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How an inter-office competition created new opportunities for collaboration

From concept to creation: Lee’s original sketch and the constructed design

Across Urban Systems, we have a number of talented professionals working to support the communities we serve on a variety of projects. And while Urban Systems is built on the foundation of collaboration across disciplines, it is not uncommon that some opportunities do not reach every corner of our organization for input. For an organization with offices throughout Western Canada, it’s unrealistic to expect that each of our professionals knows what the others are capable of. But we know it’s there, waiting to be discovered.

This untapped knowledge is what inspired Rick Collins and Shasta McCoy, consultants in Kamloops, to think differently about an approach to their work with the City of Quesnel. The project – developing a conceptual design for the complete revitalization of four downtown blocks. Included in that scope was the development of a new gateway feature where Highway 97 intersects with Reid Street, the City’s primary downtown street. Rick and Shasta saw this as an opportunity to use the collective to think a little differently about how they approach the gateway design.

Reaching Outside the “Classically Creative” Bubble

Documentation of the official draw

“We can’t have all our creative people involved in every project,” Rick explains. “The challenge was figuring out how to get people excited about getting involved.” They talked about doing lunch and learns in each of the offices, or design charettes – something to inspire and engage those within Urban Systems who may not usually consider getting involved in a project like this. In the end, the simplest answer was the most logical – send an email company-wide inviting ANYONE to submit their design concepts, even if that isn’t a normal part of their work with Urban Systems. As an added incentive, offer a prize – $300 for the selected design.

And it worked! They received a number of submissions from professionals across the company, including from those that wouldn’t normally work within this area of practice. Be them engineers, planners, administrative professionals and, yes, creative design professionals – everyone had an equal chance to put their idea forward.

Once all the submissions were in, Shasta and Rick reviewed them, narrowing it down to four contributions that contained a similar theme and structure – Matt Smith, Mark Hall, Lee Giddens and Chad Carlstrom. “It wasn’t just about who had the prettiest drawings,” Rick emphasizes. “Some people who had submitted might have been people with less artistic ability but still had a great idea.” From there, to keep it fair, the winner was selected from names in a hat, drawn with the help of their Certified Name Selector, Shasta’s daughter.

And the winner is…

Lee Giddens

In the end, the design from Lee Giddens, a Landscape Consultant in Calgary, was selected for presentation to the City of Quesnel. “I’m always up for a good competition,” Lee jokes when asked why she decided to submit a design. “In all seriousness, though, when you’re given the chance to be creative and go back and look at the local materials and elements that make that place special to a lot of people, it can be used as inspiration to build into a design.”

Lee explains that in her work at the Calgary office, she works on quite a bit of wayfinding projects that are often started with a concept in mind. Whether she was selected or not, Lee saw this as an opportunity to research the community and develop a concept where the only guardrails were that it would need to be supported by the City and eventually need to be constructed.

“My approach going into it was to make it fairly straightforward to construct,” she explains. “I also put it into the context of Quesnel – looking into their local industry and the things that root people down in that place.” Materials like wood and stone therefore played heavily into the design, grounding it in that river-esque quality that is such an integral part of the City of Quesnel.

As a city situated along two waterways, water played a key role in many of the submissions. For Lee, it was important to represent the confluence of the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers. Shasta explains this approach helped Lee’s design stand out. “The design that Lee came up with really looks like tributaries flowing into the rivers so it not only gets at some of the natural materials of the area but it also speaks to the importance of the rivers.”

Taking the Design from Concept to Creation

Asking Lee what makes her most excited about being selected, she admits, “It’s pretty special to be selected but even more unique to see it actually built almost true to form of what we initially discussed.” Most designers enter into a project knowing their initial design will evolve as it goes through the critique and approvals process. Outside influences like budgets, available materials and client input can alter the design, and Lee began the process with the understanding that her design would be a concept that would likely change over time.

“Any idea that we bring to Council may not get built in its original form because it’s ultimately up to the City to make the final decision,” Rick points out. “What was interesting was that we took Lee’s idea to a City Council workshop and they really liked it.” The final built design completed late 2018 is pretty close to what Lee originally submitted, with small changes to the base and signage but overall honouring her initial vision. “It’s pretty cool to see what started out as a brainstorming exercise to get some more ideas turn out to be the actual design that was built,” says Rick.

A Gateway to a New Relationship

The design and build of the gateway came together outside of the work Rick and Shasta were in the midst of for the downtown revitalization project – essentially acting as its own, separate contract. “It allowed us to have a bit more control and high-touch with the contractor as we were building it,” Shasta explains. Working with a local woodworker who had been working in the community for 50-years, they were able to get insight from someone who was already familiar with the city and what made sense for the landscape.

“He was amazing to work with,” says Shasta. She recalls spending an afternoon driving around Quesnel to figure out what would be the best colour to stain the timbers to match with the aesthetic of the street. Having that local knowledge was invaluable to inform decisions about the design and construction of the gateway and ultimately give the City everything they needed to make the final decisions. “It was the beginning of a relationship with a local contractor that I think will be a benefit for the client as well as for future projects.” Shasta reveals that he will be continuing his work with, building parts of the design for their work on the local arena.

Collaborating Across Disciplines

Visualization of the Gateway

Lee’s involvement with the project didn’t end with the selection of her design. Due to her technical skillset, Lee was involved in collaborating with Rick and Shasta, and ultimately creating the detailed working drawings in coordination with the structural engineer. “The process was ideal,” Lee admits, “to have that idea and help move it through detailed design and having input in selecting the materials that would actually be used.”

She also worked closely with Mark Hall, a Civil Technologist in Kamloops, to secure local contractors and ensure that the gateway was constructed as they had planned. The fact that Mark Hall was a cabinet maker in a previous life and is still an active woodworker also helped to add energy and experience to the concept design. This combined with working closely with City staff like Chris Coben, Director of Capital Works and Infrastructure, helped make the process not only an exciting exercise for Lee, but also a finished product everyone can be proud of.

“It’s been great to see it actualized but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Shasta, Rick and Mark, who really brought it to life and helped the client work through it,” she emphasizes. “That just speaks to Urban Systems as a whole – how we create these innovative ideas and work together to bring them to life.”

“And it’s fun, too,” Rick declares. “The entire process was a great way to raise the idea across the company that we can do things differently. We purposefully sent the email to the entire company to make sure everyone had the opportunity to participate.” Perhaps this is the start of a new way to collaborate across disciplines and discover hidden talents across Urban Systems? For Lee, Shasta and Rick, it was a winning formula!

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