If Mohammad Dourou seems to speak about the future of co-working in Ottawa with almost messianic zeal, well, you can’t really blame him.
Dourou is the co-founder of Collabüro, one of the city’s newest flexible work spaces. Its home base in Little Italy, a couple of kilometres from the downtown core, makes Collabüro unusual. But what really makes the new business stand out from the crowd is the physical space itself: Collabüro is located in the former home of the German Evangelical Martin Luther Church of Ottawa at 499 Preston St. (its name incorporates the German word “buro,” meaning office).
An IT services professional who’s spent countless hours toiling on his laptop at various coffee shops and co-working spaces around Ottawa, Dourou decided a while back he’d like to open his own flexible work and event space. A buddy of his in the real estate industry happened to be scouting out potential development sites one day and spotted the former church just off Carling Avenue next to Claridge’s new Icon condo tower.
“When he saw this, he said, ‘Come with me, check this place out,’” Dourou says. “We loved the architecture of the building. I’m like, ‘This is a beautiful place and perfect for co-working.’ I think as soon as it came on sale, I was there literally the morning of the same day.”
The 38-year-old entrepreneur bought the 4,200-square-foot building in early January and spent the next eight months renovating it virtually from top to bottom. Aside from its distinctive architecture, a few reminders of its ecclesiastical origins remain as an homage to its past: ornamental displays featuring Biblical writings in German adorn a wall, and the rope that once rang the church bell sting hangs from the ceiling near the front window. (The church removed the original stained glass windows when it moved.)
“Some people know it’s a church, and they’re like, ‘Wow,’” says Dourou, who funded the venture himself with help from family members. “Other people, they don’t know. We’ve had really good feedback on the layout and the colours.”
Indeed, vibrant hues such as aqua and orange abound at Collabüro; the church’s former altar is now a desk that’s been refinished in a motif of those colours among others. Its signature element is a show-stopping mural of a pair of trees by local artist Suzanne Ragheb that takes up nearly a full wall on the main floor.
Dourou, who officially opened Collabüro with his wife Hanan Mahmoud last month, says he’s tried to hit the sweet spot between stuffy formality and hipster cool.
“I think the building is the right size and the right kind of mood,” he explains. “Everyone that comes in here, they like the whole vibe.”
The first floor of the two-storey facility is laid out in an open concept with desks of various sizes, a kitchen offering free coffee, tea and water and a reception desk, and the room can be divided in two to accommodate special events such as cocktail parties.
The basement has a conference room, where Dourou is aiming to book not only events such as government training sessions but other activities, including yoga and even tango lessons. Beside it is a “break room” with couches and a foosball table.
Each seat also comes with its own electrical outlet, and wireless smartphone chargers are scattered throughout the building.
“We just wanted to make a great place to work from,” Dourou says.
The building can accommodate about 70 people at any given time. So far, five members have signed up, including a graphic artist, an interior designer and a freelance writer. Users can rent desks by the day or the month, and the building is open 24-7 – members simply download an app to gain keyless entry outside of normal work hours.
Dourou says the idea is to create an informal yet professional space where freelancers, contract workers and entrepreneurs can mingle, share ideas and get to know each other.
"You’re going to be part of a community ... If somebody wants a private office, Regus is right there."
“You’re going to be part of a community,” he says. “If somebody wants a private office, Regus is right there,” he adds, pointing north in the direction of the co-working giant’s Preston Square location.
Collabüro is part of a rapidly expanding niche in Ottawa’s real estate scene. A recent study from real estate services firm CBRE noted that the amount of flexible office space in the city has grown 82 per cent over the past two years to nearly 300,000 square feet, with more big providers set to make their debut in the National Capital Region soon.
Dourou says he expects the trend to continue as more employees shift to contract and freelance work.
“The 82 per cent is just the beginning, I think,” he says, adding he’s already looking at potential expansion sites in other parts of the city. “I think the whole mentality of this (working) 9-to-5 from a specific place is no longer needed.”
And with thousands of new residents expected to flood into the neighbourhood as the Icon and other nearby condo highrises open their doors, Dourou foresees a growing market for his services right in his own backyard.
“It’s going to take a while, maybe five, 10 years, but this place is going to be a little downtown here,” he says. “I think we’re a very good spot.”