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The architecture firm that’s building the North

Necessity brought Rod Savoie North after his graduation in 1987.“At that time the economy was at a low,” said the Saskatoon native.

Necessity brought Rod Savoie North after his graduation in 1987.

“At that time the economy was at a low,” said the Saskatoon native.

“There was pretty much no work anywhere in Canada for engineers,” he said.

A family friend who worked at FSC Architects in Yellowknife suggested the electrical engineer take three months to give the North a try.

Twenty years later, he’s still a proud member at the FSC office in Whitehorse.

But it’s still difficult to lure architects and engineers to the North.

“We’ve been after an architect in Iqaluit for quite a while now,” said Tim Turner-Davis, manager of FSC’s Whitehorse branch.

The Yellowknife-based firm is forced to engage its challenges.

“We made a big change a few years ago,” said Savoie.

“We restructured the company and created a focus to try and resolve some of the problems we’ve had in the past,” he said.

“One of these is finding and keeping good staff, so we decided we were going to solicit the staff and we asked ‘What do you want? What do you want in terms of benefits or changes in your workplace?’”

After implementing some of the survey’s suggestions, the staff at FSC nominated their company for Maclean’s magazine’s Top 100 Employers in Canada awards.

FSC made it on the 2008 list for their staff-oriented changes.

“It’s a big deal for a little company,” said Savoie.

But perhaps not so much for a northern one.

Playing by the rules of necessity is all part of building in the North.

FSC manages staff much like it erects buildings

“It helps when you live here,” said Savoie.

“You experience things going wrong. You know when it’s cold and you see what breaks, what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

Working with permafrost is a common example of how a burden can be turned into a benefit.

“The Yukon is a rather unique relative North of 60 because there is what they call ‘warm permafrost,’” said Turner-Davis.

The architects secure the building by freezing the permafrost to the structure’s foundations, he said.

“Basically what you got is that it’s frozen into the ground. So when you do place your concrete slurry mix, it bonds to the permafrost,” he said.

The firm has learned to perfect the practice in many of its northern projects.

“You’re using the permafrost as if it’s bedrock. It’s a true integration of the piling system.”

FSC has offices in Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit.

It began in 1976 and now has 70 staff across the North.

“It started off as three guys in Yellowknife working out of a house,” said Savoie.

Turner-Davis joined the firm in 1991. In less than a year, he was asked to open the Iqaluit office.

He also opened the Whitehorse office in 1997.

There are 11 staff now working in the Whitehorse office on Main Street.

Local projects include the retrofitting of the White Pass and Yukon Route train depot and the Taku Hotel building, as well as infrastructure projects like the redevelopment of First Avenue in 2001.

Working in smaller communities means putting a wide range of skills in compact little firm.

“You kind of have to be a jack of all trades here in the North,” said Savoie.

The firm’s offices usually comprise diverse fields of expertise to facilitate construction.

The firm needs to be efficient and capable of working the details of construction collectively.

“This office is getting closer to being like what we have in the Yellowknife office, which has all of the disciplines that are within the firm,” said Turner-Davis.

This means jamming mechanical, structural and architectural expertise in one efficient bundle.

“I think, generally speaking, it adds a lot of convenience,” he said.

FSC also designed the Whitehorse Airport expansion, the Aquatic Center in the Canada Games Centre and the Northwest Territories Legislative building in Yellowknife.

Many of the FSC’s projects meet LEED standards, an environmental ratings system designed to make buildings energy efficient.

For projects like the new Taku building, it can be an uphill battle.

“The more that the industry is producing products and materials that work with LEED, the more you’re getting platinum and the higher LEED ratings,” said Turner-Davis.

“This is what it’s like in the South.”

But the North doesn’t have the same kind of selection.

“In the North, there is a real challenge just because of your location. You don’t get the same kind of credits even though you have an owner who’s committed to LEED,” he said.

Turner-Davis became interested in the North after attending a Canadian history course at Trent University.

“In the second year I was in university, they introduced course on the North,” he said.

“That really has a thing that sparked my interest,” he said.

“It just seemed like an exciting place to be because after those years of studying history, (I learned that) the North is changing at such a pace I felt I could be a part of a lot of change.”

Being part of that change means mixing old traditions with new standards.

“The most prevalent thing that you see in Old Crow is logs,” said Turner-Davis.

The firm kept this in mind when designing the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in the late ‘90s.

“You get a different sense of the community compared to all the other communities that are on the road system,” he said.

But the logs aren’t the best wall material available nowadays.

“What has happened is that the logs have almost become representative. They’ve become a siding,” he said.

“So in this particular project, we still wanted to give the log appearance to integrate with the community but still improve upon the building envelope.”

The school has modern walls with half-round logs covering the exterior.

“And you also have an insulation package that goes around the entire perimeter to maximize energy efficiency,” he said.

FSC tries to tie itself into the community’s needs.

The firm has partnered with the Whitehorse cross-country ski club to develop lighting for night skiing.

They’re also working with the Food Bank Society.

“We’re going to be providing design services for the renovations to the Legion, to get the food bank operational,” said Turner-Davis.

FSC is also the first member of the food bank’s green apple donor category.

The apple scale ranges from seed, core, red, green and golden apple.

Being a green apple donor means pledging $5,000 per year for five consecutive years.

The food bank needs a lot of donations from businesses all over Whitehorse, said Turner-Davis.

It’s a firm that learns from necessity giving back to the community’s bare necessities.

“At least we can get the ball rolling by designing the new building,” he said.

Contact James Munson at jamesm