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Sunday, August 31, 2014

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Architecture business takes Diamond around the world

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Jack Diamond

Jack Diamond’s architecture firm is downtown, but his business takes him around the world.

A couple of weeks ago, he was in his corner office, chatting with a prominent public figure about the proposed casino for Toronto – he’s dead set against it. The day before, he flew in from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was consulting about his design for the city’s opera house, the New Mariinsky Theatre.

Architecture is now an international business. Firms from around the world were invited to bid on the project, but it was Diamond Schmitt Architects, the firm he co-founded, that was selected, based on its design, he said.

The St. Petersburg theatre is one of many of Diamond’s projects that span the globe. Among the firm’s completed designs are Jerusalem City Hall; Israel’s Foreign Ministry building; the Sidney Harman Hall, the Harman Centre for the Arts in Jerusalem; plus other designs in Bulgaria, France, Ireland, China and the Caribbean.

As for the New Mariinsky Theatre, “it’s a major project,” he said. “It’s the first opera house built in Russian since the czars.”

Given that in Russia, concerts, operas and ballets are not an occasional diversion but a way of life, with hundreds of performances a year, Diamond and his team had to design not just the acoustically sophisticated hall, but also the production facilities where the opera’s “back office” work is conducted.

In the end, said Diamond, “It’s the most advanced opera house in the world.”

Diamond’s reputation and his accomplishments are well recognized in the architecture community. He’s won numerous awards as testimony to that. Most recently, he was named recipient of the 2013 Lifetime Design Achievement Award from the Ontario Association of Architects. The award is presented to those firms that demonstrate “the best in architectural design and innovation.”

World Architecture magazine has voted Diamond Schmitt one of the top 10 firms in the world in the cultural sector.

And in 2009, the firm was recognized by Deloitte LLP, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, KPMG and the Queen’s University School of Business as one of Canada’s 50 best managed companies.

The awards are nice, but the accolades that are most important to Diamond are those of his clients. And he believes he’s earned those not just through designs that are pleasing to the eye, but they’ve got to work.

He’s quite clear in distinguishing himself from other high-profile architects who relish in designs that are bold but not necessarily practical. He believes he has carved out a niche as someone who can deliver attractive properties, but at the promised cost and on time.

It’s a competitive industry and Diamond believes “there are several ways in which we’ve succeeded.” In building the business, “we’re not slotted in any particular industry, because if that industry dies, you’re dead.”

Another important part of the company’s business model is to not restrict oneself to a single country’s economy. “That’s why I’ve worked in several countries.”

Over the years, he witnessed architectural firms overly reliant on one sector of the economy fall on hard times when that segment dried up. “I was determined that we would not be slotted or dependent on one sector or market,” he said.

Winning bids on such projects demands design excellence, he continued, as well as cost control and on-time delivery.

It’s important to oversee construction standards and the quality of materials so costs don’t get out of hand, he said.

The firm employs five people just to ensure that materials and construction are done up to specifications in working drawings and other documentation.

“It’s a tough game,” Diamond said. “Contractors often tried to claim extras when they’re not justified.”

Diamond, a native of South Africa who earned his architecture degree at the University of Capetown, immigrated to Canada in the early 1960s. He worked as an academic for six years while he got his business up and running. It took him five years to score his first project at York Square. “In those days you got work through connections… social networks.” Today, a computer program called MERX notifies firms of available projects.

It’s a more level playing field, he said.

He also developed an intriguing theory about Jews and architecture. Jewish history, he suggests, is full of tensions between the spiritual and the material worlds. Architecture also has its contemplative, thoughtful side, but it must be geared to the practical social dimension.

Architects must design a building that “elevates life to something higher than the mundane,” while dealing with budgetary and construction constraints, he contends.

Given its international reputation and the quality of the projects it tackles, Diamond Schmitt receives numerous applications from hopeful architects.

Diamond said the firm, which consists of 120 people, goes out of its way to “empower” people, soliciting their input on others’ projects and constantly upgrading everyone’s skills. “The bench strength here is unparallelled,” and turnover is extremely low, he said.

A weekly lunch and learn lecture series aids in team building, as does a soup day in which each member of the firm, twice a year, prepares a fresh soup on the premises that employees share.

The result of these management practices can be seen in the bottom line. Diamond Schmitt has “been doing remarkably well… I must say we are satisfied with the financial aspect of the firm,” he said.

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