Ottawa workplace design firms join forces for national push

combined firms
The teams at Ottawa commercial interior design firms LWG Architectural Interiors and Design Associates have joined forces. Photo provided

Ottawa’s largest commercial interior design firm is aiming to make its mark on the national stage, thanks to a new deal that’s bringing one of the local industry’s oldest companies under its roof.

LWG Architectural Interiors has acquired longtime competitor Design Associates in a transaction that closed on Monday. Terms of the deal were not released.

At about 20 employees before the acquisition was finalized, LWG was already the city’s largest design firm, according to the 2019 OBJ Book of Lists. 

Its customers include many high-profile locally based organizations such as Ark Construction, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and various federal government agencies, but principal Bryan Wiens said one of Design Associates’ most attractive attributes is an impressive stable of clients that includes co-working giant IWG, which owns the Regus and Spaces brands. Other big-name customers the firm has worked with over the years include Air Canada, national law firm Gowling WLG and Microsoft.

“For us, that was one of the strategic things that we looked at,” said Wiens, noting that Design Associates is currently engaged with IWG on office projects in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver in addition to co-working space at the multibillion-dollar Zibi development here in Ottawa. 

“It expands our client base quite a bit. First and foremost, we’re an Ottawa-based company and our focus will always be on Ottawa. But we’re also looking to expand beyond Ottawa. Definitely, we have the expertise that we can work anywhere in Canada.”

Design Associates principal Murray Cohen, who founded the five-person firm in 1971, first approached LWG about joining forces more than a year ago when he decided the time was right to start scaling back his involvement in the business.

“He’s been a force to be reckoned with for a long time,” Wiens said. “He really wanted to make sure that his staff would be taken care of and his clients would be taken of in his retirement. It just seemed to be a good fit for us.”

Design Associates’ employees have moved into LWG’s head office on Thurston Drive, where Cohen will still have a desk. The industry veteran plans to stay on as a part-time consultant to help make sure the merger goes smoothly, a role Wiens and his fellow principals Marc Letellier and David Gibbons fully embrace.

“We like him a lot,” Wiens said. “He’s a shrewd businessman ​– there’s a lot to be learned from him.”

Hot Ottawa economy tightens labour market

As LWG prepares to beef up its national presence, it’s looking to hire a couple more designers. But Wiens said that’s easier said than done in what’s become a highly competitive market for top-tier talent.

“If you talk to any of my competitors, everybody in Ottawa is looking for experienced design staff,” he said.

Wiens chalks up the current talent crunch to a number of factors. 

As more and more employers in both the private and public sectors are rethinking their office spaces in an effort to accommodate more flexible work patterns, demand for experienced designers is ramping up, he said. In addition, Ottawa’s red-hot economy means many of his clients are in full-scale expansion mode at the same time.

“All the sectors are firing at once,” Wiens said. “In Ottawa, sometimes high tech will go down and government will go up and vice versa, and they usually level themselves out. We’ve seen the last two or three years that all of our sectors are hot at the same time. There’s a lot of work to be done in the city.”