It’s basically a meet-cute, the story of how Mark Erickson and Matthew Kennedy of Studio North became a design firm. The winners of this year’s Arthur Erickson Memorial Award for emerging architects find themselves in an art class together at the University of Calgary, and discover they’re both heading to Dalhousie for their masters of architecture. Sure, fine. But karma had more in store than just that. “It turned out that we both moved to Halifax across the street from each other,” says Erickson (who, incidentally, has no relation to the late architect Arthur Erickson).

“We became friends out of convenience more than anything,” jokes Kennedy.

“No one else would hire us,” Erickson laughs back.

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Joking aside, the pair did become fast friends, and started tackling student projects together. “In a way, we were starting some sort of practice while we were students,” says Erickson. “In that it was actual practice—we were just practicing.” The pair took on parade floats, a kids’ camp, murals—anything that was creative with a side of fun. The design of a dining hall in the kids’ camp was published in a book called 20 and Change that spotlighted young designers’ work, and the book earned enough attention that the two had interns applying for a firm that didn’t exist yet. That made it official. The friendship would become something more: a business. “That’s when we started to realize we could make it into a real practice after school,” says Erickson.

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The pair moved back to Calgary in 2012, and their first projects were for friends and family, including Kennedy’s mom, who runs the Friends Cappuccino Bar and Bakery. Thanks to Kennedy’s thesis project on the need for laneway housing, Studio North also quickly became the laneway house experts in a city where the subject was still polarizing. “It led to us actually building laneway houses, and living in them,” says Kennedy. “Our practice has had a great evolution since the beginning.”

First up was their Withrow House project: a heritage home they purchased with the ambition of both restoring it and building a laneway house in behind. They worked closely with the city to do a historic renovation and restoration, a process that took a year longer than their projected six-month turnaround. “That was a really big project for us in a lot of different ways,” says Erickson. “When you first start out, opportunities don’t come easy, so we wanted to make an opportunity for ourselves—to show how laneway housing can help preserve and maintain heritage houses in Calgary, to breathe life into the existing property.”

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While the heritage home was restored true to its era, the laneway house is modern—though designed to reflect its sister home. “Our design ethos with heritage houses is to keep the old old and the new new; that way there’s more authenticity to the old bits,” says Kennedy. “You’re not questioning, is this a 100-year-old door or just a new door that’s supposed to look like one?” For the laneway, exposed rough-sawn fir rafters on the exterior reflect the exposed eaves on the original home; dash stucco also mirrors the historic design. In the interiors, simple materials are treated to be what they are. “If it’s plywood, you can celebrate the fact that it’s plywood, and let it be that,” says Erickson, a fact appreciated by judge Jim Olson, architect with Seattle’s Kundig Olson. “The simplicity of materials is refreshing,” notes Olson. Here, Baltic plywood cabinets are built right into the walls as a space-saving measure, taking advantage of the space between the beams.

For another laneway design, the homeowner wanted to ensure that her century-old mountain ash survived any construction efforts. Not only did Studio North protect the roots during the build—with screw pile foundations and an engineered slab on grade—the new home also has glazing right up to the roof that lets the historic tree be a centrepiece view. Though the home itself is just 750 square feet, the vaulted ceilings create the sense that it’s much larger. “Our thinking is that you should think of space as volume instead of planes,” says Erickson, “which is how people actually experience space.”

studio north teamPhoto by Jager and Kokemor

Environmentally sensitive design is a driving factor in most of their projects, including this one—their founding principle is that sensitively designed and well-crafted buildings can stimulate big changes in the way we live our lives. The team worked with Simple Solar to embed a solar thermal collection system into the surrounding fencing to provide passive heat for the house. The impact is felt by the homes’ residents, who see reduced heating bills in the winter, but it also has the potential to educate passersby, who are often intrigued by what they see on the fence. “It’s a curiosity in the neighbourhood,” says Erickson.

That kind of big-picture, big-influence thinking feels worthy of Studio North’s Hollywood-esque beginnings—the karmic result of finding each other at the right time, right place, and creating a firm with an impact bigger than the two of them. Get these guys an agent, already. 

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Q&A with Studio North

What’s your go-to material of choice (and why)?

Baltic birch plywood. It is well made, durable and affordable, and the end grain can be left exposed. It has a lot of versatility in how it can be used, since it’s a sheet material.

What’s your dream project?

A cathedral.

Is there a famous project or object you wish you’d designed?

Bruder Klaus Field Chapel... it gives me goosebumps.