UrbanToronto sits down with David McComb, President of Edenshaw Homes, and co-developer of Chaz Condominiums.

David, tell us about your background. What were the influences that led you to the development industry? 

I've had the benefit of seeing so much of Canada and what it has to offer, and one thing that I've really come to appreciate is the lifestyle Canadians have, and the opportunities that we have in front of us. Considering where I grew up in both Manitoba and British Columbia, the direction that I took is not one that I originally expected. It goes back to wanting to be a pilot as a kid. I grew up in the aviation industry, but I did a paradigm shift one day, and actually fell into a position that I would've never guessed, as a carpenter. So I started in the industry learning from the ground up, or shall we say, from the hole in the ground and out, all the way through to being involved in the construction aspect of it.

Was that in BC at that point?

It was, yes. What struck me was the use of materials, and the architecture: there’s a lot more freedom in what one can do in British Columbia, and how they express it. I think this is the point where — after determining that this was an industry that I really truly loved — I decided to learn more, and so I got back into engineering, and completed a degree there, and fell into residential development. So my life has been spent within the residential development field; always as the developer, always initially involved in the construction side of the project. Working in development, you end up understanding that it is a group of industries which are melded together, and those industries are Finance and Admin, they're Sales and Marketing and Construction, and they're Development. So you start to appreciate a little bit of everything, you start to work closely as a team, and I think out of that you have an appreciation for the skills and talents of your team members. You work towards common goals and you help support people with their weaknesses, you know, people have strengths, but they also have their weaknesses. I played a lot of sports as a kid as well, and you learn about teamwork and that's one thing I truly enjoy about having grown up and played a lot of  hockey in Winnipeg, and played a lot of outdoor sports in British Columbia, whereby you really count on a team. I find the development industry is much like that. 

David McComb in the Chaz Yorkville Presentation Centre, image by Edward Skira

Tell us more about your experience with West Coast architecture. You described it as being more open, and that it gives one more freedom. Were there any particular architects there who inspired you?

Absolutely. In my earlier career I worked with some of the local architects like Raymond Letkeman and others who were phenomenal West Coast architects, who play with materials and space to really emphasize the architecture: it’s more about the space and the proportions. The materials themselves; are they warm, are they cold, do they really fit how people will live in those spaces? The prairie style designs of Frank Lloyd Wright were very influential — they have that bungalow style. We did a number of projects that mimicked Wright actually, we did one called Taliesin, that right down to the light fixtures on the outside of the building which mimicked his architecture. West Coast architecture uses a lot of wood and glass: it’s a very moderate climate there, wood is plentiful and the cedar is a magnificent material to work with, not only because of its texture and the feel of the material, but the smell of it, if you can believe that.

It’s a sensory experience.

It is, yeah. The West Coast has a certain way of bringing the outdoors in, and I think that's why when I started my company I named it Edenshaw, in honour of Charles Edenshaw, who was a mid-1800s Haida chief who was the first to introduce West Coast Haida art to Europeans. I've always collected West Coast art, and some of Charles Edenshaw's works are in prominent places in the world like the British Museum — and even his descendants today are very well known artists — but what I enjoy is the fact that West Coast people are talented in taking a natural material and forming it into something that has a very humanistic, sensory experience with it. Not only is it pleasing to the eye, it’s pleasing to the touch as well, the way they carve wood, argilite stone, as well silver and gold. So I try to emphasize that design flavour at Edenshaw, because we're really about creating homes, not units. I don't like using that word ‘unit’. I think that it's very important that every structure that we involve ourselves in is more about creating a lifestyle for the people in the home where they’re living. A condominium purchase represents possibly the largest purchase a person might make in their life and it's important to recognize that. I think, "always put your best foot forward," not only in delivering the product, but it starts in the beginning with the design process and trying to integrate some of those sensory opportunities into how people are going to live. 

You started out as carpenter working on single-family homes where it’s easier to bring inspiration from the materiality of things. How do you scale that up for something as big as Chaz?

Well, I've been very fortunate in my career because I've had several mentors along the way. One of my mentors was an old Danish superintendent, who, when he one day saw me with my head in my hands, asked me what was wrong and I answered, “I don't know if I can do this. The project is so large, there's so much going on, how can I really get my head around this?” He looked at me as he did when he came up with his simple one-liners and said, “Every big job is just several small jobs put together, so just tackle them one at a time.” I think that's the way to go in life. We think things are insurmountable, but when you really break it down, it's really only one small item put together with another and another. Pretty soon you've gone the distance. You know the saying, "A journey of a thousand miles starts and begins with a single step"? It’s true in this context, too.

Can you tell us more about some of the other milestone moments earlier in your career?

The first company that I was with out of school was Polygon Homes, a wonderful company on the West Coast. It was basically like a drill school: you were put through bootcamp, you learned discipline and teamwork. At one point, while most of the construction managers would be looking after two, maybe three projects, I was taking on six. I realized I could take on a lot more and have more responsibility. Although I never really wanted to leave that company, another opportunity arose where it gave me ownership within a company.  So I had actually started a development company from the ground up with the founder of Intrawest Developments, his name is Mohammed Faris. He had retired and we had decided that we would start a new company, so in 1993 we started a company called Cascadia Land Corporation. With Cascadia, our mission was to build a residential development company that was boutique size, so we ended up growing the company, whereby as a shareholder of a company you get involved with everything from land equity to the overall development approvals and pro formas, the bank financing, etc.

Suddenly it opened my eyes and that was one of the "Eureka" moments: to be in a smaller company with someone who has an incredible amount of experience, and being able to mentor someone like myself in this process and being exposed, if you would, to other areas that I didn't have the expertise in, but this is where you gain it, through osmosis. Sometimes it's trial by fire, being involved in something like that where we're developing anywhere from 2 to 500 residential homes. We went from a small company, writing checks by hand, to being the Builder of the Year in 1998 for British Columbia, so that was quite an achievement for us. During that period of time, it was so much more about learning about the business firsthand, and being involved financially, but also having responsibility with other partners in the business and understanding their trials and tribulations. It's all about learning from mistakes and not having to apply them to your situation, make all your mistakes original! So, any opportunity that you can benefit from seeing people's experiences, all the better.

You know, from there we saw the recession coming into British Columbia and we decided to take profit in the company and personally I wanted to move on to bigger things. We had established ourselves as a very prominent development company, but our scale was such that it was rather small. So an opportunity came here in Toronto with Concord Adex to be involved in their overall construction program, which for 20 towers was about a $3 billion project. The opportunity was very interesting and one that would be the challenge I was looking for in my life. I ended up taking on the responsibilities of Vice-President of Construction, but quickly evolved into overseeing the development company and soon thereafter, overseeing the entire operations of the company within a matter of a couple of years. Out of that it was quite a journey, in the sense of being able to take small steps, but accomplishing something in the long run and looking back and realizing how high you've climbed. So I'm very proud of the team that we've put together at Concord and the work that we've done building a community and making sure that everyone's happy. There's not many developers who can say that their head office is right in the middle of their own development. You know, it's one thing that we said right from the beginning was that we had to be the best at what we do. And I think that that type of philosophy holds true today is that we have to be the best at what we do.

During that time your idea for Edenshaw must have been percolating. Did you already have the name of your company in mind and know what you wanted to do?

I did. I needed to make sure that the word was out that the communities that we designed and developed were sensitive to nature and sensitive to the community as a whole. I recognized in the later years at Concord that my learning curve had flattened and it was time to take another challenge. That's why I ended up starting a development company yet again from scratch. Cascadia was started from scratch and for all intents and purposes, Concord, when I first came to Toronto, was sort of starting from scratch: there were no other projects, no documentation that we could rely on. So if you can imagine, we started another development company and I often said to people, the only difference between the start up of Cascadia and the start up of Concord was that there's usually one extra 0 behind all the numbers! 

Tell us then, along with the beginnings of Edenshaw, was Chaz born at the same time? And how does the collaboration with Jason Fane and 45 Charles Limited work?

Jason has a fantastic background as an owner of property and one thing that I found very interesting — talking about dynamics of teams — is the different perspective that different people bring to the table. Jason has always been focused on the end user and the quality of the building. I'm glad to say that we share those visions about providing the best finishes and best quality workmanship that the market will allow and right down to Jason looking at the finer details of the door handles and how they work. So it's nice to have that partnership, where the pieces fit together, like a ying and yang. Jason brought a lot of experience in his business, both here in Toronto, as well as in New York to the team. He and I had met about a year earlier on another venture, but what I wanted to do at the time was step away from Concord, and I had a rare moment in life where one could actually say they didn't have anything on their agenda. At times at Concord I felt like it was a doctor's office with people lined up outside my door needing answers, so it was a wonderful time for myself and my family to do a lot of traveling. I took a year off, followed a passion of mine to undertake my pilot's license. It was a rare opportunity for somebody in the middle of their career to step away from it, but it gave me time to really rethink what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. The first step was finding the right venture to be involved in, and Jason came along with a piece of property that he'd already started the rezoning on, and it was a great location. He had the desire to be involved in developing something as large and as significant as Chaz, so it was a natural fit for us to get together, and I think within three months of getting the project up and running we had all our sales and marketing collateral ready to go to market with a full sales office as well.  So when we did launch, we did launch with a very successful sales program and continued to do so.  We've had a very good relationship in that respect.

Chaz's architecture is somewhat deferential to the Macy Dubois building that it's replacing, the diagonal placement instructing the shape of the new building.  Tell me about how all that came together.

Architect Sol Wassermuhl and his team at IBI/Page + Steele are one of the best organizations in the city. Sol looked at this site and was really trying to read off of the existing structure and the feel of the neighbourhood, and felt very strongly that the significance of the bow-shaped structure should be represented in the new building. We toiled over that, however in the end we recognized that despite things, such as an increase in exterior surface area , that the amount of floor space compared to a rectangular building, which is typically what the developers are putting up, these days, it was somewhat inefficient. However, every time I look at a challenge, I try and turn it into a positive and one of the positives that came out of that is that we have 20% more light coming into our suites. Plus we have eight corner suites, rather than four on a typical floor. So, I think that out of that we agreed that we would follow through with Sol's concept and recognize the value in the potential in doing something as architecturally significant as that. 

Architect Sol Wassermuhl of Page + Steele / IBI Group with the scale model of Chaz, image by Craig White

For the interiors you engaged Cecconi Simone. 

Part of the challenge, and part of the excitement, of any development is putting the team together. Having the opportunity to gather some of the city's top designers is always a pleasure, and Cecconi Simone was up for the challenge. They recognized the market, they knew that we were looking for something that was higher scale, but still hip and very urban feeling. They responded with some great designs, both with the materials side, and also they were instrumental in helping facilitate the design of the amenity space in the common areas. This where we look at what is the heart and soul of any project that we do, and what's going on in the world today is all about social media. In the year and a half that I took off, it's amazing how it's exploded in our industry. Quite often you'll see people sitting in Starbucks for hours on end on their laptop and what they’re looking for is the social aspect, even if they aren’t communicating with those around them. So what we wanted to do when we looked at what the heart and soul of Chaz would be, was respect the social networking that was happening, but introduce an interpersonal opportunity. And that's where we started with the design in the front lobby and we made the lobby area like a living room. We actually wanted to brand it as such because it's a place where people can come down and feel comfortable to use their laptop and whatnot to sit and wait for their taxi or to sit and wait for their friend and to meet their neighbour. It was very important to us at that point to expand on that, you know, where the lobby living room expands to an outdoor courtyard.

Exterior amenity space at Chaz is about relaxing and socializing

This is where, as I was saying before, this ties in with the West Coast design: some of the secret is to bring the outdoors in and this is what we wanted to do with the over-height sliding doors that lead from the living room lobby out to the courtyard, where we’ve got the water features, outdoor seating, we've got dining and a fire pit with a social area. We also have a tranquil area at the back with a garden where people can just sit and reflect. Part of it, too, is having the opportunity to zone some of these features within the building so that if you had a small group of friends, you could actually reserve that space or take command  of it for a certain time and to know that it’s part of your property, it's part of your home, it's where you live and you share that space with other people. That was one of our critical, key focuses that we wanted to bring into the development: the aspect that people can still be interactive by electronic means, but they now have an opportunity to socialize with their neighbour. 

You are also taking better advantage than anyone of your downtown location with your 36th and 37th floor Chaz club. Where did that idea spring from?

That was a tough decision for us to make, to take some of our prime space and turn it into an amenity. The way we look at it is about the community and what does everyone want a piece of, but an opportunity to share and to show-off what they own to their friends and their family. Even if you own a 420-square-foot studio on the third floor, you still have the opportunity to boast about the ownership on the 36th floor. So it was my concept to ensure that this happened for our purchasers, and to make this a place that not only are they proud to live there, but they're proud to bring their friends and family. To actually have a private club, where you can sit and you can reflect, you can see the skyline of our incredibly growing city and views all the way to the lake, it's second to none and I think it was very important that this be one of the critical aspects of what we do, to differentiate ourselves from our competition. We full well know there is going to be a significant amount of competition in the coming years!

Chaz's club overlooks the city skyline from 37 floors up

Many of our UrbanToronto readers are construction geeks who love to watch the forms and the concrete and rebar all going up. There are a lot of people anticipating when construction will start on that part of the building: there will be a lot of eyes trained on Chaz at that point!

I gotta tell you, having the best design team involved, something as significant as the structure and trying to anticipate how you design something like that, that's going to work. All too often we see developers rush ahead on a concept, but don't understand the technical implications of it. You know, you have buildings like the L Tower that had to be modified significantly due to the structural issues. So it's very difficult sometimes to have this magnificent concept that can't ultimately be performed and I think one of the key things that we want to do is under-promise and over-deliver. In a case like this, we're going to do this with the way the structure is formed, we had the structural engineer involved right from day one, so that we could maximize the opportunity. We cantilevered the outdoor space to such a degree that it really stretches the limits in order to create more outdoor space. So it's not just about indoor space, up at the 36th floor.

Right — you’ve got a terrace up there.

It's a huge terrace and we're very proud of that. And, like I said, we've got some of the best designers to look after all of this for us.

The cameras are already trained on the site as things progress! Now this might be a premature question, but you must be looking down the road to the next thing beyond Chaz?

Oh, absolutely. We've got a number of projects under development at this point and we're working through them. You know, we have a 100-suite eight-storey building that we're developing in Toronto, as well. That's just coming to market now, and we're working on the backside of over 1,500 other units at this point.

Wow, OK, so we'll be expecting quite a bit from Edenshaw in coming months and years then. Are your subsequent projects going to be including Jason Fane, or some of them?

Well, I'd like to see us working together again in the future and if we have the opportunity, I’m sure we'll both jump at the prospect.

Multi-award-winning CHAZ.Yorkville is proud to be a Gold Sponsor for the upcoming seventh annual Bloor-Yorkville IceFest. On Saturday and Sunday, February 25 and 26, this prestigious area of Toronto will be alive with dazzling ice sculptures, including a 7-foot tall replica of the striking CHAZ condominium. The sculpture will be created by IceCulture, which for the first time in its history will begin with an architectural CAD drawing to provide an exact replica of the building. This is sure to be a memorable and spectacular ice sculpture. The work of art will be lit from within to highlight the residence’s architectural brilliance. 

In celebration, there are hot opportunities for those who visit this cool condominium soon. Register for CHAZ.Yorkville in person during IceFest, and the developers will donate $5 to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. PLUS, purchase a suite at CHAZ.Yorkville before March 21, 2012, and they will put your Maintenance Fees on ice for three years!

Related Companies:  Baker Real Estate Inc., Cecconi Simone, Edenshaw Developments Limited, Land Art Design Landscape Architects Inc