Why Getting Rid of Departments Produces Results

By abandoning traditional departments, principal architect Jon Soules has helped his teams reach successful results

Jon Soules knew he wanted to be an architect from an early age. As a child, he loved to draw, and his father, who was a pilot during World War II, helped and encouraged him to design and build model planes. For Soules, there was a certain fascination seeing something come to life off of the page, and that wonder never stopped.

“The joy of working in an architect’s office is to work on a design, do the working drawings, and then go to the site and actually see something you have drawn be built,” Soules says. “Many people think of architects, ‘Oh, they’re not really artists.’ But we are designing your environment, so we really care that it makes people happy, that it’s challenging, and that it’s interesting.”

In fact, that desire to see a project through from beginning to end has shaped the company culture at Diamond Schmitt Architects. Soules serves as one of the firm’s principals and has led its hiring team for twelve years. The company eschewed traditional departments and created a setup all its own. He describes the office as one full of generalists instead of separate departments focused on a specialty, and each project is seen through from start to finish by the same team.

Soules finds Diamond Schmitt’s de-departmentalized structure more efficient than the traditional setup because it increases awareness and accountability. “In our company, we have people who follow a project from conception to bricks and mortar. They are interested in seeing their team’s design get built and built properly,” he says. “It might sound like not having specialists is not efficient, but we are able to carry something out with a fair degree of confidence because everyone on the team knows the whole picture.”

National Arts Centre

Located in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, the National Arts Centre (NAC) is a national landmark and a showcase for the best of the nation’s performing arts. The intense, geometric concrete structure was built in celebration of Canada’s centennial in 1967. Now, in anticipation of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration, Diamond Schmitt Architects is working with the NAC to rejuvenate the building for the twenty-first century. It is set to open on Canada Day, July 1, 2017.

Soules points to two current projects as proof of Diamond Schmitt’s ongoing success and the worth of its methods. The first is the multiyear Regent Park Revitalization Plan, which seeks to transform, without gentrifying, the seventy-seven-acre downtown Toronto neighborhood. Working as the master-plan consultant with codevelopers The Daniels Corporation and Toronto Community Housing Corporation, Diamond Schmitt has been working on the project for nearly ten years.

The project includes mixed-use commercial and residential development, two parks, and community and cultural centers. The firm was meticulous in its work, studying each block and meeting with the codevelopers, the consultant team, the City of Toronto, and community members to listen and respond to their needs and ideas for the neighborhood. “Our project team is familiar with most decisions made over the life of the project, carries project memory, and is equally invested in the long-term success of Regent Park,” Soules says. “We can respond confidently and quickly to design matters and are about halfway through the life of the project. It has been a complete honor to work on it. If I don’t do anything else in my career, I’d be quite happy.”

The second project that Soules points to is the National Arts Centre Rejuvenation project, which is set to renovate the Centennial building at the center of Ottawa. Built in the intense, geometric concrete style of the era and sometimes referred to as a bunker, the building will be transformed into a more open and accessible celebration of the performing arts for the twenty-first century.

Soules says the trick to the project is honoring the original structure but also making the wonderful interior spaces more visible and inviting. The first phase of the design expands the public interior spaces and creates greater connection to the exterior. This connection is accomplished by glazing the enclosure of new public spaces to bring natural light into the existing building. Working with the existing equilateral triangle grid, the new structure encloses the expanded interiors with empathy to the original. The second phase will focus on the interior venue spaces and bring them up-to-date with the latest and most efficient equipment.

Soules praises the whole team for their dedication and flexibility. He predicts that the building will be ready to open for Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration on Canada Day, July 1, 2017.

During his more than twenty years at Diamond Schmitt, Soules has seen the company grow from less than thirty people to nearly 185. In fact, he interviewed and hired most of the current architectural employees himself. Soules got involved in the hiring process because he was invested in finding the right people with an artistic mind-set and passion to succeed. And it seems to be working: turnover is between 1 and 2 percent, which is well below industry average. Diamond Schmitt has also been named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies the past eight consecutive years, which gives it the coveted Platinum Club status. It has also been named one of Canada’s top 100 Small and Medium Employers and a Greater Toronto Top Employer.

An avid basketball player, Soules shares that he found his management style through coaching. He takes developing new talent very seriously. “If we are going to hire students, you can’t have them running around doing errands,” he says. “If you want the best students, you need to give them meaningful jobs and let them work on the projects with the team.”

This commitment to knowledge and excellence extends to every part of the company’s process, including Soules’s approach to mentoring. Just like any coach, he shares all the knowledge he can to ensure the best for his team. “When I work with people,” he says, “I try to tell them everything I know about something and not hold back, to give them the fullest picture.”