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Taking History Into Account

If Ottawa seems architecturally more interesting these days, some of the credit must go to Doug Casey of Charlesfort Development Corporation. Casey, an accountant turned developer who adapts from the past to meet modern requirements, is Building's choice of developer of the year.

The words "romantic" and "accountant" are not often used together, even if the Enron scandal has exposed the hitherto under-appreciated creative side of the latter. Mix accountant with developer, however, and you might have a better match as well as an explanation for the oatmeal banality of so much of our tract housing developments.

Doug Casey, owner of Ottawa's small but trend-setting Charlesfort Development Corporation, is both an accountant by training and a developer by choice but he is also a self-confessed romantic. An unabashed admirer of social theorist Ayn Rand's celebration of idiosyncratic independence and excellence, Casey holds that profit is about more than a good financial return on investment; it includes pride in an exceptional project.

"I don't care what other developers do," he says with his characteristic chuckle adding, "If everyone else fails a test at school, it doesn't make it right for you to fail. I don't go and look at other people's model homes. I don't want to do what everyone else does. What I do is all related to the gut. If I don't think the final result will be unique, we don't do it." This sense of independence includes a refusal to join the influential Ottawa Home Builders Association, an organization he considers too interested in business and not enough interested in the art of city building.

Casey's romantic side, symbolized by his own stone and half-timbered Tudor home (1925) in the fashionable Glebe community just south of the downtown, means that he stubbornly prefers historical antecedents as a design source over the new Modernism. But if the indiscriminate borrowing and misuse of the past by many architects and developers have made post modernism a synonym for tacky, his projects have entailed a careful selection and meticulous adaptation of mainly late 19th and early 20th century precedents to both modern needs and to a site's sense of place.

A modest seven employees, Charlesfort has over the last 20 years built only a tiny component of Ottawa's residential development; but it has contributed a very large part to the city's inner city renaissance. In recognition, Casey received the Ontario Condominium Developer of the Year Award for 2000. And this fall, the firm wrapped up the biggest set of projects in its history. These include 15 luxury condo apartments across from the Governor General's residence, a three-part infill project of 23 townhouses surrounding and preserving an historic school, and a cheeky, 31-unit loft apartment building that borrows liberally from Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art.

I recently sat down with Casey in his handsome beamed dining room filled, as is most of the house, with realist and expressionist landscape paintings, to talk about the firm and its impact on Ottawa.

On Developing Your Own Backyard

Most of Charlesfort's work has been within a few kilometre's of Casey's childhood home, itself walking distance away on the south side of the Rideau Canal from his current residence. "I grew up in a small, 1200-sq.-ft. house in Ottawa south. It had no garage and one bathroom and with five or six living in the house full time, it meant quick visits to the bathroom. But it was cozy and had a sense of comfortable space," he says. This notion of "comfortable space" and Casey's intuitive feel for what constitutes such space underlies much of the firm's success.

Casey's first interest in architecture and urban design emerged when he entered Lisgar Collegiate close to Parliament Hill. "On my trek north to school, I would pass all sorts of really neat residences on urban streets like Cartier and along the canal in what is now called the 'golden triangle'." Even the school, a neo-gothic structure originally built in 1874, intrigued the young student with its high ceilings and expressive detailing. By contrast, as Ottawa's core neighbourhoods slid into decay with the 1960s exodus to the suburbs, he also saw the emergence of cheap, ugly Modernist slab towers that he detested.

On graduation, he enrolled in accounting at Carleton University, eventually signing on with Peat Marwick, marrying his wife Cheryl and, after 22 years downtown, moving to the suburbs. "We found the 'burbs not very interesting;' he says with dry understatement. So they soon moved into an old house in the Glebe, which they immediately started renovating. "The benefits of living downtown," he says, "are that you can walk to everything like pubs, movies, and restaurants; you don't have to jump in the car, the trees are mature, and, of course, you have the canal:"

Casey's jump to tyro developer is a classic Doug Casey story. Out searching for bargains at the annual "Great Glebe Garage Sale," he came across a pile of furniture on a front lawn, asked if the house was also for sale, and bought it on the spot. "So I went home and my wife was surprised that I had bought us a new house in a garage sale."

When he again found restoring his newly acquired home a pleasure, Casey continues, "I thought to myself, that I should get out of accounting and into doing this full time because it is creative and it is fun:" And so, in 1983 Charlesfort was founded.

His first project was on a nearby, 200 ft.-deep lot backing onto Patterson Creek, an inlet running off the Canal, which is now a highly prized location. Casey restored the original house, converting it into two residences and adding two more new units.

"Such inlill was unusual for Ottawa at the time but that has been the history of our company, doing unique stuff while everyone shakes their head and says 'are they nuts?"'

While Charlesfort never buys and tears down the old houses Casey reveres, his prime interest lies in new residences built to the aesthetic standards of older houses and able to fit almost seamlessly into existing neighborhoods. "Our projects blend in. We try not to have the ego of the architecture take over."

His second project, in 1983-84, was across the Canal, building eight townhouses on Echo Drive. The property was the rectory lands of the Church of the Ascension. "I simply knocked on their door and asked if they would like a new house and some cash in exchange for the land:" Two years later, Charlesfort was back in the Patterson Creek area developing housing along Central Park.

A Trip To The Suburbs

Casey's carefully crafted work in the downtown came at a time when other core residential development was almost entirely limited to often attractive but subsidized social housing. In 1987, he slipped out of the core, joining seven tract developers at Centrepointe, a green field site in the suburban community of Nepean. It is not hard to pick out Charlesfort's contribution. Working with architect Barry Hobin, the firm's houses are wellcrafted, Edwardian designs with ample front porches, large windows on all sides, and no garage carbuncles extruding out in front. "Instead of 'welcome to your garage' homes, we placed the garages in the back, reached through shared driveways. Everyone said we were crazy," he chuckles. But the units sold quickly.

Getting Through Tough Times

By 1989, the Ottawa residential market was in near depression. Looking for opportunities, Casey began musing about the economic sense of small businesses renting rather than owning their own offices. What emerged was the idea of a Boston brownstone-inspired 14-unit office block along Centrepoint's emerging business street. Using intelligent urban form meant placing the two-block, curving structure directly along the street with parking in the rear.

At the same time, his Barrett Lane lofts in the Byward Market successfully introduced lofts to Ottawa's notoriously conservative market. The inspiration for the 22 funky, twostorey units was a speculative question: "If my wife tossed me out on my ear, in what type of space would I want to live'?" Still, with the deep construction recession of the mid1990s, Charlesfort retreated to doing a few custom homes for the emerging, avant garde design team of Urban Keois. "This Ayn Rand thing means we don't compromise, we don't do junk, so we didn't develop:" Casey did join with Architect Anthony Leaning to preserve three, tiny historic worker houses in the city's core with an innovative intill project.

Over the last five years, Charlesfort has been in full swing ensconced again in the downtown core Casey loves. Back in the Glebe, he struck a deal with St. Matthew's Anglican Church to redevelop its surplus land. On Glebe Avenue, he built Jefferson Hall, a three storey condo block linked to the neo-gothic church by its original lynch gate and constructed in part from recycled stone from the replaced rectory.

Across a rear courtyard and facing onto 1 st Avenue, he built five two-and-a-half storey townhouses. What separates these units from developers' standard fare is their careful attention to urban form. "At university," Casey says, "I took a lot of psychology where we talked about territoriality. In tight urban sites on busy streets, how do you give people their own space without isolating them from neighbours?"

At the Jefferson Hall Coach houses, the main living space is away from the street by being on the second level; but each unit's broad, sheltered terrace on this level is only 12 feet from the sidewalk allowing easy conversation with walking neighbours. The ubiquitous front garage is at grade but recessed well back behind a strong, stone arch. Forward sloping roofs with third floor dormers mediate the units' scale.

"When the Ontario New Home Warranty Condo inspectors came from Toronto for their own walk through," Casey says, "they came back for a second look because they really liked the project." In fact it is because of this project that Charlesfort snared the Condominium Builder of the Year Award.

An Architect's Gentle Nightmare

The design for The Jefferson Hall Apartments was primarily the work of the late John Swayne, a frequent collaborator with Casey. Swayne, a respected interior designer, graphic designer and painter had a fine sense of how space works, and was always willing to listen to Casey's very decided views on the design style he wanted. For the Coach House project, Casey took as his reference the country vernacular stone work of contemporary British architect Demitri Porphyrios.

Most of Charlesfort's projects - although not Jefferson have been done by Barry Hobin and Associates, particularly Hobin principal Gord Lormier. Although Hobin and Lorimer's own designs have often been among some of Canada's best postmodernist work, Casey is himself constantly seeking tum-of-thecentury prototypes for ideas. It is a creative client/architect collaboration that can sometimes get the sparks flying.

His three most recently completed projects, Wyndham Hall, the Glassworks, and the three-part Creighton School project, all done with Hobin and Associates, are an eclectic mix of adroitly interpreted historicism.

Borrowing From The Neighbours

Wyndham Hall stretches along Dufferin Road overlooking Governor General Adrienne Clarkson's splendid Rideau grounds. It is based, Casey readily admits, on his next door neighbour's 1912 house, designed and owned originally by architect WE. Noffke, Ottawa's celebrated prince of eclectic historicism in his day. "It has a great terrace porch, a kind of summer room," Casey explains. "So we created three levels of stacked units, each with an expansive terrace, that have the feel of this tum-of-the-century brick house. For this project, I said, 'I'm 50 years of age; what would I want - one floor living with flowing space, north and south exposure, nine-foot ceilings, leaded windows, hardwood floors, big moldings, granite counter tops, and so on."' So that is what he built.

With parking tucked quietly underground, Hobin, along with designer John Amold, has created an elegant urban fašade that is meticulously detailed with clay brick, slate shingles, copper flashing, and wrought iron arts and craft fencing. Details also include an inset pattern of ceramic tiles by Cheryl Casey and graphic designer Janice Jones.

School Days

Just down Dufferin at the corner with Crichton, the main street of New Edinburgh, another prized Ottawa heritage district south of 24 Sussex Drive, sits the venerable Crichton elementary school. When placed on the market by the local school board, Charlesfort formed an innovative partnership with the local community citizens group and the Ottawa School of Dance to insure the heritage school remained a community resource.

While the influential dance school, founded by the legendary Celia Franca, is now the owner of the original building, the school is neatly bracketed by new housing. An eight- door row, dubbed T'he Gables, lines the moderately busy Crichton. These three storey arts and craft houses with impressive, stonepiered porches have been kept close to the street in line with the practice in the area. Parking is at the rear.

Across a rear courtyard are 10, more modest two-storey houses that back onto narrow Avon Lane, one of New Edinburah's original back alleys. "As usual;' Casey explains, "I looked at this neighbourhood with its ton of charm and asked 'what is it I like'...and the answer was its many cottage-like residences:' To satisfy the need for territoriality on a narrow lane with 14 foot-wide units while not overpowering the alley, he took his design cues from a picturesque lane he found in a book on Upper Slaughter, Cotswold, England. Low, stone walls with lanterns establish the boundary between house and lane while the architecture of the homes owes a strong debt to Winde7nere cottage (1898) in Cumbria.

Casey has no time for what he disparagingly calls the "tract house cookie cutters," so the five, three-storey units (plus roof terrace with small study) along Dufferin pick up an entirely new narrative. Between the impressive fašade of the school and the busy street, Lorimer designed The Annex, which, as its name implies, reads as a one piece, freestanding addition to the school. Entrances are recessed into maw-like arches in the cast stone base and, similar to Jefferson, lead up to a piano noble living area with 11-foot ceilings.

Hobin has designed the Annex to work with the architectural language of the school but the references to 58-59 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea SW, London, found in Peter Davey's Arts and Crafts Architecture (a Casey favourite) are no accident. What is a departure, are the starkly Modernist but compatible balconies of I-bar and steel cable. Finally, in a nifty swap with the city, in lieu of parkland fees, Casey has provided a public, landscaped park at the corner of Crichton and Dufferin that preserves views to the school's heritage façade.

The Glassworks

Casey's friend and mentor John Swayne graduated from Rennie Mackintosh's renowned Glasgow Art School. "He showed me a book of Mackintosh's works and I found the school to be just spectacular," Casey says. The seven-storey Glassworks, with 31, two-level loft apartments - ranging from just over 1000 to just under 1600 sq. ft. - and a small ground level commercial space at its comer, is both an articulate reworking of Mackintosh's early romantic Modernism and a fine homage to Casey's late friend.

Lorimer does a masterful interpretation of the Scottish architect's aesthetic, countering strong, plain clay brick massing with both massive, two-storey windows and a crown of glass voids, also two storeys. If Casey appears to be only flirting with Modernism on the exterior, the units' large, airy interiors with their raw palette of steel and concrete are solidly in the camp of the most urbane lofts.

Thumbing The Skeptics

Over the last three years, several real estate insiders told me that, sadly, tiny Charlesfort had finally bitten off more than it could swallow. So much for gossips. With only two units unsold, Casey has already embarked on his two largest projects. The first, called The Gardens, will be two slim, 16-storey point towers with 96 units. Located on the edge of downtown Ottawa's steep western bluffs, many units will have spectacular vistas overlooking the Canadian War Museum and the Ottawa River.

Hobin and Casey have produced a design based on Chicago's 1920s warehouses although one of Ottawa's few remaining industrial warehouses, again by WE. Noftke, is the direct source of inspiration. "I told Barry (Hobin) that when you walk into a unit there must be an explosion of glass, and that is what he has done:" Bomowina from Le Corbusier's towers-inthe-park, the pencil-like towers will sit in large gardens unlike the many nearby dreary slab apartment towers.

Casey hastily denies with a laugh a charge that he is slowly slipping into the 20th century, having now reached the 1920s. His second project, however, although not unlike Crichton School, involves the adaptive re-use of the resolutely Modern Cambridge School from the 1960s, located in a less upscale neighbourhood. The decommissioned high school and new infill will generate approximately 42 residences, including some relatively modestly-priced units in the $200,000-range. In addition to infill townhouses, Casey will close a large, unsightly gap along Bronson Avenue with residential or commercial condos.

After 20 years, Casey's boyish enthusiasm has waned little and his well-loved downtown residential market is starting to really boil. "We're all getting older and many people are looking for downtown, one-level living close to amenities and not reliant on the car." Even zoning restrictions are starting to allow more originality so that mixing mid-scale projects with single-family houses are more acceptable, he adds.

But it is also getting tougher to compete for good sites downtown as the big developers start moving in. "You have to be sure of your numbers and it is there that the accountant background kicks in. I know how to break down each component of a project and work out costs and revenues." Too many developers, he believes, don't take the time to ensure their cost estimates are done properly.

"We missed one terrific property because it was zoned for three storeys but the price required more. I just knew that there would be a huge tight for more density and that is what has happened to the eventual buyer."

"Along with Rand," Casey concludes, "I have always admired racecar driver Bruce McLaren. He once said, 'To do something well in life is so worth while that to die trying to do it better is not fool hardy. It is a waste of life to do nothing with your ability.' That is a neat attitude."

Being a developer is seldom life threatening, but there is a passion and a desire to do something different and do it well that makes Casey, despite his romantic preference in architecture, a continuing breath of fresh air in Ottawa.

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