An upscale co-working space in Old Montreal

Sensitive design intervention makes heritage building feel like home for tech co
Thursday, November 2, 2017
By Michelle Ervin

A heritage building once occupied by a financial institution may not be the likeliest of places to relocate a tech company, but a sensitive design intervention made just such a space feel like home for a start-up.

A few years ago, Crew, an online platform connecting freelance web designers and developers with work, decided to move into what had been Royal Bank’s long-time home up until about a decade ago. Located in Old Montreal, in the basilica-inspired ground floor of 360 Rue St-Jacques, its interiors reflect the decadence of the era with brass chandeliers, coffered ceilings, marble counters and travertine floors.

“On one hand, it was this incredible, neoclassical building from the ‘20s that was rented out by the building owner for film sets because it had tremendous character,” recalled architect Henri Cleinge. “At the same time, the bank had moved out in 2007, but the latest renovations were done either in the ‘70s or ‘80s, so there were these pretty ugly blue carpets and neon light fixtures in this beautiful space, so we ended up ripping all that out and rebuilding from there.”

Cleinge’s namesake firm completed the 12,000-square-foot project in spring of last year at a cost of $60 per square foot, which works out to around $720,000. The sensitive design intervention gave Crew private offices as well as a café and co-working space.

The start-up was working only a few blocks away when it set about searching for a new office to accommodate its growing ranks. Including a café and co-working space in the program would give Crew a way to offset its real estate costs by generating revenue and raise the profile of its brand, said Stephanie Liverani, now co-founder and head of supply at Unsplash, an offshoot of Crew.

The nature and scope of the intended program dictated the start-up’s requirements as it worked with a broker from Cushman & Wakefield to select the right site. It would need to be big enough to accommodate the café, co-working space and Crew headquarters, and it would need to be on the ground floor, as the café would be open to the public.

“When we walked into the space, I asked the broker, ‘So where’s the space we can rent?’” recalled Liverani. “And he said, ‘You’re standing in it.’”

She said she was in awe that the space, which she likened to Grand Central Station, was available to lease. It has the same airy, open qualities as the co-working spaces Liverani was most inspired by in her own travels — namely the Ace Hotel in London and Neue House in New York.

Crew hired Cleinge’s firm for the project because his work is predominantly residential, and the start-up wanted its headquarters to have a homey feel, she said.

Some features of the ground-floor hall, which is served by a grand staircase, would have to remain untouched, such as the ceiling and light fixtures. The heritage building’s manager and part owner, Gestion Georges Coulombe, who served as contractor on the project, cleaned the bronze and updated the light bulbs to prepare the space for the new tenant.

“It was so rich and it had such a presence, we felt that whatever we did had to be subtle, had to be very simple,” Cleinge said of the space. “It could be bold, but we didn’t want the design to rival with the existing shell.”

Coulombe also asked that the bank teller stands with marble countertops be retained, which Cleinge used to define the height of the intervention as well as demarcate the different zones.

“It wouldn’t have been the same space if we hadn’t kept the tellers,” said Coulombe. “It was part of the bank and part of the history.”

On one side of the teller stands are the co-working spaces and on the other side of the teller stands are the private offices, which Cleinge pointed out are situated in the sunniest and farthest-removed area of the hall.

The objective was to create three zones, one for each element of the program, that were distinct but complementary and inclusive, said Liverani.

“We used glass partitions, which were very transparent, so you can kind of see the entire neoclassical shell from wherever you are in the space,” said Cleinge.

Brass-plated steel was inserted into the space to enclose booths and meeting rooms, which echoed the existing brass features, he explained.

When the blue carpet behind the teller stands was removed, it pulled back to reveal only concrete slab. Logistics made it impossible to bring in travertine flooring, so Cleinge selected white oak instead, picking up on the yellow tones of the brass and chandelier. He carried through the white oak in the custom-designed banquettes and tables, which were paired with Herman Miller task chairs.

Today, around 400 people flow through the doors of Crew Collective & Café on a daily basis, with the co-working spaces largely operating at capacity.

“It’s less of that WeWork feel, where there’s beer on tap,” said Liverani. “It’s more of that Soho House, Neue House feel, where people are coming there not because it has that start-up, community feel, but because it’s a beautiful space to work out of and they’re inspired by it.”

As happens in the world of start-ups, Crew, the platform for designers and developers, was sold to another company. The nine-person team that continues to work out of its headquarters has turned its attention to Unsplash, a free stock photography website that started out as a side project. And a 20-person team continues to operate the café and co-working space, offsetting what are now Unsplash’s real estate costs.

Crew is not unique in experiencing fast-moving change, and this project has widely applicable lessons, as Liverani explained.

“Sometimes start-ups are going to grow from small to large or from large to small, and co-working spaces provide that flexibility,” she said, “where traditional office spaces, when you’re signing a five, 10-year lease, there’s less of that flexibility, so that’s one thing that co-working spaces have really brought to the picture.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

Key suppliers

Architectural/custom woodworking: Kastella; Architectural glass/glazing and decorative glass panels/partitions: Techni-Verre; Brass-plated-steel wall panels: LineaP; Cafeteria/dining seating: stools by EQ3; Cafeteria/dining and conference tables: Mobilier de Gaspé inc.; Conference, task and workstation seating: Herman Miller; Custom built-in seating and upholstery: LineaP; Drywall: CGC (ceiling and walls); Hard flooring: White Oak; Laminate: Formica; Paint: Benjamin Moore; Pendants/chandeliers: Authentik; Recessed and task lighting: Sistemalux; Workstations: custom tables by Mobilier de Gaspé inc.

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