Creative Work Spaces on a Budget
Chairman of Alacrity Canada, Owen Matthews, shares his stories on how he has built creative work spaces on a budget first hand.
My first very own office space in Victoria was a former horse barn.
My partner James Mantel and I rented it out for our graphic design firm that built web pages. It was located on Johnson Street and attached to Market Square, the oldest part of Victoria, with its door off the alley. It dated back to the 1800s, and the architecture within reflected that. I liked the space because it didn’t cost us much, and it had character, including 30ft high ceilings with 18 inch square wood beams made of old growth trees. James and I didn’t have a budget to hire outside help to turn the space into the modern office we wanted it to be, so we took to renovating it ourselves.
This would be my first of many office renovations to come.
Renovation #1: Creative Alley
We wanted to give the grey concrete space some colour. To start, we painted the walls white and put up a bunch of bright and colourful artwork. After that we turned the ground into a forest floor by painting the floorboards black and then beating leaves and branches on top with lighter colours of browns and yellows. Next we boarded the floor with a band of yellow and black, and put in a stainless steel railing on the staircase which had a very industrial look (before looking industrial was a thing). The wooden beams in that building were harder to drill into than the concrete walls – so dense that we had to use an impact drill. We were lucky in that our neighbour facing the street was a pawn shop, which meant we got incredible deals on the office equipment we needed, and just about anything else. We made our own cool and curvy desks by cutting fiberboard with a jigsaw, sanding the edges and painting them black.
When we were finished renovating, the office looked worthy of being mistaken for an art gallery, and my friends and I utilized that by hosting shows.
The whole experience of this first renovation opened my eyes to the possibilities of being creative with a difficult space, and gave me a taste for wanting to remodel buildings in the future. It also grew my appreciation for old buildings.
Renovation #2: “NewHeights on Gov St.”
My next rental was for my company NewHeights. We rented offices in a building on Government Street that used to be occupied by Disney Interactive. This space cost us more to rent, but already looked like a professional office when we first took over. Despite that professional look, we did have to redesign the space in a modern way. For example, it had huge 16x16ft offices that were more suited for lawyers in the 1960s than a tech company. So we put up walls to separate the areas into smaller offices and created private spaces for people needing to focus. I think we all agreed that we used the space 10 times more efficiently after dividing it up.
A lot of the elements in that office space were interesting and unique. Before leaving, Disney had stripped off all of the decal that represented their intellectual property. It was awesome to see the 100 year old glass doors with the outlines of the Disney logo, and the outlines of mickeys and minnies on the washroom doors. The columns had a very unique shape to them, and the beams in the hallway had little hearts and arrows that reminded us of Alice of Wonderland.
We wanted to keep this charm and tried to do as little as possible to the offices apart from dividing them. Instead of replacing the old heavy duty cedar windows, we decided to repair them by replacing their counterbalances.
And then I got tired of paying rent.
Renovation #3: “Power To Be Headquarters”
Once I established myself enough and had sold a company, it made sense to buy a building and renovate it. The first building I bought was in really rough shape. It was a big industrial space on Fort street previously owned by a catering company. It was filthy, there was grease all over the walls, and it was damp and moldy.
I had made some investments into technology companies that needed a space to work from, so we needed office space. I was also looking for space for Power To Be, a charity I support and later joined their Board of Directors. Power To Be, who connect local youth to the outdoors, needed an office with very different amenities than a tech startup. They needed a washer and dryer, a kitchen to prep food for camping, and a semi-industrial space where they can easily move and assemble adaptive recreation equipment for youth with special needs. They needed a great space for people to meet and for youth and counsellors to get ready for trips into the outdoors.
In order to provide those areas, we had to create more space. To do this we enclosed the balcony (which was the size of three extra offices) and took out a hallway wall so that no space would be wasted. We replaced the hallway wall with shear walls to also make the building safer by providing lateral seismic support. We put in a lot of internal windows, as well as half glass walls so that there was an illusion of even more space.
To be cost effective and sustainable, we used a lot of natural wood and strawboard in all the trim and decoration. We even made the boardroom table out of strawboard. It was the first time that I worked with an amazing local custom furniture maker. I designed the desks made of solid local maple wood. They were cheaper than conventional fiberboard office desks and will last forever. The cupboards we used for the kitchen were designed by taking standard steel drilled sheets and putting a frame around them. They were very durable, affordable, and looked great.
In the end, having the Power To Be offices right next to the early-stage tech offices was great, because it helped the young entrepreneurs see how different organizations manage and resolve conflict.
We soon had to find a new and larger building, however, because the companies kept growing to the point where we outgrew the space.
Renovation #4: “The Bodyshop”
For this next space I really wanted to get something nearby so that it would be easy for me to manage and work with the companies that would relocate to the new building, while I kept my office at 1019 Fort (where Picnic Too is now). I partnered with someone that had a building nearby under contract. That building was 1124 Vancouver street.
1124 was a derelict Bottle Depot, but that made it very affordable. The floor and the walls were covered in the sticky mess of used pop bottles and beer. It had been shut down for years because of noise complaints from the surrounding neighbourhood, so the wall grime seemed like a permanent fixture. People laughed at us and called us nuts when we said we were going to turn it into a workable office building.
To get started we had to first approach the city government to get a special zoning to be able to occupy the space. The soil underneath the building was soft and the whole area is zoned for larger residential buildings that justify digging deep with serious concrete foundations. The right to use the existing building as a commercial space had lapsed. The lot was too small to build a residential tower, so it just sat vacant. We weren’t allowed to occupy the building as a software company, but the city agreed to let us get some use out of the old building and support the tech industry needs. In a matter of weeks they put together a special city zoning category just for our little lot, (R3-C-T- Zone Central Area Multiple Dwelling & Technology District), to be used for high tech offices in buildings that predate 1971.
Then we took to renovating. It was another opportunity to apply creative thinking to put together an interesting space that could keep the costs down for the future tenants. Though I describe the renovations of 1124 in my past article on office culture, I’ll reiterate them again here.
We introduced skylights and put in a garage door to open up the space to the outside, and allow for lots of natural light. We kept the bathroom and kitchen in the area where all of the plumbing and water already came in so that we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money moving those systems elsewhere in the building. We surrounded the building in shear walls that were both seismically safe and prefinished, so we didn’t have to put up drywall, mudding, sanding and painting (the longer you’re in construction, the more money you’re paying out while not bringing any money in).
In order for the office not to feel like a fishbowl with all the new windows, we introduced some interesting visual barriers: campers and trailers for extra meeting space. The idea for this came about as I was looking at those vehicles online, I found that some of them were quite small. I realized that maybe instead of putting in phone booths and other barriers for private meetings, we could use a small trailer, like a classic 1970s Boler trailer. So we did. We also got a VW van with a little table in it, which would look like it was pulling the Boler. That made coming up with the lunchroom design very easy: we brought in picnic tables and put down artificial grass turf. The boler and VW van turned out to be very good meeting rooms with good sound barriers. As finishing touches, we put up a lot of bright paintings and removed all of the suspended ceiling tiles, exposing the trusses. It worked very well and all the hard work paid off. We had taken possession of the building in July and had occupancy by October.
“The longer you’re in construction the more money you’re paying out and not bringing any money in.”
We ran out of space at 1124 because companies and the number of tenants were still growing. Luckily for us there was a government office building nearby (a quick walking distance to our other two buildings) for sale. The building’s owner was under pressure because it hadn’t been occupied in a while. We did a very good job negotiating the price by being patient, by understanding the market, by selecting a reasonable price, and by sticking to it.
Renovation #4: “The Summit”
This new building at 838 Fort was nowhere near ready to be rented out in the condition we bought it in. The entire front of the building was set back and fenced off with a big bike lockup, and the foyer was a mere 10x10ft space with an elevator. Our challenge was to make the space welcoming and approachable for all the people that would eventually come to interact with the companies inside. It was very grey and boring, with white ceiling tiles that gave it a dreary 80s office look.
We started by removing the downstairs facade and bringing the building forward up to the street. We added a large garage door and a lobby spanning the entire width of the building, increasing the foyer to a 40×30 feet area. We took out the grey carpets and introduced an industrial look with polished concrete, then removed the ceiling tiles, exposing the roof trusses, and added big glass doors and glass windows facing South. We introduced colour to the building by painting the whole front (including the framing around all the windows) red. On the roof we built a big beautiful deck that covers half of the building, complete with an outdoor kitchen with water access, propane BBQs, a surround-sound system, and couches.
On each floor we introduced a common area with a coffee table and a couch so that people could break out of their office routine and get steeped in sunshine. Getting the renovation done quickly was, again, a major priority. We used finished plywood on the walls and agreed not to nitpick over details.
My partners and I empowered the contractors to make decisions themselves when we weren’t around. They knew generally what we were trying to achieve, so we left them to it. We took the building in March and had occupancy by July of the same year. Once we had the structure complete all that was left was to pick a building theme like we had at 1124. We did well with the camping theme at 1124, and wanted to try something different.
Then one day I thought to myself: “gondolas”.
I realized that if we used gondolas as meeting rooms, then there would be virtually no wasted space in the office. With gondolas, you literally walk into a little enclosure and close the sliding door. The thing is, it’s not that easy to find affordable gondolas. I looked around for a while and came up with nothing, until one day I spoke to my friend in Vancouver who knew the CFO of Blackcomb. My friend encouraged me to give the CFO a call. To my surprise the Whistler CFO on the other end of the line laughed and said “You won’t believe it. We haven’t announced it yet, but the entire Whistler Village gondola run is being replaced. I have 136 of them which I can sell for $300 each”.
Acquiring the gondolas prompted a really fun nordic theme. I thought, “if we’re going to have a Nordic theme we should include heli-skiing, ‘cause it’s is super cool”.
I searched for a helicopter and found out that they were very expensive: about ‘3 quarters of a million dollars for a frame’ expensive. I persisted in looking for something much much cheaper and explained to each seller that I was looking for something that wasn’t going to fly again, and didn’t need a certified airframe. Finally we found something off the movie set of Ocean’s 13. In the movie there’s a scene where Al Pacino flies off the roof of the casino to escape the good guys. The movie crew had stripped the helicopter for the movie which meant it was essentially a piece of scrap metal. This was great, but the problem then was at the American border. They didn’t believe us that the helicopter could be so cheap and didn’t want to let us through. After a few exchanges they eventually understood it was devoid of all flying parts and was really little more than glorified scrap metal.
Once we got the helicopter inside the office, it became a crucial piece of decoration (along with the gondolas) that blocked off the desks from outside eyes, and provided a nice area for taking phone calls.
Adding in the Dak cafe was a final touch and probably one of my favorite things about 838. It makes it comfortable for people to come in and wait when they are getting ready for meetings, and really brings together our concept of having an opening and welcoming aspect to the building.
Spending money is easy, but some of the best work I’ve seen done was on a budget, and with lots of creativity. Instead of spending a pile of money to achieve a certain look, you can apply that money as savings on rent to your tenants. Long term renters need to occupy your space so that you can afford the space in the first place. If you’re an investor in your tenants’ companies then you have even more incentive to help them spend less on rent. But my main takeaway for any building owner is that you can make a space cheaper by virtue of how you buy it, renovate it, and add creative features that save you even more money.