Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Secrets of Success - Checkwitch Poiron Architects

In 2011, the Canadian Institute of Planners bestowed the title of Greatest Street in Canada on Commercial Street, which is the location of the office of Checkwitch Poiron Architects Inc. David Poiron along with his partner Ben Checkwitch have established a name for themselves designing many buildings in Nanaimo, including a landmark building on the downtown waterfront and this week David shared with us, their secrets of success.

DNBIA: How long have you been in business?
David: I opened the office downtown March 18, 2002. I’ve been partners with Ben for year and a half. He is living in Vancouver now and working on a Vancouver based project.

DNBIA: What motivated you to open your business?
David: After I finished my schooling, I worked for four years doing my internship in Victoria, but an architect I had worked for previously in Nanaimo become ill and his wife asked me to come here to help. I am from Nanaimo originally and I thought why don’t I move home and start my own firm? I perhaps wasn’t quite ready for it, at 29, I had only become registered three months before, but I did it, and happily the architect recovered and is still practicing, and I just kept going from there.

DNBIA: What made you chose downtown as the place to open your business?
David: I grew up on Haliburton Street and went to John Barsby High School. When I came back to Nanaimo, it felt right being downtown. It was a natural for me; I didn’t want to go anywhere else.

DNBIA: Were there any challenges opening a business downtown?
David: Downtown had a lot of vacancy issues at that time. Many of the building owners weren’t interested in doing any renovations to their properties, so they didn’t want to rent to me. I went to visit anything with a “for lease” or “for rent” sign. When that didn’t work out, I just started walking into buildings and that is how I found this space. John Ruttan owns the building, and in exchange for my doing the renovation work, he reduced my rent for a period of time.

DNBIA: Did you have any difficulty bringing clients downtown at that time?
David: No, the only thing that has ever been an issue is the perception that there is no parking; I’m not sure if people just don’t see the signage? I sometimes give clients a dollar and show them where the parkade is right across the street.  I have no issues downtown what so ever, I grew up in this neighbourhood.

DNBIA: Tell us about buildings you have designed in Nanaimo.
David: Our major recent project was the Cruise Ship Terminal Building. The Nanaimo Port Authority decided to only ask local architects to design the building and we were one of the two firms that were shortlisted. Our competitor only had a branch office here; we won the day with our presentation, which surprised everyone on the selection committee because we were the small fish and they were the big fish.  The project went very, very quickly. We had to put every other project on the backburner and let our clients know that we had this opportunity. The building was designed within 3 months and built within a year. The great thing was that everyone involved – the client, contractors, trades, everyone – understood the deadlines and the importance to Nanaimo of keeping on schedule and everyone worked well together.
I was on the dock the day the first cruise ship came in, and I will never forget that day. One person came off the ship and said, “Wow, none of this was here a year ago.”  It validated all the effort and hard work we put into it.  We won a number of awards, one from Vancouver Island, one from BC, and two international awards for the building. It was a very good project for us; it has been our main claim to fame.

DNBIA: Designing the Cruise ship terminal, did that open any doors for you in Nanaimo?
David: Not too much so far as that was a federal project. There are not a lot of cruise ships terminals in the world. This summer all the Port Authorities from across Canada are meeting in Nanaimo, and that will be great exposure for us. The great thing is we can show institutional clients locally that we can work to that level.

DNBIA: Is your business mainly commercially focused?
David: Yes. When we started out, we did more multifamily residential work, but that is not a strong market right now. We haven’t done a lot of single-family homes but do them on occasion for the right client. Our focus recently has been more commercially based and it is very much a mix of different types of projects. Our business is always like that to a degree. I like that because of the variety – it gets a little boring doing the same thing all the time. We did the Loudon Park Boat house last year, and now we are doing the renovation addition for St. Paul’s Church.

DNBIA: What geographical region do you serve?
David: We have done work from Victoria to Duncan and to the north end of the Island and over on the mainland as well. We have done a lot of work for VIHA. We did the Palliative Care Unit at the Nanaimo Regional Hospital and the ICU renovations. We are doing work for VIU right now converting a classroom into nursing simulation labs. They have programmable mannequins and we have designed a hospital like room and observation area for them to control the mannequins from.

DNBIA: Working for VIHA must present its own set of challenges?
David: Yes, you can’t just shut a hospital down; extra care must be taken to deal with all the logistics of keeping the facility open during the renovation.

DNBIA: What keeps your customers coming back?
David: Half our business is repeat customers. When you do a home project for someone they only do one, but we have a number of repeat institutional clients like the City and VIHA. It is also important for us to work with new clients – at the end of the day it is like any other business, its word of mouth and we get referrals.  For me it’s interesting because we have different clients with different requirements. Currently I am working on doing something with the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange and they have challenges and I am helping them to transition to a new facility. Of course a recycling exchange is going to have a completely different set of issues than a nursing simulation lab, and that’s what makes it challenging for an architect: every project provides a new set of circumstances. You have to become an expert in that person’s business, you have to derive the essence of a business in order to make things better.

DNBIA: You are part of an entrepreneurial family this is very downtown focused, what is that like?
David: Carla, my wife, owns Quintessential. We talk about our businesses a lot and we support each other wherever we can. I always joke that I am the invisible Quintessential employee; I do the bookkeeping and put stuff up in the shop.

DNBIA: Tell us something people won’t know about you?
David: I guess my interest in architecture started when I was 11. I found Home Plan Books from the 60’s in my parents’ basement and I began sketching plans on graft paper. My dad used to bring home boxes of offcuts from construction sites and I would use them to build stuff.  I received a scholarship to UBC for Science and I turned it down because I wanted to go to architectural school.  Learning from the magazines in my parents’ basement, I designed my first house at 16 for my drafting teacher.

DNBIA: What advice would you give to a new business starting out downtown?
David: Have a business plan and know that you have to work hard and have long hours. If you open your own business you can’t always expect to make money the first couple of years, and that has to be part of your business plan. It’s relatively simple to start my type of business, but for a business like Quintessential, it can take a few years to build up inventory. I’ve enjoyed being involved in Carla’s business as it give me a better understanding of what different businesses have to deal with and it makes me a better designer. A lot of research goes into every project and for me that’s what makes it fun.


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