+VG: Ontario’s unofficial municipal architect

The Ventin Group Architects has an unusual business model: designing public facilities for smaller municipalities, getting ratepayers on board, then securing provincial and federal aid to get the thing built.

When Ventin Group Architects Ltd. (+VG) managing partner Paul Sapounzi was appointed to the College of Fellows of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada this past May, the firm’s press release described him as “Ontario’s municipal architect” because he personifies +VG’s unusual business model.

The firm specializes in an underserved market niche: public projects for smaller municipalities. +VG has become the trusted adviser to decision makers in these municipalities by not just designing projects but ensuring that they get built.

+VG guides the client in developing a business plan. “We may start from the very beginning, collecting all the information and helping our clients organize the trajectory of their projects,” says +VG partner Dan Wojcik. Then, +VG mentors local officials in pursuing funding for accessibility, sustainability and other initiatives from agencies such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“Over the years, we’ve learned how money flows through the province, [and] have facilitated our clients’ receiving $200-million worth of grants and stimulus packages,” Sapounzi says. “We’re chameleons. It’s not about us; we adapt our work specifically to the community. We see ourselves as a supporting, facilitating entity. That’s why we call ourselves ‘Plus VG.’”

Like Caesar’s Gaul, +VG is a whole divided into three parts. “Logically, we’re not big enough to warrant that many branches,” Sapounzi says. The staff of 60 is split among branches in Toronto, Ottawa and the head office in a renovated Art Deco bank building an hour-and-a-half away from the Bright Lights, Big City in Brantford, pop. 102,000.

“This shows our clients that we’re a smaller-community municipal architect: You’re not calling on Toronto to solve your problem; you’re calling in someone at your peer level,” he says.

“Because we’re municipal architects, we need to be plugged into the politics and dynamics of these communities. They’re all so different,” he says. “We’ve evolved a practice where it’s all about personal contact and personal presence and the tentacles of the firm throughout the province.”

+VG gets plum jobs in the Big Smoke too. New or reuse projects include: Hamilton City Hall; Toronto’s Don Jail (part of the Bridgepoint Health campus); the Royal Canadian Yacht Club’s downtown and Toronto Island clubhouses; the Ontario Legislative Building at Queens Park; Toronto’s Old City Hall; St. Michael’s Cathedral; and the business schools at Brock and Queen’s Universities.

Nonetheless, the firm’s mission “is to strengthen, reinforce and repurpose the cumulative heritage treasure of the province, one town at a time,” says Sapounzi. “The most challenging work for an architecture firm is small municipal work. It offers the least money for the most effort in the farthest places with the most-complicated politics, the most economic pressure and the most public scrutiny.”

It’s been a tough slog, but as payback, +VG has accumulated a collective memory built over decades of relationships with movers and shakers in dozens of municipalities. “We keep tabs on all these people. We’re not just architects, we’re project makers and relationship builders. We think of our familiarity with communities as an important business tool. Very few firms have reached the level of emotional intelligence we have with our clients in small-town territory because we have seen generational changes from one council to another.

“This important part of the market would have been neglected over the years, to a large extent, if not for our efforts. Big-city architects will come into small towns when there is a big readymade project, but they’re not interested in cultivating projects.” Evidently, they think of such clients as backwoods burgomeisters.

Wojcik opened +VG’s Ottawa office five years ago. Since then he has designed town halls for Gananoque, Smiths Falls, McNab-Braeside and the County of Renfrew. “Just because our client is a smaller entity doesn’t mean that their needs are any less complicated or sophisticated than those of our bigger clients,” he says.

“I could draw a map of this part of Eastern Ontario in my head because of how often I’ve driven from one town to another, putting in 40- or 50,000 kilometers a year for work. You start to understand how the towns co-operate and rely on each other for that common thread of experience and knowledge. They’re all looking to improve the service they provide to their constituencies through better municipal architecture.

“In larger urban centres, municipal projects are fully worked out and funded and people are assigned to them,” Wojcik says. “There’s a project scope, a schedule and accountability. However, the average small Ontario town with a population of 15,000, say, has six councillors. Half of them are farmers; the others are real estate agents, local merchants or school officials with limited resources and without a strong voice at the provincial level.

“At the beginning of these projects, you could often mistake them as dead ends: these guys don’t have the money. There’s no way they can develop a new municipal building with the resources they have.” +VG’s hand-holding makes it possible.

Even larger locales occasionally rely on +VG to fill in for missing local consultants. Tom Wilson, a partner at +VG’s Toronto office, recalls, “I was surprised when I started working with a city of 200,000 that no-one on their staff was responsible for capital projects. They actually didn’t build them. In a lot of municipalities, we hear, ‘The last thing we built was a hockey arena and that was 25 years ago, so you’re going to have to help us out.’ We’ve got to show them the ropes, end to end.

“The last time small municipalities across Ontario had a huge cash infusion for buildings was 60 years ago. These communities continued to grow and now many of them are at the breaking point, with personnel stuffed into every building asset they have. I’ve seen planners working in fire departments, engineers working out of operation centres and recreation staff squirreled into the back corner of an ice rink.”

His clients’ first request is usually “Don’t build me a Taj Mahal because I’ll never get re-elected,” because the public associates a town hall with where they go to get relieved of their money to pay for parking tickets and taxes.

To seduce ratepayers, a proposed town hall should comprise more than a mayor’s office and council chamber. That way, it can be rebranded as something far sexier: a multi-use civic complex with community amenities. For instance, the new Wilson-designed King Township Administration Centre features a full-size gymnasium that is open to the public; the parks and rec department runs programs there. In addition, the council chamber converts into an event space after hours.

Another way to bring the citizenry on board is to add sustainability features, which, these days, are as politically correct as motherhood and apple pie. During King Township’s planning phase, Wilson held a public session to explain the costs and benefits of green options. He did it so skillfully that the facility incorporates several, including geothermal heating and cooling. Upon opening in 2019, the building won prizes for the use of its two primary construction materials: glued-laminated heavy timber (Canadian Wood Council Excellence Award) and masonry (a Bronze from the Brick in Architecture Awards).

Wojcik’s soon-to-open municipal building for the Township of McNab-Braeside uses laminated timbers instead of steel and concrete where possible. The embodied energy of the building is much lower than that of a comparable steel or masonry structure.

To kick off the renovation of the town hall in Smiths Falls, he supervised visioning exercises for a master plan encompassing the new town hall and a town square. The sessions, he recalls, enabled members of the public “to feel out what they needed, get the best use of the money they had and see that their taxpayer dollars were being used in a transparent and professional way.”

+VG often provides another consulting service, unmentioned on their website: imaginative ways to eke out tight budgets. For instance, +VG scouted for affordable land to build a project it was designing: the County of Renfrew Wellington North Region Ontario Provincial Police headquarters. +VG found a troubled, leftover odds-and-sods piece of derelict brownfield property that was hemmed in by railway tracks, a swamp and a partially demolished former Canadian Tire store. +VG ameliorated the site and a gleaming new cop shop arose in Renfrew.

Still another funding method is the design-build and leaseback development model that financed +VG’s Provincial Offenses Administration Courthouse in Burlington. It exemplifies an innovative way for cash-strapped municipalities to build infrastructure when they lack capital funding. They can pay for the facility on a cash-flow, operational basis instead of raising taxes or floating a bond issue.

Photo credit: David Lasker Photography

Upcoming is the launch of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario’s Carlos Ventin Award for Municipal Heritage Leadership. +VG funds the award, which commemorates the firm’s late eponymous leader, who in turn was recognized with a 2013 Governor’s Award from the National Trust for Canada for his pioneering work in restoring decaying 19th-century municipal buildings to their former architectural glory and prominence in the community.

As the citation states, “The award recognizes elected municipal leaders, municipal staff and appointed representatives who have championed the rehabilitation and/or adaptive reuse of public heritage buildings in their community. These buildings may include libraries, town halls, city halls, community centres, theatres, schools, and other civic spaces. Communities of all sizes that have demonstrated a commitment to reviving their heritage structures are eligible for this award.”

The archetype is Ben Gilbertson, the fearless, far-sighted town clerk of Simcoe, Ont., who in 1974 persuaded a majority of initially hostile town councillors to approve Ventin’s proposal for renovating their crumbling Victorian-era town hall instead of razing it. Ventin was able to save the architectural treasure for less than the cost of a new building. The project’s success put his practice, and indeed the concept of adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, on the map.

“The award is an appropriate way to honour Carlos’s memory because he wasn’t an ‘architect’ architect, he was really a ‘client’ architect,” says Sapounzi.

Carlos Ventin

“He had an old-fashioned reverence for the honour of working on a municipal project that would improve the public realm. He told me many times, ‘I’d like to do private work, but public work is more important.’

He didn’t apologize for rarely getting published in architecture magazines. He didn’t focus on that kind of publicity, he focused on the client’s publicity. He had reverence and respect for the senior civil servants who were instrumental in making his public reuse projects possible.”

The droll Ventin liked to joke, ‘We lose money on every project, but we make up for it in volume.’” That patient approach has paid off in repeat business from many happy, loyal clients. A case in point is Milton, 40 kilometers west of Toronto, where, over the years, +VG designed Milton Town Hall; FirstOntario Arts Centre Milton; Milton Public Library-Main Library; renovated and updated historic St. Paul’s United Church; and is designing Milton’s proposed new elementary school.

Photo credit: Mario Madau

“My first exposure to [+VG] was the old town hall, which was a jail and a courthouse. What impressed me was that they can incorporate the past, the present and the future,” says His Worship Gordon A. Krantz, Mayor of Milton and the longest-serving (40 years) mayor of a major municipality in Canada. “Everyone’s been quite satisfied with their work and professionalism. We’ve always been on the same page. My relationship with Carlos goes back 35 years and I’ve been working with Paul for at least 25. It might sound tongue-in-cheek, but the question is, ‘How do you improve on perfection?’”

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