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INNOVATION: The Architecture of Innovation

author: Denny Manchee  

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Cobourg’s Venture 13 will transform a decaying town building into a hive of creativity Architect Reno Piccini is excited about transforming the tired Building 13 into a sleek, contemporary work space

PEOPLE WHO SUFFER FROM TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA might give pause at the idea of a new innovation hub in Building 13 of Cobourg’s Northam Industrial Park, but the Venture 13 business incubator has all the hallmarks of a game-changer for the town, starting with an elegant, light-filled space. “It’s a great building, originally built by the military in the 1950s, and it has a bit of design flair,” says architect Reno Piccini, who’s designing the renovations to 739 D’Arcy St. “The attention to detail for a building of this era – like the reverse cantilever canopies – is special. I have the original construction drawings, but haven’t been able to find out who designed it yet.”

The 30,000 square foot, two-storey structure is long, lean and lined with windows – that actually open – facing Cobourg Community Centre and its large green spaces to the east and mature trees to the west. Tenants who want to grab a work-out can pop across the street, and those who want to bash around ideas outside can sit in the shade of maples or on the patio attached to the kitchen and lunchroom.

The concept for this type of innovation hub has played out brilliantly in other locations: Communitech in Waterloo, the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, the Enterprise Centre in Collingwood, the Cube in Peterborough. The idea is to offer affordable start-up space for small entrepreneurs and foster connections and collaboration in both casual and formal ways – at the coffee pot and with relevant programming, speakers and workshops.

Why now? Why Cobourg? Like three overflowing tributaries converging in a river of need, Police Business Services was looking for space, Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation (NCFDC) wanted offices for its entrepreneurs and the Town of Cobourg was paying $70,000 a year just to keep the lights on in a building that had one small tenant, Cycle Transitions, a bike repair shop. So they talked.

It was actually Police Business Services who started the discussion last January. Its business division, doing criminal records checks for all manner of clients across Canada (including Uber), was bursting.

“We have 20 people whose sole job is doing criminal records checks,” says Chief Kai Liu. This work brings in significant revenue (more than $1 million in 2016) that goes into capital projects, like new police cars, computer systems and the new elevator in the King St. office to make it accessible. “We could have rented more space from a private landlord, but thought it would be better to pay rent to the town,” says the Police Chief.

Wendy Curtis is the dynamic executive Director of the NCFDC. She talks with velocity, embodies it, too. When she read an article in the National Post in March about Whitby and Picton being ideal communities for innovative companies, she was incensed and thought, why are we being overlooked? Galvanized, she worked with colleague John Hayden and wrote a killer proposal, articulating the importance of tech innovation to the current and future economy, the work the NCFDC is already doing to attract and fund new tech companies and the benefits of Cobourg: quality of life, proximity to Toronto, available buildings. She made the case for Venture 13, and the concept kicked into fifth gear.

Cobourg Police Services Board committed $650,000 to the estimated $1.62 million renovation cost, which elicited a further $400,000 from the NCFDC, $250,000 from the Town and $250,000 from the Province. The remainder is coming from donations and, “We’re close to our goal,” says Cobourg’s Chief Administrative Officer, Stephen Peacock. He adds that one of the benefits of Building 13 is the major fibre-optic loop it has with the Town. In a former life it was a call centre with 220 people on the phone at once. “We can deliver 500 megabits of bandwidth, not that we’d ever need that much.”

Local architect Reno Piccini, who had already been working with the police on renovations to the upstairs of Building 13, was engaged to create an open plan for the whole structure, with a large, airy, industrial feel and a variety of office sizes, meeting and training rooms, maker spaces, a lecture hall and kitchen/lunchroom. “Projects like this are really fun because you’re peeling away a typical office interior and exposing the structure,” says Piccini.

One of the key features of the new space is a lecture hall, with seating for more than 70 people. “We’re putting glass garage doors on either side to open it up so it can expand and also allow people to go in and use it informally,” says the architect. Instead of fixed seating, there will be three large tiers with folding chairs stored underneath them. “We’ll have stacks of pillows as well, and the idea is to maintain as much flexibility as possible so we can accommodate formal and informal gatherings.” The hall is a huge win for the town and will be available to the community at large, and could be used as a satellite learning centre for UOIT, Trent, Fleming, you name it.

Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone is a big source of inspiration for the design. “It’s an informal, frenetic space with lots going on and people gathering in different-sized groups,” says Piccini. “I want people to feel that energy and sense of community when they come into Venture 13.”

Although the budget is too tight for high-end sustainable features, the design includes energy efficient lighting and motion sensors that will turn off the lights when rooms are empty. Polished concrete and terrazzo floors, low VOC materials and good ventilation will also make for a healthy work environment.

The main tenants, other than Police Business Services, will be the NCFDC, Cobourg’s Economic Development department and the Northumberland Manufacturers’ Association. Under the current draft plan, there will be up to 48 seats for entrepreneurs, averaging $125 a month per seat.

Excited by the potential of Venture 13, Chief Liu says, “We’re good at catching bad guys, but we have lots to learn about running a business, and look forward to hearing about new technology that can enhance our work from the tech companies on the main floor.”

The design was finalized in late July and should be out for tender by September 5. That process takes about three weeks, says Piccini, and the renovation should happen very quickly. “It’s the kind of project contractors are looking for as winter approaches.” If all goes according to plan, Venture 13 will be open for business in early 2018, launching a whole new era of innovation in the “Feel Good” town by the lake. There’s nothing to fear in that.

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