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Why These World-Class Architects Chose New Brunswick

Twice named one of Canada’s top emerging design firms, Saint John’s Acre Architects, founded by Monica Adair and Stephen Kopp, is committed to expanding the role of contemporary architecture in Atlantic Canada.

The young entrepreneurs recently appeared in Wallpaper* magazine’s list of rising star and breakthrough practices from around the globe for 2016, the only Canadian firm listed. Adair, recipient of 2015’s Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Young (Under 40) Architect Award, says the company’s practice of storied architecture is about “inspiring people to live great stories.”

Kopp notes that, though based in Saint John, the Acre has aspirations of doing more work beyond Canada. “We’re obsessed with the East Coast and are looking to expand our market into New England. Remove that border and we see many commonalities relating to our practice and the stories we hope to tell.

Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke to the pair about living and working in New Brunswick.

ONB: You’re both well-traveled. What brought you to New Brunswick to establish a business? 

ArchitectsMonica: We attended the University of Toronto for a Master’s in Architecture. There was a job in New York that we both went after. One position was open but they gave it to both of us. We tell people we wouldn’t be married today if they hadn’t. We worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a Wall Street firm responsible for One World Trade Center and the Sears Tower, among other famous structures. It was an incredible, formative starting point.

In New York you’re easily working 80 hour weeks minimum, and we wanted a change. We didn’t know what that change would be exactly; we thought about Europe for example. Stephen is from Manitoba, but I am from Saint John and my father owns a furniture shop here. He gave us access to his warehouse for storage, so we came to New Brunswick.

We figured we’d stay to write our architecture exams, and work at a local firm temporarily. We each worked on an arena at Murdock & Boyd Architects; Steve was the project architect for the qplex in Quispamsis, and I had that role for the E. & P. Sénéchal Center in Grand Falls.

We realized something during that time. In New York, if you don’t do a project, somebody great will. In New Brunswick, however, there are only 11 architects under age 40. Architect isn’t always top-of-mind as someone who can affect real change in the community, so it felt meaningful to stay.

ONB: Why Saint John? How important is the city in terms of inspiration, providing work life balance, and time with your children?

Stephen: As a family we love being based in New Brunswick because it’s an easy place to connect with the outdoors. It also has a great urban feel, so you still get that city living vibe. It’s got a great core, a density, and architecturally it’s fascinating. Saint John has all the trappings of a great city. It’s got a great restaurant scene developing for example, which we love. We want to be where we enjoy living and working, it offers the best of both worlds in terms of work-life balance.

Monica: We like to say our firm exists on the ‘fringe’, and we think that’s an opportunity. The rules aren’t all set in place here, there’s a chance to build things that are original. If you’re in a big city it’s easy to fall into trends, or want to build more of the exciting things you’re already seeing. Here we’re often not building off something else, but forced to think of building from scratch.

Stephen: Two of our core values are care and quality; the city itself has that. There’s a permanence and a care in the historic buildings. It’s a great place to springboard from.

Monica: Another core value is playfulness. I think it’s a great place to play; it doesn’t feel like you’re caught up in bureaucracy as you make things move forward. We’re in an environment where we enjoy what we do. It’s not as simple as saying commutes are short, it’s that you can fit so much in here. There are reduced barriers to action, that’s how I would frame it. We are able to intertwine family and business pretty easily.

ONB: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced thus far?

Stephen: There are several when you start out of your basement. The biggest—which will likely remain the biggest—is recruitment. There’s no architecture school here. Getting exceptional talent to move to the ‘fringe’ from where they are thriving, whether it’s Toronto or New York, can be a challenge in our particular field. You’ve got to draw people here with creative means; being featured in renowned publications like Wallpaper* helps get us on the radars of top talent.

Monica: Rather than simply suffer through challenges, we try to use them to help rethink our practice. We work as a collective — the Acre Collective. We bring the right team to the right project. We’re partnering with a local firm in Austin, Texas to work on a wedding retreat for example. That’s the way for us to be flexible, find workarounds, and collaborate with great people.

The real challenges we face are more existential. What we truly fight against is mediocrity, the idea that something is “good enough.” We believe you can always think bigger. To believe we can live better. We feel if you can change the way people think, you can change the way they live their lives. As long as people are not thinking big enough we’re not going to rest on our heels.

ONB: What has support been like here, both from the entrepreneurial ecosystem and public sector?

Stephen: Coming from backgrounds in New York and Toronto we find the small business community amazing. It really feels like there is a open door policy with other CEOs, advisor groups, public sector officials, ONB, etc. You feel pretty looked after.

Monica: Enterprise SJ gave us our first loan which had a grant portion you could put towards business development. We hired an executive coach and had a great experience with her; she became a client when they moved south of the border, that’s our Texas project. You never know where opportunities like that will come from. A small grant might not seem like much but it’s the relationships that come out of it that matter.

ONB: Best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs here?

Stephen: It can be hard, but really think about the vision; why you want to exist as a business. Then stick to making that vision as big as you can, in time. Don’t think about selling the company right away or making boat loads of cash out of the gate. If you follow that vision first and foremost, success can and will come. It’s easy in the Maritimes to think small, or as Monica said, think “this is good enough.” A great idea will go well beyond Atlantic Canada; it will be needed around the world. Keep that vision in your sights and align it with your staff and company values and it can be powerful.

Monica: Share in others’ successes, it helps everyone grow. We’re all going to go through challenging times, that’s just reality, but sharing everyone else’s success keeps us all on the same path. Focus on great vision and share in other’s success and they’ll return the favour. We’re in it together.

Check out some of the Acre’s New Brunswick work:

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Cover image by Mark Hemmings

Monica and Stephen image by Scott Munn