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Introducing Western Living’s 2023 Designers of the Year Award Winners
WL Architectural Designer of the Year 2023: SMStudio
The duo behind Calgary’s Bioi focus on materiality and longevity in each one of their projects.
When it comes to design, Jordan Allen and Raya Trefz don’t keep a strict division of responsibilities. “It’s a little bit nebulous in the sense that it’s a true collaborative effort,” says Allen. Trefz, however, suggests a dynamic metaphor: “I think Jordan is more of an admiral—and I tend to be more of a pirate.”
The team met in the master’s of architecture program at the University of Calgary, Allen with a background in industrial design and Trefz in astrophysics. You could say that the stars aligned: Allen’s expertise in the design of everyday objects and Trefz’s knack for making sense of the big beyond made them an efficient pair. They came together to found Bioi (pronounced bi-oh-eye) in 2011.
The winner of our 2023 WL Arthur Erickson Memorial Award for an emerging residential designer is a design-build firm: Allen and Trefz oversee the residential and commercial projects they take on from start to finish. “We take clients from concept to key,” says Allen. “We’re committed to a project for a very long time.” That commitment is in line with Bioi’s dedication to creating structures made to last, and to changing the landscape of Calgary’s design scene. “Gone are the days when there was an oil-field mentality of come and go—now, there’s an urban mentality of stay and play,” explains Allen.
Case in point: the Scarboro House, a home that was designed to endure in both function and material. The clients, a couple and their three young children, needed a space that would grow with them, and this stunning house is just that. The modest yard is sheltered by a rehabilitated hedgerow, so the children can safely play outdoors, and an integrated elevator within the home provides a breezy lift to any of the four floors, which will come in handy as the access needs of the clients change with time.
This home shines with one of Bioi’s core values: material honesty. The exterior is made up of concrete and timber, which will each develop their own patina over time. Inside, natural materials give the home a serene vibe, without feeling cold. (According to Trefz, the smaller scale of the details—“more human and not so monolithic”—is why the home feels so friendly.) The family of Arthur Erickson, the iconic architect this award was named to honour, praise the firm’s mindful use of materials: “The warmer tones and finishes of the Scarboro House hold appeal in the cold Canadian light,” they wrote in their judge’s comments.
It’s true, Canada is not known for our sunshine—but the Bioi team makes the most of what they’ve got to work with. Their North Glenmore house, for example, features a rebellious light well: light flows from the inside out on every floor, including the basement. Conceived in the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic, this home is an updated response to open-concept living (a trend that many found frustrating in lockdown conditions). Rooms are divided, but not completely closed off from one another. “The idea is that you can be anywhere within the main floor, and even if you’ve got the door closed, you still have a visual connection back to the activity in the house,” explains Allen. While the light well technically reduces the livable square footage of the home, the feeling it creates is the opposite. “It makes spaces that are broken up actually feel larger,” says Trefz.
This same strategy is employed in the Light House, an inner-city home that also features a large void and excavated light well through the middle. The property is located on a lively street, and the designers wanted to connect the inside with the outside—but not necessarily with the street traffic. Solid brick buffers the noise from outside, and, of course, light floods in from the centre. “Every project we seem to do now has some version of an oversized light well,” notes Allen. Hey, with results this spectacular, why resist?
The exterior of Light House is rather restrained, but there are moments of whimsy within. “A lot of things about this home feel typical or familiar—but then there are these large moves that undercut that,” says Trefz. The powder room, for example, was incorporated into the millwork and features a daring mural by digital art group eBoy. Meanwhile, a cedar cedar ofuro tub in the primary ensuite nods to the client’s love of Japanese design.
Judge Clinton Cuddington (who, along with Piers Cunnington, won our Designers of the Year in Architecture award in 2022) says the firm is “on the road of design interrogation seeking that critical balance between coarse and fine.” This balance—between aspirational and realistic, restrained and playful, admiral and pirate—is what earns Bioi the Arthur Erickson Memorial Award.
What was your first design project?
As a studio, the Warburg House, c.2011.
Who do you admire most as a designer?
JA: Without just repeating my “following” list on Instagram: Edition Office, Chamberlain Architects, Ritz & Ghougassian, Adam Haddow of SJB and the greats of Peter Zumthor, Will Alsop, FLW and Mies van der Rohe.
RT: It’s impossible to go with one, so a few: Edition Office, Sanaa, Peter Zumthor, Tadao Ando.
Who’s a Western Canadian designer whose work you admire?
RT: Some may no longer consider him a “Western Canadian designer,” but still, Douglas Cardinal is who immediately pops to mind. A visit to St. Mary’s Church when I was younger was revelatory to my understanding of a fuller potential of what holistically intentioned architecture could convey and so was a direct catalyst toward pursuing this path.
JA: I echo Raya’s answer in Douglas Cardinal. A few others on my vintage list would be Arthur Erickson and Peter Hemingway (from my Edmonton days). For currently practicing: Michael Leckie, D’arcy Jones and Scott Posno are all doing strong work.
What’s your go-to material of choice?
JA: Exterior? Brick. It’s the only true zero-maintenance facade material (short of a re-pointing every hundred years or so) that responds well to the strenuous demands of the Western Canadian prairie climate swings of 100 degrees. Interior? I’d go with timber. It can be sustainably sourced, it’s easy to work with and it can condition space very well within any palette or atmospheric intent.
Get Your Ticket to This Year’s Western Living Designers of the Year Awards Here.
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