Altius Architecture Inc.

A full-service architecture firm

Cultural trends have long been known to influence design and architectural projects continue to push toward eco-friendly designs. Just as sustainability in architecture prides itself on blending form and function, it’s important to focus on using design elements that not only look great but are also well made and minimize the impact on the ecosystem.

Since 1998, Altius Architecture Inc. (Altius), has stayed true to its vision and creates buildings that are sustainable, livable, contextual, economical and beautiful. Based in Toronto, Altius is a multidisciplinary design firm, licensed by the Ontario Association of Architects, with a focus on the broader residential market.

Altius is comprised of three partners: Graham Smith, Cathy Garrido and Trevor McIvor, all former students of the University of Waterloo, which came together during the depths of the ’90s recession when there were no jobs available. They started Altius as students. The three all began their careers as general contractors working in the residential market. They were actually designing and building for clients but as their business clientele grew and projects became larger they began concentrating more on the design side and working with third party general contractors.

As architects, they were visionaries capable of seeing into the future. They identified the flawed relationship between architect, client and general contractor. “It’s set up for failure from the get-go,” says Graham, “because there’s more opportunity for confrontation then collaboration, there’s very little transparency and the clients’ interests are not always put first. We saw the need to implement a construction management approach where the team consists of the architects; a construction manager in the field and a project manager who is an accountant. We put together this highly specialized team that works for the client while maintaining an arm’s length relationship to all of the trades and suppliers.”

A fully integrated process

Altius’ design process looks at each project including the site, building, landscape and interiors in a holistic manner. “We provide services that can execute the entire project as a concise whole, while understanding and prioritizing the various elements that are attainable within the projected budget,” says Graham. They work exclusively for the client and their best interests in a completely transparent process where the client has immense flexibility as the entire team is completely integrated. “Our clients appreciate the fact that they are given control during the project and have access to all the receipts. The clients have the profound understanding that their best interests are being taken care of,” says Graham.

Typically, general contractors are out to make a profit and protect the profit while the architect is traditionally an inspector and both work as separate entities. Altius’ clients have direct access to all of the key players in the team which is unique in the industry. “We are able to deliver projects on tighter time frames and on budget with remarkable efficiency,” says Graham.

Altius is truly comprehensive. Since launching the construction management division, they have established all of their industry relationships alongside their fully integrated process. With a staff of 24, that boasts four accountants and four construction managers, the group is constantly engaged and maintains open lines of communication.

Altius is very rare in the residential field of architecture. While they do some commercial work, it typically extends from their residential clients. “What makes us unique is that we are truly an inter-disciplinary, comprehensive firm. Not only do we offer professional architectural services but we also offer professional interior design services and most importantly, we have a full construction management division,” says Graham. They are the architects and the builders for their projects. Clients get a unique team to work with eliminating the normally adversarial process that is associated with contractors and consultants, which are usually not positive experiences for the clients.

The typical building process often leaves clients unhappy; they can go over budget, over time and miscommunication is common between client and builder. Since budgets move in real time, Altius has a sophisticated budgeting process that is organic and fluid; always anticipating the client and the budget lines before spending on the project. “We try to help the client understand where general contractors try to make a profit and eliminate the double dipping to give them the most value for their money,” says Graham. “Our first commitment is to the client and the second is to the project itself.” With their extensive experience in managing construction projects Altius provides invaluable advice in working through the design and construction process.

Experts when it comes to residential

Many firms in the industry lack diversity when it comes to their commercial, residential and institutional work, often using the same materials and the same design.

“People don’t come to us for a specific design but with unique tastes and that is reflected in the diversity of our projects,” says Graham. Sustainability is integrated into their work reflecting common sense and practical design elements. “We have always modern architects, and then about a decade ago people stated calling us green architects. We haven’t changed our design philosophy, rather the market has changed to suit us,” Graham continues.

The new generation of millennials is influencing the housing market with their taste in open concept styles and modern spaces that are common in the condominium market. More buyers are building their homes from scratch to meet these needs because the existing housing stock is almost exclusively traditional historic designs. The housing market is changing and modern designs are more sought after then in previous decades.

“There’s a generic contemporary language that’s going on in Toronto right now, that when you see your own projects being imitated, it’s time to find something else and it’s never really a conscious effort to change the design language, it’s the technology in products that are pushing design envelopes,” says Graham. We’ve been known to be early adaptors and try something new, whether that’s sophisticated mechanical systems, new materials or advancements in the building envelop. We’ve consistently been innovating the architecture itself and the byproduct of that starts to influence the look of the building.”

Glass technology for example, has evolved significantly over last twenty years. Windows can be tuned to the building envelope so that the mechanical system is there to compliment the passive strategies designed into the building rather than overcome the short comings of the building. “Technology is the trend and it needs to be integrated into the design. Building performance, not just architectural style, is a foremost concern,” says Graham. “Energy efficiency is no longer a political and social issue; it’s also one of economics as the cost of utilities continues to rise.”

Altius also stresses contemporary architecture with a focus on comfort which was not the case with European modernism where everything felt sterile and institutional. “Our work is ‘soft modern’,” says Graham. “We try to give people comfort and familiarity. We use a lot of natural materials that are more local to where our clients live.”

Functionality is also paramount in Altius’ projects. “We are experts when it comes to residential,” says Graham. “We understand how people use their homes. People like being in our projects and that’s the greatest compliment we can get.”

Altius is passionate about residential as it’s one of the most complex and sophisticated areas of the market to work in. “This industry is a lot like counseling, where you work closely with the clients, trying to understand their needs and desires, helping to steer them in the right direction and push their own ideas that they may have difficulty communicating,” says Graham.

For 2016, Altius plans to focus on further integration of their construction management and architectural divisions. “We used to offer Architectural and Construction Management as separate services, however now they are so well integrated that it becomes problematic to do one without the other. We want clients signing on for the full package, it’s in their best interest and it allows us to do our best work,” says Graham.

What makes Altius inimitable is that they are the full package deal. Clean contemporary design, emphasizing craftsmanship and materiality, has resulted in a number of award winning and critically acclaimed projects. The incorporation of natural materials in their projects achieves a beautiful and functional design that sets Altius Architecture apart in the industry. In addition to having a more efficient carbon footprint than their profit focused competitors, their designs are of the highest calibre while always keeping the client in mind. “We will continue to do what we do and do it even better to separate ourselves even further from our competitors,” says Graham.