Building a community
A case study in community success with YWCA Edmonton
When CEO Katherine O’Neill set out to find a new workspace for the YWCA Edmonton, there was one thing she wanted to do: “we knew, coming out of COVID, that we really wanted to lean into hybrid.”
Being a gender equity seeking organization, she explains that a hybrid work policy is especially important for women and the clients that they serve. The YWCA would know – they have been serving the Edmonton community since 1907. Originally operating as a housing service for independent women arriving by train, ‘Cushing House,’ the organization now provides numerous advocacy and counselling services for women and girls.
The Avison Young office team initially helped the YWCA secure a former art gallery and knew exactly who to refer when Katherine began brainstorming about what the space could become: “collaborating on the next stage of this project just made sense, because they knew and understood the vision of what YWCA was trying to achieve.” Working with designers and visionaries is the sandbox where Scott Varga, Director of Project Management at Avison Young, does his best work. He has experience leading teams with a focus on collaboration and client satisfaction, achieving innovative results that help businesses maximize their space and the impact it has on their people, clients, and their technologies.
As a not-for-profit, the YWCA needed to work with someone who understood that budgets are simply non-negotiable: “we always knew where we stood with Avison Young and what was possible.” Any money saved in the design and outfit of a new office space meant more support to the clients whom the YWCA are committed to serving. This approach required Scott to be creative and innovative to deliver the project without compromising on the important details that would make their organization successful. By prioritizing that right from the start, the result was a custom outfit that minimized both material and financial waste.
"We always knew where we stood with Avison Young and what was possible."
One of the ways that Scott demonstrated his resourcefulness was by reusing building materials. Many of the lighting fixtures, for instance, were brought over from their former office space. In addition, Scott was able to source some beautiful and custom prefabricated glass walls from one of Avison Young’s other projects in Calgary. These materials may not have originally fit within the budget and would have, in fact, been sent directly to the landfill. The tremendous environmental benefit of saving and reusing them was not lost on Katherine: “we think that this process could be a model or a template for other groups who are changing or moving spaces.”
This creativity also served the YWCA at a time when supply chains were racked with insecurity. Katherine admitted they were hit with several different roadblocks along the way, but every time it happened, everyone just sat down and figured it out: “we would all leave with some positive energy about the situation.” This is precisely what it’s like to work with Scott, the eternal optimist, who sees any challenge as an opportunity for something greater. In this instance, that opportunity was equipping a local, social impact organization with a space that matched their ambition.
“We think that this process could be a model or a template for other groups who are changing or moving spaces.”
Comfortable, colourful and textured
Katherine’s enthusiasm for their new office is matched only by the lively shades of pink, blue, and orange that energize the open and exposed ceilings. The main part of the room, which includes the kitchen and a stunning full wall mural, opens wide towards the street. In the front corner, bathed with natural light from the large windows, is a large sectional sofa: “we really wanted comfortable, colourful, and textured furniture that made the space feel like home.” The space itself does seem to encourage collaboration and conversation, with laughter commonly reverberating throughout the room.
The long hallway off the entrance on the south side of the building, however, is carefully demised to facilitate quiet, softly lit counselling rooms. Their last office lacked this intention; busy and noisy spaces were crowded together, and far too close to the ongoing therapy. But here, you get the sense that anything is possible … in more ways than one! These deliberate design themes afford Katherine and the YWCA the flexibility to establish, and maintain, a true hybrid workspace. Some things, she jokes, may not be changing: “that couch by the window won’t ever move. It’s the most well-used piece of furniture we have!”
A place of abundance, happiness, and positivity
Today, ‘Cushing House’ sits at the entrance of 124th Street by Stony Plain Road and Katherine is ecstatic with the result: “we knew that building an office like this was fully aligned with our north-star value of equity.” Ironically enough, by creating a well-designed, hybrid workspace, she has found that her staff are increasingly eager about returning to the office. In addition, as a glowing review from the community, Katherine has a constant stream of neighbours and clients coming in who exclaim that they want to work there, too. “It feels like a place of abundance, happiness, and positivity.”
Thankfully, the YWCA’s ability to serve the broader community is possible thanks to the innovative approach of Katherine and Scott. Towards the end of the project, they learned that the retail bay across the hallway was being made available. They decided to convert it as a distinct, bookable boardroom and it has now been used for book launches, community gatherings, and annual general meetings, with considerable interest in the evening and weekend hours. This enables the YWCA to earn an additional stream of revenue while also supporting other community-focused groups. She’s thrilled to build that adaptability into the design: “Scott and his team were instrumental in creating a space that was elastic enough to meet our current and future needs.”
Powered by people
One of the groups using that space is the REET Institute. Founded by Edmonton real estate professional Andrel Wisdom, the organization serves to transformation the next generation of diverse youth into community investors. High school students are grouped and mentored by local real estate professionals who help explain the real estate development and investment process. By hosting the course in this community space, Andrel was able to highlight the important work of YWCA and provide a practical example of how real estate decisions are made and impact all of us.
This the true power of the real estate community – by coming together, we are greater than the sum of our parts. Katherine, Scott, and Andrel are all business and community leaders united by an industry that rewards good ideas and hard work. Their crucial investments, into buildings, teams, and people, add tremendous value to a neighbourhood and city. Avison Young, like the YWCA and the REET Institute, are powered by people.