Architectural Advocate

Heather Dubbeldam is showing off her latest project, a reno’d three-storey building from the 1920s situated on Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue West. While workmen peel away the layers of concrete and linoleum on ancient pine boards that constitute the old entrance, she talks with them about the need to bolster the underlying joists. She is in her element.

Dubbeldam says she “loves the smells of a construction site,” and liaising with the trades. She’s a visual person: “As soon as I see a drawing, I can immediately understand the final product.” She remembers how, as a small child, she enjoyed building things out of wood scraps. In other words, she was born this way. Hardly surprising, seeing that she is the fourth generation in her Dutch-descent family to work as an architect.

Nor is it surprising that she now finds herself the head of the respected, multi-disciplinary studio Dubbeldam Architecture + Design. Or that her business card boasts a string of industry-related acronyms — OAA, FRAIC, LEED AP — and her website includes a few more designations: Vice Chair of the Design Industry Advisory Committee (DIAC); and co-director of Twenty + Change (a national organization focused on emerging Canadian designers), among others. Or, indeed, that the year is only half over and her firm has already picked up five awards, including this magazine’s Best of Canada Award for the Walper Hotel in Kitchener, Ont., shared in conjunction with Dialogue 38 and Jill Greaves Design. This latest batch raises the company’s total award count since 2006 to nearly 50.

The St. Clair project is close to her heart, because it is her own building that she’s renovating. The exterior is simple enough: brick walls daubed pale grey, with windows and doors made more prominent through the cheeky use of dark grey drop-shadows. Inside, the basement is slated for a private apartment, and the ground floor will house a coffee shop and retail space. The second and third storeys are reserved as a co-working creative space and the architectural firm’s own office, respectively. Both floors are open-concept with a handful of small, discreet offices attached. Both flaunt an urban-cool surround of exposed brick, generous windows, integrated LED lighting, original maple floors, and new Baltic birch trim and fittings set against a colour scheme of white with dark grey accents that echoes the exterior motif. True to Dubbeldam’s personal and professional sustainability mantra, the roof will eventually be a green one with, she hopes, added solar panelling.

Dubbeldam is excited by her company’s move from downtown to midtown (“I can walk to work every day in 15 minutes!”). But she’s most passionate about the co-working space, a place she has dubbed “Lokaal,” the Dutch word for “local.” The brainchild of her husband and business manager, Kevin McIntosh, Lokall is meant to attract creatives in need of an office area as well as the synergy that comes from group activity. Dubbeldam intends to jumpstart artistic innovation in this neglected part of the city. “St. Clair is transitioning,” she says. “We’re trying to build our own creative hub.” She envisions a space where people can not only work during the day, but attend art exhibitions, networking events and seminars after-hours. Some of those seminars will be imparting  directional trends and business facts-of-life to freshly fledged architects, modules to be led by Dubbeldam herself, who is no stranger to the lecture circuit.

Paying it forward to the next generation is something Dubbeldam feels strongly about, no less than the focus on a multi-disciplinary approach to design. Her own creative bent led her away from architecture on a “break year” after a six-year initial stint with KPMB in the 1990s. Dubbeldam says of her time with the company, “It was the best firm to start with. They’re very rigorous, have very high standards. You learn so much about the details of design.” Still, she felt the need to explore other creative outlets. She had always done photography on the side; now she turned to it as a full-time endeavour, producing commercial and fine art pieces. She also experimented with graphic and furniture design. For a while, these pursuits satisfied her. But, soon enough, “I was pulled back into architecture. I felt I needed to design larger physical things, spaces.”

Bowing to the inevitable, Dubbeldam opened her own architectural and design firm in 2002, located in an old Fashion District building that was home to a dozen or more creative companies. She found being surrounded by like-minded peers stimulating and inspiring (an experience that she hopes to recreate for others at Lokaal). She also specifically formulated her business to provide clients with a whole-cloth approach to their needs, covering exterior and interior, landscape, custom furniture and lighting design.

Some of her first clients were people who had bought furnishings and artwork from her. Word spread and led to Dubbeldam Architecture + Design’s flourishing residential list. The company became renowned for making best-use of the relatively small Toronto housing footprint, employing clean lines, unique materials, telling details, and lots of natural and synthetic light. Then too, it was on the cusp of the movements towards sustainability and the extension of space through external elements. One great example of this work is the Through House, completed in 2012, wherein materials, colours and forms  elongate sightlines through the house to the very end of the backyard. The highly photogenic project ended up garnering seven awards and receiving 19 editorial mentions.

Another stand-out is the nearly completed House for an Urban Farmer, featuring a symphony of integrated sustainable systems, both passive and active, designed to maximum energy savings and comfort. These systems include a 250-foot-deep vertical geothermal unit in the front yard, in-floor and in-ceiling radiant heating and cooling, an energy recovery ventilator in addition to natural ventilation through a central courtyard, triple-glazed windows with three low-e coatings, rainwater harvesting and a beautiful rooftop garden.

Although the firm still handles residential projects, of late its portfolio increasingly contains larger commercial work, such as offices for Slack, Jantzi Research and Travelzoo, and renovations for such organizations as Urbanspace Property Group and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Two upcoming projects Dubbeldam is most pumped about are the mixed-use development of the Bata Shoe Factory, in Batawa, Ont., under the auspices of lead architects Quadrangle, and the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity (CCRC). The former is a planned, completely wired complex situated on a huge geothermal field. The latter, located in Blyth, Ont., is a proposed year-round arts centre and cultural hub crafted to attract rural artists of all stripes, from fashion to fine arts to performance. With the addition of the most advanced systems available, Dubbeldam is targeting LEED Gold stature and would like to see the centre become a showcase for sustainable design.

The architect/designer is fast achieving expert status in the field of sustainability. In addition to being a LEED Accredited Professional and a member of both Sustainable Buildings Canada and the Canada Green Building Council, she is presently hard at work researching the latest methodology for a Prix de Rome report entitled The Next Green – Innovation in Sustainability Through Design. Dubbeldam was awarded the prestigious prize in 2016. It enabled her to travel to Denmark last year; Norway, Sweden and northern Germany are slated for this year’s visits. In Scandinavia, she has scheduled meetings with architects and organizations dedicated to new and improved technologies for built environments, from individual structures to entire cities. Impressions gleaned from architectural tours, conferences and symposia are disseminated on her blog at and showcased on YouTube. Her continuing in-depth research on sustainability has made Dubbeldam a valued speaker on the subject at Canadian architectural schools and institutes.

By studying the Northern European approach, which she views as more cutting edge than here in North America, both in terms of design and carbon-neutral technology, she wants to provide a way forward that can be applied to the Canadian climate context. In particular, as she stated in the February, 2018 edition of Canadian Architect: “We hope to share how these building-integrated sustainable solutions generate a unique spatial and artistic architectural language, one in which energy efficiency and design merge seamlessly.” This goal has perhaps become even more pressing after this summer’s over-heated foretaste of global warming to come.

Her advocacy is as much a part of Dubbeldam’s character as the artistic and exacting attitude she brings to her architectural projects. Will she pass these facets on to her own daughters, now aged 14 and 11? Does she see a fifth generation of Dubbeldam architects in the offing? She laughs: “I’m not pushing them into it, but they both have shown a propensity. This profession is all-consuming, not so much a job as a lifestyle. They’re going to have to decide for themselves.”

At least, given their mother’s accomplishments, it will be an informed decision.

Photography by:

  • Walper Hotel: Jens Langen / Gillian Jackson
  • Through House: Bob Gundu
  • Travelzoo: Shai Gil
  • Skygarden: Shai Gil