Calgary’s MoDA designs spaces that challenge the idea of architectural perfection in lieu of great storytelling and true livability.

You can learn a lot about a firm through their renderings. Freed from the strictures of budget, clients and engineers, they allow an architect to capital-D Dream Big, and dazzle with their imagination and creative power. Scan most architectural firms’ websites and you’ll see image after image of literal castles in the sky, untethered by the grind and monotony of daily life.

Not so Calgary’s Modern Office of Design and Architecture (MoDA), the winner of this year’s Arthur Erickson Memorial Award for an emerging architect. On the MoDA website, you’ll find snow falling, neighbour facades that are less than perfectly scrubbed, and even lawns that look like they could use some mowing. Oh, everything still looks beautiful, but our judges revelled in the fact that this was a beauty grounded in the experience of the everyday, a practical exploration of modern living. “If anything, I think we’re more interested in telling stories with our designs,” says founding partner Dustin Couzens, “than in creating some version of perfection.”

Couzens met co-founder Ben Klumper when both were master’s students at the University of Calgary’s architecture department. After graduation, both went on to work for different firms, but it was, oddly, music that brought them back into each other’s artistic spheres. Couzens, a guitarist and vocalist, began to jam with drummer Klumper—and while there was no danger of any Grammys, the experience did convince the pair that they possessed the temperament to work together on a creative pursuit. In 2013, the two founded MoDA.

Right out of the gate, their ambitions were different than many of their peers’. While many new firms target the more manageable single-family dwelling as a reasonable scale to start, early on MoDA was convinced that both their talents and passions lay in reimagining how Calgary approached traditional multi-family dwellings. But city developers, always with a mind to the bottom line, weren’t chomping at the bit to give a young firm a shot at overhauling the paradigm. “Basically, we started out by cold-calling developers and asking them to sit down with us and hear about our approach,” recalls Klumper. They were able to persuade a few pioneers that they could deliver projects that were out of the norm, which would be good for sales while still being very budget friendly—good for developers’ profits.

It’s how projects like Village, a soon-to-be-finished 78-unit complex in Calgary’s Bankview neighbourhood, came to be. The design reimagines the idea of communal living by embracing the village atmosphere created by the developer’s required density. Variegated roof lines in the melange of townhouses, studios and lofts that make up the development create the appearance of an English town re-imagined for the 21st century. It’s not yet ready for occupancy, and already the design has been showered with awards.

Not surprisingly, the firm’s days of cold-calling seem well in the past, as developers approach them as the conduit to designs that inspire (and inspire to purchase). In between, the two squeeze in time to work with the U of C and help volunteer and lecture with Calgary’s popular and influential D.talks series. It’s all about rethinking the Calgary design ethos. “We’ve long been a traditional city, but that’s quickly changing,” says Klumper.

2017 Designers of the Year ▸▸▸