Rose Rocket: The More Things Change

Ray faced a myriad of challenges, both material and philosophical, in creating a modern workspace in a heritage building.

“Like geological layers, the flooring […] is hardwood over concrete over the original hardwood of a heritage building. This is significant. Like the building, these layers have come full circle: A heritage building from the past has been renovated to become a heritage building for the future.”

This was the opening to a cover story that appeared in the November-December 1989 issue of this very magazine, written by B. Prosser Thomas, about the new (at the time) showroom for Steelcase in Toronto and housed in what was known as the Beardmore Building. In the article Thomas goes on to describe how the design teams (consisting of Steelcase in concert with then-named Quadrangle Architects Limited) transformed a space originally built for manufacturing into something that was “distinctive – even stunning – but not overpowering.” What is interesting, and what the author had no way of predicting, is how the evolution of the building and its occupants would continue to be significant (to borrow the word choice) for the next 33 years, right up to and including its newest inhabitant, Rose Rocket.

A Canadian transportation management software company, Rose Rocket has seen considerable growth since its founding in 2015 and needed new space to support that growth. The unique characteristics of the historic Beardmore Building (now known simply as 37 Front Street East) caught their eye as the site for their new head office in 2020, and they tapped Toronto-based Ray Inc. to chip away the layers of time, much like a sculptor removes the unwanted bits of marble until they are left only with a work of art. Decades of tenants and numerous renovations during that time left many layers of materials to chip away at, layers that were very representative of the times in which they were built: a lot of false columns and undulating drywall ceiling details that just screamed late-1980s and early 1990s. For Rose Rocket, the space was completely stripped bare of those layers, the ceilings opened up, the false columns removed, and extensively remediated just to bring it up to today’s codes and standards. Ultimately, and in working closely with general contractor Mform and Allied Properties, Ray was able to bring the space “close to its original glory,” says Isabelle Talbot, principal at Ray.

The daylight-filled space is being used for town halls as well as evening functions where the suspended globe lights replicate the feeling of hanging out on a fun outdoor summer patio. “Monumental, but classic as opposed to ostentatious” is how B. Prosser Thomas described it in 1989, and that still applies today.

This “original glory” is seen immediately in the building’s signature feature: a spectacular three-storey atrium, once a boat slip in the original waterfront warehouse. This is the heart of the facility and where today’s hallmarks of progressive office environments take place: meet, eat, play, collaborate and work. To support these hallmarks, a “bring the outdoors in” concept was achieved using LVT flooring reminiscent of wood decking, outdoor furniture, and a full-size live tree encircled by a wooden bench.

Surrounding the atrium is a U-shaped office space where today’s promise of “workplace flexibility” is on full display, starting with an intentional and judicious patchwork of furniture choices: from functionally recognizable office pieces such as height-adjustable desks by Knoll; to furniture that makes staff feel “at home,” like vintage chairs reused in meeting rooms; to modular soft seating juxtaposed against games tables and phone booths (ironically, Thomas describes “phone coves in lieu of phone booths” in the 1898 Steelcase showroom design).

The 26,324-sq.-ft. space is filled with a variety of furniture choices from height adjustable desks to phone booths, couches and vintage pieces.

Even full rooms represent this comfortable flexibility, such as a cozy library and even a music room where jamming sessions occur on a regular basis. Rose Rocket also chose to ditch the traditional reception area in favour of a “coffee shop” where a co-worker barista prepares specialty coffee for colleagues.

Change is Constant

In surveying the new space, one cannot ignore how active the “layers of history” narrative still is. In the late 1800s, George Beardmore used the building for leather and fur manufacturing: fast forward nearly a century and Steelcase was using it to showcase another manufactured product, modern office systems; fast forward another few decades and that manufacturing ethos is still present, but in the modern form of software. These evolutions in products parallel an evolution in workspace philosophy, made even more manifest thanks to the pandemic, where phrases such as “flexibility” and “hybrid collaboration spaces” dominate boardroom discussions and are primary research topics for companies like, unironically, the previous tenant Steelcase.

“Flexibility has always been a very important component of workplace design; every client wants a flexible space to weather the evolution of their business. A hybrid environment is just flexibility on steroids!” says Talbot. Of course, in today’s language that typically means employees having the ability to work from home or the office, a choice that then often falls on designers to create spaces that support similar choices. And therein lies a key word in this discussion: support. As more workers consider returning to the office, a dominant question has become in what new ways will employers support them? The answers often fall to designers.

A four-storey building, Rose Rocket occupies floors two and three and have also secured the fourth, with the ground floor given to retail.

“Interior design has always played a critical part in supporting how staff work and behave in their office environment, but now we have found ourselves at a critical time where it matters more than ever before. Office spaces have been sitting empty for two years, rent has been paid every month and now that restrictions are being lifted employers want their staff back,” says Talbot. “To draw staff back to the office and support newly found work patterns, we recognize that it must offer a much greater variety of work settings and social spaces in addition to the traditional desk, which is in much less demand. Employers need to support not only their staff back in the office but those who work remotely and keep everyone engaged all at the same time. Who had heard of a “Zoom room” before Covid? It’s now become part of our everyday language and our new reality. [While] we all want to go back to our normal lives and crave interaction with our co-workers, many feel uneasy returning. Our role as interior designers is to create solutions that foster well-being and inclusivity.”

Completed in September of 2021, Ray was able to achieve this at Rose Rocket, whose objective from the start was to provide a space where any of their staff could experience a workspace that is unique, flexible and intentional. Or put another way: layered. And there’s that word again, which makes B. Prosser Thomas’s original opening line just as relevant today as it was in 1989: “Like the building, these layers have come full circle: A heritage building from the past has been renovated to become a heritage building for the future.”

Photography by Vincent Lions