DIALOG – rebranded in 2010 – is a long-time, multidisciplinary design firm that uses an integrated and collaborative approach to its projects instead of a top-down model. Instead of project decisions originating with the owner and being filtered through the architectural firm to the other subconsultants on the project, DIALOG brings everyone to the table to participate in a team-based, integrated design model.

“We want everybody to be a participant and not just take direction or do what you’re told,” Principal David Miner explains. “We like to take clients to places where they may not have thought they wanted to be. But we also need to respect that it’s their money and it’s their risk.”

The company is currently working on a $1.5 billion expansion of the Calgary airport, a major office tower in downtown Ottawa and a new science center in Calgary. “We’re an integrated architecture, engineering, interior design and planning firm,” Miner points out. “We do pretty much everything. I focus on retail, but we stay as diversified as we can so we can ride the economic wave – hospitals, schools, universities, research labs, healthcare and airports – those are our big components. We don’t like any one sector to be more than 20 to 25 percent of our work. So far, that’s been very beneficial to us.”

Among the company’s current retail projects are Stampede Trail in Calgary and a new food court at Yorkdale shopping center in Toronto. The firm also recently completed several enclosed malls in Alberta, including Southcentre Mall, Chinook Centre and CrossIron Mills in Calgary; Kingsway Mall in Edmonton; and Orchard Park in Kelowna.

During the last five years, the firm has nearly doubled its number of employees from 280 to more than 500 through continued growth and strategic mergers with other firms in Toronto and Vancouver. DIALOG remains involved in a wide variety of projects throughout Canada.

Sustainable Retailing

“One of our core values is to promote sustainability in everything that we do,” Miner emphasizes. “That’s been a large focus of the last five to six years.” Miner specializes in retail and commercial projects for the firm, and finds it easier to incorporate LEED principles in government-related and office projects than retail work. “It’s been a bit of a challenge,” he concedes. “LEED for retail is a bit of a moving target.”

He thinks this is because tenants in retail centers lease their stores and have little or no control over the energy efficiency of the developer’s design. The developers, in turn, have less of an incentive to spend the money to make retail centers energy-efficient because the tenants pay the energy costs. “They’ve had a tough time quantifying that, but slowly and surely, it’s working around, and our developers are getting onboard in a serious way,” Miner says.

“We have a few clients that it’s a corporate mandate,” he continues. “All projects must be minimum LEED-certified. The building shell will get the designation, and they encourage the tenant to follow suit. Municipalities are demanding it for getting approvals. Almost all our projects now if they are not getting LEED-certified, they are shadowing LEED and following through on the procedures and implementing as much of the sustainability issues as we can. The landlord can only be responsible for what he has control over. So we design the buildings and the major systems to be sustainable and to meet the LEED objective. Then we write a series of guidelines and criteria for the tenants to try to force them to be LEED-compliant, but its’ not necessarily mandatory.”

Retailers that own their properties are coming around to sustainable construction and operation, such as installing energy-efficient lighting, Miner asserts. Walmart has taken the lead on this, and its strategy is trickling down to other big-box stores and the municipalities that approve construction of each location. “‘Don’t give me its prototypical store – we want something different’ is what we’re hearing from the municipalities all day long,” Miner reports.

“Everybody is starting to figure out when you’ve got a lot of stores, you need to be part of the solution,” he adds. “At the end of the day, they’re saving incredible amounts of money. The payback appears to work out well for them, and their operating costs are dropping.”

Opening New Mall

Within the last two years, Miner completed working on two enclosed malls: the new CrossIron Mills outside Calgary and expanding the existing Chinook Center near downtown Calgary. The 1.5 million-square-foot CrossIron Mills is the second new shopping center built in Canada in the last 25 years, Miner maintains. Construction began in 2007 just outside the city limits of Calgary and was completed in 2009.

“The challenge there was it was in the peak of the economic frenzy, so we were pushed up against time and the availability of workers and materials,” Miner recalls. “We were preordering materials before we had a design finished because there was no availability. Then, of course, two-thirds of the way through the cycle, we hit the wall and the economic recession.”

The recession hit the U.S. retailers who were opening stores in the mall hard. “The tenants were having trouble getting their capital plans approved and getting the money to continue to build,” Miner remembers. “It was tough because we were opening 200 stores all at once. So there was a bit of a hiccup through the process, and a lot of releasing, some downsizing of tenants and working with the tenants.”

At the same time, the developer’s concern was opening a mall that had at least 90 percent occupancy. “It worked out quite well,” Miner asserts. “It’s been very successful, and we’ve added on a small wing since.” The $180 million mall’s original 1.3 million square feet had an additional 200,000 square feet added as an entertainment and theater wing.

Expanding Existing Mall

DIALOG designed a 180,000-square-foot addition to the 1.2 million-square-foot Chinook Centre, which was built in the 1960s and had been expanded and renovated several times since. Planning for the addition began approximately seven years ago and took two-and-a-half years to be approved by Calgary and nearly three years to build. With construction starting in 2008 and completed in fall 2010, the project extended over the same economic downswing that affected CrossIron Mills.

Chinook Center’s new retailers were luxury brands that were affected by the downswing in the economy. “Through the middle of construction, some of those brands got caught a little bit and downscaled or delayed their openings,” Miner concedes. “But they all still came, and they all still got here. Calgary is now one of the few places in North America still being targeted by the luxury brands to find space and to open up new stores. Calgary is still a bit of a booming place to be right now.”

Underground parking for 1,200 cars had to be constructed to replace the surface parking into which the mall was expanding. “It was a very complicated renovation because we basically wiped out half the mall and still had to keep everything open,” Miner says. “A lot of money was spent on things you don’t see, such as moving every sewer, power and water line. We expanded out through the parking lot and relocated all those services and still kept everybody open and functional.

“It’s probably the most complicated project I’ve worked on in my career from the perspective of attaching to a very old building,” Miner reveals. “Nobody had any record drawings of it. There had been too many owners and too many changes. Something you thought was there, we would dig it up, and it would be 10 feet from where it was supposed to be.”

Subcontractors Part of the Team

Because of DIALOG’s collaborative approach to its projects, sometimes 20 to 30 people are at design and construction meetings. These include subconsultants, engineers and subcontractors for mechanical, electrical, lighting and landscape. “When we were building through the boom, you could not bid the work – you had to go negotiate,” Miner emphasizes. “So we did have the general contractor and key subtrades as part of the team as well as representatives from the local municipalities to help facilitate the permitting process.

“For instance, we could understand what the steel contractors were going through and where their supply pinches were and get them involved in helping design for the most effective product and get the biggest bang for the buck,” he continues. “When we did both those malls, price escalation was 2 percent per month. In 2007, every month we spent on design and drawings increased the cost of the project by 2 percent. So we were scrambling hard to deliver a quality product and still trying to define enough scope so the contractors could lock down pricing. We bought steel before we even knew what the building looked like just to have it. It was cheaper to buy it and not use portions than to wait and buy what you needed.

“Subcontractors were key in helping us understand where we could detail more efficiently, how we could use products more efficiently,” Miner stresses. “We were working hard with them so we understood their constraints,” he concludes. “We needed to work with all the individual subtrades to make sure we weren’t selecting something so expensive or its availability was so far out there we couldn’t incorporate it in the project.”

DIALOG’s key partners include Ledcor Construction Ltd., Kellam Berg Engineering & Surveys and PCL Construction Management.

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