Instead of architects, clients and general contractors vying for priorities, Altius Architecture Inc. proposes a better way.
FOR DECADES, custom homes often have come about with a hands-off architect – one who envisions how a home will be lived in and designs for each of those needs – boiling down detailed visions onto a sheet of paper to hand off to a separate entity, or entities, to actually build it.
The idea that a set of drawings is enough to procure the vision is, to Altius Architecture, ludicrous.
“There is a disconnect,” architect and principal Graham Smith says. “At some point in time in the latter half of the 20th century, each became almost a specialization, from architects who did design to the interior designer and the contractor.
“You ended up with a disjointed approach to building, especially small residential projects, which are – believe it or not – highly complex,” he adds. “The idea that we can translate all of that information in a set of drawings is foolish; the drawings are an abstraction of our intent. Particularly in residential, the typical method of construction delivery is fundamentally flawed.”
Based in Toronto, Altius and its team of experienced architects create custom homes with a goal to bridge the gaps often formed through the old way of designing and building a home. Over the past 18 years, Altius has built a reputation for resourcefulness in design capabilities and for an ability to get unique things not just designed, but also built – from a single custom element to the overall look and feel of a home.
Each home is built to work with the site and end-users’ daily lives, as demonstrated with the firm’s Grenadier House project. The contemporary house includes a double carport and garage, which creates a split-level concept with four stories at the back of the house and three at the front. Main living quarters are slightly elevated, so sunlight reaches into the south-facing facade while maintaining privacy within the dwelling. At the rear, living quarters extend into the backyard with large windows and door openings. A top-floor master suite overlooks a rooftop patio half a story below while maximizing solar gain.
Altius’ Thorncrest House project highlights similar strengths but in a modern- style house spacious enough for a family of six plus guests. Private spaces are arranged as an open concept with a double- height living room surrounded by a catwalk. The designers paid close attention
to natural daylight exposure at a basement walk-out, creating a transition to grade with a sunken pool, deck and grass terraces. Deep roof overhangs and cantilevered volumes provide shade, and a distinctive blue zinc cladding and Spanish cedar accents create a memorable presence.
Working primarily in residential, Altius’ team walks with homebuyers throughout the process, which the company explains in five main phases: preliminary design, schematic design, design development, construction documents and construction. Design often continues even through construction, as details are refined.
Clients are free to choose any method of construction delivery, including the traditional route of working with a general contractor, but most clients see the value and benefit Altius’ integrated construction management process. Altius offers a construction management team that consists of a construction manager, an accountant and the architect – and often the interior designer – from the original design team. This unified team provides a transparent and competitive process working exclusively for the client. By integrating construction management into the architectural and interior design services, Altius provides a fluid and efficient process while offering clients more control over the overall design and budget. This approach makes Altius quite unique in the residential market, Smith says.
The firm’s three founding partners – Smith, Cathy Garrido and Trevor McIvor – met while still attending architectural school in the 1990s. Upon discovering that no established firms shared their vision of architecture, they launched Altius Design Studio in 1998. Together, they’ve worked to establish a new tradition of the architect as central to the process of building – the idea of the master builder.
The goal – to create buildings that are sustainable, livable, contextual, economical and beautiful – requires a holistic approach, Smith says.
“We see design as completely holistic,” he says. “It’s not just the form but also the minutiae of: How does the kitchen function? Where do you stand to chop vegetables? We’ve essentially become residential specialists.”
Without the architect on hand to ensure those details come into place as planned – and without unnecessary or unplanned expenses – the client’s needs, and the vision for their home, can be lost. Altius’ approach rolls the design team into the construction management team.
“The traditional structure is set up to be confrontational – poor communication lines from the very beginning,” Smith says. “We’ve evolved a construction management program that derives from the commercial industry. Rather than being an independent company like a general contractor, the construction management team is a small team hired by the client and only represents the client’s interest. They don’t have financial interest in contracts on the job site – and it’s an arm’s length relationship to all the suppliers and trades. The important part is a direct line of communication from client to management team to project execution.”
Because trades and materials are bid through Altius and selected by the client, homebuyers can enjoy the same supplier discounts as Altius – and there are no kickbacks to the company from anyone. Altius operates completely independently and the bid process trims inefficiency and profit-taking that occur otherwise.
“We’ll even go so far as to purchase materials for a subtrade so we remove their ability to mark up the materials,” Smith says. “It all results in a much better process.”