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Openspace Architecture

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The words “open space” mean something special to almost everyone. They represent freedom and room to play, or to simply spread out and relax.

When Openspace Architecture was first looking for a name for the firm, Don Gurney, the firm’s founding principal, referred back to his downtown Vancouver planning experience, where he spent several years working with Landscape Architects planning the open spaces framed by towers and street base buildings. “The open spaces created opportunities for the downtown architecture that frames the network of parks and various pedestrian and vehicle movement systems, which has influenced the way we approach our site planning and positioning of buildings,” he says. “I believe the success of the Vancouver downtown waterfront development owes much of its success to the open space planning.

“Openspace Architecture was a natural progression as our buildings now naturally frame the dramatic natural setting found here in British Columbia,” he adds. “As a rule, we prefer to position our building on the least desirable aspect of the site and use the architecture to frame the most desirable portion of the site.”

The words “open space” take on a few different meanings when it comes to firm’s philosophies and design principles. Gurney spends many hours on the site, exploring the topography and learning the subtle nuances of the wind, sun, shade and views that make the site special. In terms of sustainable practice, he says that siting the building to work with the elements is an important first step.

Most of Openspace’s projects are in British Columbia, a province known for its natural surroundings and for its production of sustainable wood products. With long spans and large glazed facades, the homes allow the occupants to feel immersed in the landscape.

 “Our architecture is intended to be a lens from which to view nature,” Gurney says. ”We strive to provide homes that blur the line between inside and out.” 

The use of wood in Openspace Architecture’s projects reflects the company’s desire to design homes that have a symbiotic relationship with nature. “All of our designs are driven by their site and context,” Gurney says. “We are inspired by the landscape, and our designs are a melding of the owner’s programmatic desires and what the landscape has to offer. We’re in the land of wood, so that really motivates us; it’s a natural, sustainable resource that really resonates with people.” 

Openspace Architecture’s designs are inspired by modernist architecture, but executed in a way that is very warm and inviting using natural materials. In addition to designing the houses, the company is a full-service firm that also offers interior designs. “We do so much of the space planning and room layouts in the design phase that it just makes sense for us to follow through with the interior finishes,” Senior Associate Eric Pettit says.

Another inspiration from the words “open space” is evident in the company’s office environment. Eight full-time employees  work out of a 20-foot wide by 90-foot long open plan office with 14-foot-high ceilings. The office is one giant room without cubicle walls or partitions. Desks are positioned against the perimeter walls with the computer screens facing the center of the space. The configuration puts all staff on an equal level, from principal to junior staff, and it allows each team member to see what is happening on each other’s screens. This creates an atmosphere of collaboration and a shared ownership over every project. 

“Our office is an open space,” says Pettit. “We invite our clients to come by and look at our designs, we encourage them to drop in often and we want them to feel welcome in our office. The openly displayed work surfaces allow for inspiration and innovation through cross pollination of ideas. We want each of our designers to feel free to  offer suggestions or criticism on what someone else is working on; we are a team, and our product needs to be something we are all proud of. We strive to be an open place for communication.”

Communication and collaboration are fostered with clients, builders and material providers early on in each of Openspace Architecture’s projects through the company’s embrace of an integrated design process. This process is centered on creating 3-D models simulating clients’ future homes; these models are shared with structural, mechanical and electrical engineers and with the general contractors. “With a 3-D model, we can see exactly what the house will look like, and by sharing the 3-D information with the engineering team, we can coordinate the  ductwork, plumbing and mechanical systems with the architecture. We can find out where conflicts are and make adjustments before working in the field,” Gurney says. “Using this process, we can resolve the mysteries that are normally encountered on a site before construction. A lot of the buildings we design are very open and have exposed structural systems. It can be very tricky to integrate the various systems into these homes, so the more problems you can solve up front, the better.”  

Although the 3-D process and detailed coordination is initially more costly to clients in the design phase compared to the  traditional 2-D method. the integrated design process offers significant long-term cost savings during the construction phase. The method minimizes the need to solve problems in the field or the need to  resolve details after construction has begun. Both of these scenarios often lead to cost overruns and lengthier schedules due to the time wasted making adjustments on the fly.

The ability to model each of the building’s systems independently naturally isolates “fixed scopes of work” ahead of time, which allows for more accurate pricing from subcontractors. Subtrades are more confident to minimize their contingencies typically added to their pricing due to the “unknowns” associated with a set of 2-D drawings, Gurney adds.

Openspace works closely with timber frame manufacturers and steel manufacturers who also use the 3-D models to drive computer controlled milling machines to cut the structural members for the homes. The cut steel or timber components are test fitted off site. In the case of the timber frame, they are stained with two or three coats prior to delivery to site. The timbers are labeled and delivered in order so the first to be installed are the first off the truck. This high level of coordination allows for an easier and faster frame assembly once concrete foundations are placed, as the beams already meet design specifications. 

The ease and accuracy of the integrated design process has helped Openspace Architecture build lasting relationships with contractors and clients. Many of the projects it works on are with the same close-knit group of builders and manufacturers. “Our process is very hands-on with the contractor and the client,” Pettit says. “We’ve had many clients come back to us after their first project with a second or third, because they enjoyed the process so much. Also, many of the contractors we work with have embraced the software and use it daily on site.”

Homes designed by Openspace Architecture range in cost from $1.5 million to $10 million, with an average cost of around $4 million. The firm has in recent years expanded its reach across the Pacific Ocean to Asian nations including Mongolia and Japan, where it has recently completed projects. Mongolia in particular is an emerging market because of the rise of the mining industry there. “We were affected during the recession because of the decline of the resort home market and started to get involved in emerging economies in Asia,” Gurney says. “We wanted to take the expertise we’ve developed in British Columbia with timber and timber products into other countries, and have been well-received.”

Defining Work

Openspace Architecture recently applied its integrated design approach to several private residential projects in its home province. 

The Leathermann Retreat, located in the Kootenay Lake Village development in Nelson, British Columbia, gave the firm the opportunity to design four different structures on adjoining waterfront estate properties all owned by the same family, Gurney says. 

The project consists of a main, 2,600-square-foot house, The Light House, and three smaller, 1,000-square-foot self-contained buildings. The larger structure consists of a single story with a dining room, TV room and master bedroom, and the smaller buildings all have one or two bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms.  The first two of the four buildings were completed in 2013, Pettit says. 

Each building offers views of a nearby lake and surrounding forest. “We are accentuating the natural features of the lot rather than just plopping homes on top of them,” Pettit says. “We have such wonderful sights here in British Columbia that it would be a shame to just bulldoze them.”