Small Giants: How DHK Architecture stood the test of time on the South Island

    Growing populations and the hot housing market requires an evolution in the South Island’s build environment. DHK Architects have been quietly responding to those changes with thoughtful, community-minded designs.

    Charles Kierulf (centre) pictured with newly appointed partners Rob Whetter (left) and Glenn Hill (right) at the Victoria Press Building, familiar to many as the former home of the Times Colonist. The renovation and additions will result in 12,000 square feet of commercial and social space with rooftop patios, restaurant
    Founding partner Charles Kierulf (centre) pictured with newly appointed partners Rob Whetter (left) and Glenn Hill (right) at the Victoria Press Building, familiar to many as the former home of the Times Colonist. The renovation and additions will result in 12,000 square feet of commercial and social space with rooftop patios, restaurant space and a distillery or brewery in the converted print reel room. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    When the crash of 2008 led to the crisis of 2010, de Hoog & Kierulf Architects (dHKa) partners Peter de Hoog and Charles Kierulf summoned all the steely courage they could muster … and put their people ahead of their profit.

    Ahead of themselves, actually, too. 

    While some firms laid off almost their entire workforce, the firm voluntarily cut partner paycheques in order to keep their team together. 

    “We did not lay off,” says Kierulf of the aftermath of the financial crash. “Some firms laid off almost their entire workforce. We kept everybody on, and Peter and I didn’t take any income for a year and a half.”

    It’s an uncommon move for most businesses, but not for small giants — companies that want to be great rather than big. Kierulf and de Hoog’s compassionate choice delivered a surprising benefit: because they had prioritized their employees when the market turned upside down, the firm came back strong and was able to hit the ground running as soon as projects started coming back on stream. 

    “We lost some people, yes,” Kierulf says. “But … when the work came back, we had twelve on staff.”

    Along with the high-calibre, lower-profile and community-serving architectural work dHKa is known for, this solid commitment to people is a defining feature, and sheds light on how this firm has stood the test of time on the South Island. And now, the firm has engineered itself into a strong position to steer its next phase of growth and expand its vision for the future, with the introduction of two new partners.

    “There’s that adage out there about, ‘your employees are your biggest asset, not your biggest liability,’ right?” Kierulf says. “It’s true. And that’s what the firm is.”

    Founded by de Hoog and Kierulf back in 2001, after the pair had worked together for nine years, dHKa has come to be regarded as the architect of choice for numerous builds on the South Island. They started out at Mattick’s Farm, then moved downtown in 2008, and opened their Nanaimo office in 2014. 

    Their portfolio is full of careful, hard work that is easy to overlook, even for long-time residents — we are all guilty of not looking up. But you’ve probably passed by or visited many of their buildings, subtle in their appearance. 

    In Victoria, the International Marina, Herald Street Brew Works, the Victoria Distillers and the GAIN Group of car dealerships are a few businesses whose buildings were designed by dHKa, and the firm’s master planning includes sites like the Royal BC Museum and the Selkirk waterfront. 

    Diversifying the Portfolio 

    With the needs of the island constantly shifting, dHKa must continuously innovate while keeping on top of the rules and regulations for every project. 

    “There are no standard details,” Kierulf says from dHKa’s Victoria office on Fort Street. “We literally remake the mould every time we do a project. It kind of kills us sometimes,” he laughs. “But every project is unique on all levels.” 

    The firm has worked on all kinds of projects over the years and holds a diversity of designs in its portfolio. Currently, dHKa is deeply invested in multi-family and senior residential projects, with an intense focus on affordable housing. As the sky-high real estate prices on Vancouver Island continue to increase, dHKa finds itself, like other architectural firms, busily engaged in the affordable housing sector. What used to be almost zero projects has increased to roughly 40 per cent of all projects on the books. 

    “It’s become a segment of the industry that you can’t ignore,” says partner Glenn Hill, who heads up the Nanaimo office. “Five to seven years ago, we didn’t do any BC Housing projects. And there weren’t that many to go around. Now it’s the complete opposite.” 

    It’s interesting work, and it confers a good feeling, says Kierulf’s other Victoria-based partner Rob Whetter: “Our work is inherently satisfying. That’s why we do it. But … at the end of the day, these projects are good for society.” 

    With vacancy rates hovering around one per cent in recent years, Victoria is far below healthy rates, which should range from three to five per cent. The City defines affordable housing as: “Housing where the price does not exceed 30 per cent of the gross annual household income for very low income to moderate income households.”

    Working with both private and non-profit sectors, BC Housing develops, manages and administers a wide range of subsidized housing. In 2020-21, contributions included 1,197 new affordable housing options to rent and own; rent assistance in the private market for 36,432 households; and 41,452 new independent social housing units. 

    While part of the firm’s expansion is due to the growth of the affordable housing sector, it’s also because they’ve got the collective intelligence to steer complex undertakings that involve a lot of people, ideas and parameters. 

    “These projects are inherently quite large and complex, with big teams that require a lot of collaboration and teamwork,” Whetter says. “These big projects are highly technical with many different inputs and green aspects and licensing and regulatory variables that all have to be blended together very well for the projects to succeed.”

    A rendering of Caledonia, an affordable housing development recently approved for Victoria’s Fernwood community. With expected completion in 2024, the project will create 156 new affordable housing family units across five separate buildings. Site design includes pedestrian pathways and gardens, with most parking and driveways located underground.

    People-First Approach 

    However satisfying a project may be for the architect designing it, the foremost consideration is how the space will be used and who is using it or living in it. 

    “To do them justice and to do them well, you have to pay attention to the ultimate resident,” Kierulf says. “You want people to feel at home.”

    The company’s unwavering focus on how a space will be enjoyed by its residents shapes how they craft each project. The famous phrase in the industry is “form follows function,” but non-architects might be surprised that this often doesn’t refer to esthetics. 

    As Kierulf explains, it’s not about interior design or big-picture ideas — it’s about details so small you’d never consciously think about them. “It’s about making sure that the proportions of the windows to the walls, to the rest of the building are correct, so that you know that those units will be filled with light.” 

    “It’s not about whether the blinds come down when you clap your hands,” Whetter adds. “It’s about [if] the space [is] good to be used for what it’s intended. 

    “You really have to approach it with flexibility and collaborative spirit,” says Whetter, who emphasizes the firm’s commitment to listening to and taking on board the requests of multiple stakeholders — a recurring characteristic of dHKa’s large-scale architectural projects. 

    We tend to idealize the image of architects: sitting in front of a slanted table, blue pencil poised thoughtfully over a slab of clean white paper, gazing into the middle distance as they prepare to capture their elaborate structural fantasy in a series of boldly drawn lines. 

    But Kierulf says it’s really not about the pretty pictures. 

    “We’re essentially a combination of CEO, politician, advocate — those are the hats that we wear. And if we get to draw a pretty picture along the way, it’s a bonus,” says Kierulf. 

    “People tend not to notice good architecture. And that’s a sign of good architecture: that it doesn’t stand out in a crazy way or an ugly way or whatever word you want to use. Good architecture just is, and somehow supports or enhances somebody’s experience.” —Charles Kierulf

    A rendering of 937 View Street, Victoria, currently in the development-permit application phase with the City’s planning department. The 19-storey tower will create 266 market rental suites with additional coworking spaces, a streetfront patio, roof-level amenity spaces, 290 secure bike parking spaces for tenants and another 27 for guests.

    A Blueprint for the Future

    With a recent and significant shift in its partnership structure, dHKa is once again stepping into the unknown, but with full faith in the people who are leading the firm. 

    Last November, cofounder Peter de Hoog stepped back, as Whetter and Hill stepped forward into partnership roles. Hill and Whetter are no strangers to dHKa; however, having been part of the team for seven and eight years, respectively. 

    Choosing the right people for partnership roles aren’t easy decision, but sometimes the right people happen to be in the right place at the exact time you need them. Back in 2013, dHKa had little to no presence up-island. 

    “We looked at the Nanaimo market and [knew that] it’s underserved architecturally,” says Kierulf. “The fundamentals are all there for Nanaimo to be a booming place.” 

    While looking into opening an additional office, Kierulf and de Hoog were introduced to Hill through an engineering associate. Hill, running his own consulting firm out of Nanaimo at the time, was just beginning to realize that he had grown what he was doing in Nanaimo to a point where he needed more help. 

    So the three of them got together to discuss the future of dHKa. 

    “We convinced [him] to roll his new lab and dHKa together and open the Nanaimo office,” says Kierulf. “He’s basically been up there managing the Nanaimo office since 2013.”

    Though the two offices work on similar projects, each city has a completely different feel. 

    “Victoria, as a kind of a well-established urban centre on the Island, has its own vibe,” Hill says. “Nanaimo is certainly a different city. It’s a city that struggles with its infrastructure because it’s so elongated, but Nanaimo is in a construction boom right now. There’s projects happening everywhere.” 

    Nanaimo was the fastest-growing metropolitan area on Vancouver Island and one of the top five fastest-growing cities in Canada over the past five years. With a population that reached 99,863 in 2021, the City of Nanaimo estimates its average growth rate over the next five years will be 1.5 per cent annually. 

    Despite Nanaimo’s logistical challenges, Hill’s pride in dHKa’s buildings and projects — that include the Snuneymuxw First Nation Community Centre, Chapel Street multi-family residential building and the BCAA Auto Service Centre — in the harbour city is evident.

    “I think they are unique. I think they speak to a sort of resident form and character, flavour, style — whatever you want to call it,” says Hill. “That happens as part of our team collaboration.”

    Adding two partners at the same time was an unconventional choice, but ultimately the right choice for dHKa, and one that was engineered to evolve over time. 

    “Peter and Charles let us kind of free up the reins a little bit to step into this role, which is what Rob and I had been doing for … as long as we’ve been with the company,” Hill says.

    “There’s been a goal for me to grow, expand, build the relationships, seek out the opportunities and bring them into the office. So, becoming partner … it’s almost like a legitimization of the commitment that Charles and Peter had from me. The expectation was there that: work hard, let’s be excited about what we’re doing and when it all fits into place, there’ll be that shift.”

    While being an executive leader — a CEO, say — is different from being an employee, partnership is a different animal altogether: you’ve got skin in the game now, and suddenly you’re deeply responsible for your organization’s direction. 

    “[It’s] a lot of work,” Kierulf says. “And a lot of responsibility.”

    With its commitment to collaboration and team building, dHKa has prevailed through economic shocks to not only grow, but flourish. As Hill remarks, “It has been about that commitment to the people that are the firm” that creates dHKa’s quality work.

    The focus on a human-driven approach — whether it be in a design or within the office — is critical, “because without the energy, the efforts, the creativity and the technical capacity of our team, we’d be at a loss.” 

    Commitment to its people shapes the very fabric of this company, and by proxy helps shape the future of architecture on the South Island. 

    “It’s the commitment that we have to one another,” Hill says, “and certainly the commitment that Rob and I, and Charles and I have, to ensure that this next chapter of dHKa is every bit as successful and pleasurable to be at as possible.” ′