Learning from Local

Posted Nov 26th, 2020 in Business of Architecture, Niagara Architecture

Learning from Local:  Mike Zuberec and Constructing Excellence

Ian Ellingham  MBA, PhD, FRAIC·   
        Originally published in OAA Perspectives, Vol.19, No.4, Winter 2011/12, pp.8-10.

In attempting to understand something, it is always good to look around and back in time.  Rather unfortunately ordinary details of the past tend to be forgotten, together with what we might learn from them.  One of my associates once commented that the world is swilling with commemorative china, but it is almost impossible to find a bowl from which a person ate before heading off to the drudgery of a dark satanic mill.  That notable architect Thomas Hardy knew that - in his novels about South-west England he was chronicling ordinary events in a region that was losing its individuality. 

Being aware of the nature of past architectural practice in the Niagara area, it seemed possible that some interesting insights might be gained in further exploration.  Accordingly, a discussion was held with one of the prominent area architects, who not only has first hand knowledge going back a number of decades, but had worked for, and heard stories from yet earlier generations.  Mike Zuberec joined the late Norm Macdonald [1] to form Macdonald and Zuberec (now Macdonald, Zuberec and Ensslen) in 1959 as successors to the Thomas Wiley practice. 

Mike started our discussion by reviewing his early life, schooling, university, and work experience.  Seeing my perplexity at the long prelude, he observed that this was important to understanding the career of a regional architect.  He attended the local high school, then the University of Toronto School of Architecture.  Experience in construction was then a university requirement - this involved Mike encountering some of the local contractors, albeit while digging trenches by hand. 

After graduating, Zuberec set out to collect more work experience.  After hearing about some job opportunities, with four others from his class he set off to Boston.  Apparently the prospects were exaggerated, and he worked for a structural engineer, toiling away at the tasks typical of the time - he recalled days spent shading and denoting concrete on drawings.  A year later, again with the same classmates, he headed off to England, where he worked for a significant architectural practice.  Having obtained a travelling fellowship he headed off to the continent, in particular to Slovakia where he visited notable buildings and architects, saw his relatives, and was apparently followed around by the secret police.  Now such international travel is commonplace , but in the 1950s this experience would have given him knowledge and insights different than that of the wider population.  This was a world now foreign to us:  an era of ships, propeller-driven trans-Atlantic aircraft, T-squares, ink on linen drawings pinned to the boards. 

Following this stage of his education, he returned to Niagara.  He worked for a succession of the local firms, gaining experience and contacts.  Not surprisingly, after over a half-century of chasing commissions, he has a fascination about that aspect of practice and how things have changed.  Mike observed that prior to coming to work in the Thomas Wiley architectural practice [2], Wiley received the commission for a substantial government building in suburban Toronto.  How did a modest St.Catharines firm get such a project?  In the “local” world of the 1950s, the applicable government minister lived next-door to one of the partners.  It was not all smooth sailing and there were some raised eyebrows - so Wiley had to partner with a large Toronto firm (one of the partners in that firm was a relative of one of the senior bureaucrats). 

Personal contacts were always important.  Mike noted that in high school he played football.  Responding perhaps to my sceptical look at his slender frame, he noted that he was small, but fast.  His football coach became the MP, and projects followed.  A classmate from high school had the firm design a credit union.  A Niagara building products supplier knew someone, who knew someone, and another project appeared.  From others flowed fire halls, schools and a wide range of other projects.  Other practices developed other contacts:  the local service clubs were important to some.  One local architect was on the planning board.  Mike commented “there were close relationships we all maintained.” 

Mike reflected on this system.  Though even government projects appeared as a result of personal contacts, clients did make sure that the work was going to be done well.  In fact, working this way put an extra pressure on the firm to do a good job.  Someone had recommended the firm, so had put his own reputation on the line - the architect had to perform to keep a number of people happy.  Mike said “It put a serious responsibility on you, and we would work our butts off for them.”  To experience a bad outcome meant not only the loss of a potentially long stream of work from a single client, but the word would spread, and could be a personal disgrace in a small community.  “There were only a few practitioners, and there were small bailiwicks.  We never poached, and there was no competition on fees.”  Local was seriously local - even Niagara Falls seemed to be a long way from St.Catharines, and it sort of ‘belonged’ to other firms. 

The firm designed many new schools and additions and renovations.  Mike thought for a moment - and said many didn’t have contracts.  Fees were not negotiated - it was just understood that they were six percent.  He recalls one phone call: “I was told that they [a school board] had a new site, and was asked when could I come along and discuss the project” - no contract negotiations and no discussion of fees.  After 26 school projects in 25 years, he said they really didn’t have to be given much direction:  they knew what was expected, what people liked and didn’t like, how the decisions were made, saw and learned from the results, and, best of all, got to know those people who knew everything about the buildings and how they functioned - the janitors.  Looking back he apologised:  “They were good buildings, and have stood the test of time - of course there was no insulation, but with heating oil only pennies a gallon, what else would have made sense?”

Mike walked over to the office book-case and took out an ancient brown book - the Building Regulations for the City of St.Catharines, passed in 1933.  Until the 1960s, major cities had their own building regulations - there was some advantage in knowing them and the people who enforced them.  Interpretation and precedent was a very local matter. 

“We knew the local contractors.”  Mike spoke of an ongoing sense of fairness:  “There were a half-dozen or so we liked to work with.  We established good working relationships, and each side knew the other.”  “We all worked towards a good end product” - they had to protect their reputations too.  “They knew how far they could push us - if we missed it, you got paid, but if it was in the documents we expected it to be done.”  Mike pointed out that, like many of the Niagara architects of his generation, he had also worked in the Robert Macbeth office and there learned to give special attention to building details [3]. 

Mike reflected on the change away from this world.  “It happened when purchasing agents appeared.  The selection process has become bureaucratised, impersonal, and time consuming.  The bulk of this information being mostly irrelevant.”  He noted that they had just done an RFP for a fire station.  “We have done them [fire stations], but not recently, so we didn’t even make the short list.  A local firm cannot specialise, but then a firehall is dead easy.”  He talked about the cost of preparing RFPs, and we discussed the fee issue.  “Whether the architect’s fee is a half percentage point more or less is not important in the overall budget of the building, but it is important in how much time the architect can put into the project.  It also flows into the sub-consultants, and sometimes you get what you pay for.” 

We concluded on a happy note.  Mike, after his decades of practice still looks forward to the next project.  Wrapping up our discussion, I remind Mike of the first time we met - sometime in the mid 1970s.  I had interviewed his firm with respect to a project.  They didn’t get it, but that was clearly okay, another local firm did. 

Mike Zuberec’s musing stimulates thought.  Clearly the world he started his practice in was very different from the context in which he now works.  Architects were men (indeed) of considerable status in the community, and one would no more think of asking them to compete for a project or to negotiate a fee than you would your physician.  Something has changed. 

Mike’s examples concerned public-sector and large corporate clients.  Yet the market-based development sector tends to continue to hire architects the same way as in the 1960s -using firms based on personal recommendation or those that have used before with satisfactory results (albeit usually beating the fee down somewhere along the way).  Developers are results driven (the right building on time and on budget), rather than process oriented (each step has to be above criticism).  Why the difference?  Thinking through my own projects and those of various associates, much work remains within small networks.  If I require a trade, I ask a trusted general contractor for a suggestion.  As in Niagara in the 1960s, that general contractor is himself taking on a burden - if the person recommended does not perform, it reflects back on him, and on the likelihood of him getting the next job from me.  That way I can trust his recommendation.

This matter is one of the key points in the British Construction Task Force report Rethinking Construction of 1998 (usually referred to as the Egan Report)[4], one of a series of initiatives of the British and European governments to increase the efficiency of the industry.  The report noted that the nature of much construction procurement is different from what occurs in other industries.  Development too often deals “...with the project process as a series of sequential and largely separate operations undertaken by individual designers, constructors and suppliers who have no stake in the long term success of the product and no commitment to it.” [5]  The report recommended integrated teams and processes, and the creation of long-term client and output-focused relationships.  They were concerned about designers and constructors being retained for very specific, limited tasks, on the basis of low fees - not their ability to create overall value for money.  The fragmentation of work items should be now familiar, with project managers, cost consultants, interior designers, and landscape designers, among others retained separately. 

The Egan recommendations suggest a world much like that described by Zuberec, so it is necessary to consider why there has been a drift away from an integrated approach to the building process.  Egan reported:  “The experience of other industries is that heavily compartmentalised, specialist operations detract from overall efficiency.” [6]  If this holds true, there should be reasons for the change.  One possible reason is that any ‘local’ system is based upon a high level of trust between people.  In a local context, no matter how it might be delineated, there is no place to hide.  If you are a scoundrel everyone will know, and if you perform well it will also become common knowledge.  Hence Mike’s comment about working their butts off for their clients.  In a larger societal system people become anonymous, so a high level of trust between people and commitment to them will not develop.  My ethnic clients have often used resources from within their own circles - again, people whom they know about, on either a first or second-hand basis - and those people have passionately “worked their butts off” within those circles.  As the circle grows, one cannot assume that a government or corporate manager will act in the interest of the project.  Accordingly, the project process is disaggregated to ensure transparency at every stage - the situation lamented in the Egan Report:  The cost of this tends to be hidden, but might be manifested as protracted development durations, higher costs and poorer performing buildings. 

Is it possible to benefit from exploring the localism of the past?  One has to see both sides of the issue.  Local systems work on the basis of personal trust.  If the system is too big, people become distanced, so trust becomes limited:  then disaggregation, transparent processes, RFPs, detailed contracts and precise instructions become the order of the day.


[1]  The author still has to fulfil a death-bed promise made to Norm Macdonald to finish his book on the work of Nicholson and Macbeth. 
[2]  Thomas H. Wiley (1933-1944) followed by Thomas R. Wiley (1944-1959).
[3]  Here followed a short discussion on whether Macbeth, or his sometime partner Arthur Nicholson was the better designer.  Zuberec believes it was Nicholson, who frequently went to Europe and returned with notebooks full of building details - in the days when you went there on a ship.  Information on the firm of Nicholson & Macbeth is included on the website of the Niagara Society of Architects among the current practices, even though it was dissolved at the beginning of the great depression.
[4]  Available at www.constructingexcellence.org.uk/pdf/rethinking%2..[5]  Rethinking Construction  pg 13. 
[6]  Rethinking Construction  pg 26


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