other surprising touches – like Klipfolio’s old office signage, which sits in the centre of an open workspace.
Reeves credits Klipfolio founders Allan Wille and Peter Matthews for their collaborative spirit. “Each space,” he says, “was a conversation. Each colour was hand-picked. Each light fixture was debated.” The result isn’t only splashy colours. Klifolio’s office also has intimate meeting spaces tucked under mezzanines and workspaces with muted palettes – resulting in a playful interior that isn’t overbearingly extroverted.
Designed by: Lebel & Bouliane
There are so many interesting experiments, collaborations and happenings taking place inside 307, Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto HQ, that you might not notice the design. Which is possibly what makes this a perfect hub for the Google/Alphabet entity’s waterfront development. Working inside the good bones of an existing former fish processing plant in the Portlands, Toronto architecture firm Lebel & Bouliane “peeled back the decades of modern renovations” to the 1,400-square-metre space and then implemented a number of interventions.
A dramatic geometric entrance desk welcomes visitors in. It’s clad in plywood – the predominant material that was also used for the ceiling slats above – and shaped like a ship’s hull. Through an alcove – currently animated by a dappled-light canopy by Parasoleil – you come upon a glazed boardroom and the double-height prototyping space. The firm calls it the XXL Workshop Space and it is where all the real action takes place.
In recent weeks, Sidewalk has hosted “Open Sidewalks” to debut new concepts created in collaboration with a growing number of local and international innovators. Carlo Ratti’s hexagonal Dynamic Street covers a large swath of the otherwise raw-concrete floor, Partisans and RWDI’s outdoor-climate-zone mock-ups take up a full wall, and Daily Tous les Jours’ neighbourhood-morphing game is but one of many interactive tools used throughout the space to engage visitors. A black-painted triangular enclosure houses the digital electricity towers and, through a cut-out, the washrooms, and the ceilings and stairs are painted white.
All of the design moves recede into the background to allow the changing roster of activities – from expert talks on biophilic design to a full exhibit on high schoolers’ visionary waterfront-community models – to shine through. Whatever ensues with the constantly evolving partnership between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, 307 is a place to see much leading-edge architectural experimentation come to life.
It’s no secret: north of the border, the tech industry is booming. Here is a glimpse at some of the most innovative – and flat-out fun – Canadian tech offices for Shopify, Article, Klipfolio, Sidewalk Labs and Slack.