Secondment: From Newcastle to Vancouver

Sophie Connor talks about the experiences she enjoyed on her six month secondment to Team James in Vancouver from Team Graham in Newcastle.

Lynn Canyon Bridge, Seymour Demonstration Forest
Lynn Canyon Bridge, Seymour Demonstration Forest

When Ryder announced in 2017 that they were opening an office in Vancouver, the first thing I did was ask my mum if she would be willing to look after my dog should a secondment opportunity ever arise.  Rated as one of the most liveable cities in the world, the opportunity to travel there with work was too good to pass up on.  When the secondment opportunity did arise however, it was a slightly different conversation with my partner about looking after the dog… Fortunately for me, the timing of the secondment worked out well as I was coming to the end of my current project (and my partner is very understanding!)

Practice life in Vancouver was very much the same and yet quite different. Some things were minor differences, like paper sizes or the language variances between English and Canadian English, which utilises a mixture of English and American rules – ‘ise’ is ‘ize’ and aluminium is aluminum but color is still colour. Metric and imperial units are used almost interchangeably, although generally, projects working with existing buildings would be in imperial units due to existing information, and new projects would be in metric, however discussions during meetings regularly slipped into feet over metres leaving me trying to keep up with conversions! Coming from the Newcastle office of around 100 people to an office of eight made for quite a change.

Middle Joffre Lake
Middle Joffre Lake

We were welcomed to the office with open arms and made to feel very welcome as the team was growing rapidly.  Whilst there were new projects to work on, part of the reason for the secondment was to help establish and encourage the Ryder ethos with the Vancouver team.  This included introducing Ryder360, press reviews and the team trip, alongside more nuanced elements such as assisting to integrate best practice.  This was made more interesting by hearing the different experiences my fellow secondees, Danielle Lavercombe and Robin Stockill, have had working in our Liverpool and London offices respectively.

Day to day project activities were very similar but, at a higher level, project procurement differs between the UK and Canada.  Canada generally follows more traditional procurement routes, however several projects in the office were progressing with modular construction with a more design and build approach.  The traditional route is fostered by the protection of the role of an architect, also taking on more risk and responsibility.  Architectural drawings must be sealed by an architect for issue, and letters of assurance issued to the lead consultant by sub consultants (accompanying their sealed drawings) so that a whole issue can be sealed by an approved professional.  Given the discussions in UK architecture on the role of the architect, and the future of where the role might go, it was interesting to see a different set up in practise.

St. Mark's Summit
St. Mark’s Summit

Authority approval procedures also differ.  Projects go through rezoning, which is similar to change of use (although land uses are more prescriptive), then a development permit (planning approval) followed by a building permit (building control).  The rezoning process alone can take several years.  The City of Vancouver authority currently requires submissions to be made in person with multiple paper sets.  It transpires that the planning portal we have in the UK is quite state of the art!  Around Vancouver, there are several different authorities having jurisdiction, each using a combination of city, provincial or national building codes.  Prior to my secondment, I had not considered how ingrained the approval and development process was in my understanding of how projects run – however working under different systems really highlighted that.

To a certain extent being on secondment was a bit like being in a bubble, in that I didn’t have many of the usual responsibilities of being at home.  Whilst this meant missing out on certain events back home, it also meant weekends were free for exploring the city and surroundings.  Arriving in mid October, we managed to fit in some decent hikes before the snow arrived – my first weekend included hiking at Joffre Lakes, crystal clear blue glacial lakes with snow topped peaks behind, certainly felt like I was ticking off Canadian clichés!  Even once the snow set in, the temperate climate in Vancouver meant that there were still many opportunities for hiking at lower altitudes, and so there was somewhere new to explore almost every weekend.  Living in Yaletown, my commute shrank to a five minute walk with views of the Northshore mountains framed between the towers of downtown.  No matter how many photos I took, I couldn’t capture the juxtaposition and scale of this view.

I am thoroughly grateful for the opportunity to work abroad through my own role with Ryder.  This offered an insight into how architecture and procurement works globally, great project experiences, furthered understanding of how our business works and new friendships across the practice.

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