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Best Offices Ottawa: The office village


Few visitors to the Catherine Street offices of the Canadian Real Estate Association would ever guess the building’s origins.

With its modern furniture, glass detailing and open-concept design, the office reflects the collaborative, open-door culture the organization prides itself on. Atkinson Schroeter Design Group recently helped CREA update and modernize its office, skillfully and creatively working around the structure’s initial use in the 1980s as a parking garage.

It’s a building that ASDG is intimately familiar with, having designed CREA’s offices some 15 years earlier. The end result of the two-year redesign was an attractive and highly effective space that makes employees feel at home, as well as new layouts that foster togetherness and collaboration while giving CREA the flexibility to expand its operations.


“We’re in competition with other employers, and the work environment and how the office feels is a huge factor,” says CREA chief executive Michael Bourque. “We wanted the space to feel comfortable and inviting. That’s exactly what we got.”

Creating a community

The previous office design, which was completed under Atkinson Design Group, featured office elements that were popular in the 2000s, such as dark wood detailing and high-paneled enclosed workstations that gave the office a dark, maze-like feel, says Sonja Schroeter, lead designer and principal at ASDG.

In recent years, however, there’s been a shift to including more shared spaces, collaborative work areas and open workstations within the office environment.


This meant the previous design was no longer optimal for CREA’s operations, says Schroeter, who took over the interior design company in 2010.

“The design of CREA’s office 15 years ago was based on a different office space model, which was to give people as much workspace and privacy as possible,” she says. “Since then, there has been a cultural shift in how people are working, so it’s gratifying that CREA asked us to come back and create this new work environment. It’s a huge compliment.”

With five floors to redesign, Schroeter pitched the idea of creating an office environment that played off of a concept which she dubbed “the village.”

“An office is similar to that of a village – it’s a community. The community needs spaces for people to meet, interact, share their time and ideas, share a common goal and grow together as a corporate family,” she says.


Conceptualizing the reception area as a community centre, the aisles as connecting streets, the lunchroom as a local cafe and the employee’s workspaces as their “homes” helped inspire Schroeter’s vision.

The office redesign also prioritized giving employees access to natural light, which was previously lost to large offices and cubicles. The ASDG team reconfigured the floor plans to include windows in the kitchen and meeting rooms to enable employees to enjoy the communal spaces. They also relocated and expanded the main boardroom space, which now opens up to the reception area with pivoting glass doors to create a more open, collaborative meeting place.

“A community needs spaces for people to meet, interact…and grow together.”

“We didn’t really have meeting rooms or places for people to gather before,” says Debra Cowan, CREA’s chief financial officer and design lead for the office team. “Now we have a board room and offices, and even phone booths so people can go and have quiet conversations.”

Combined with small seating areas incorporated throughout the five floors, the office now has ample meeting space.




New real estate

One of the biggest changes was replacing the old cubicle walls with lower units topped with frosted glass for easier communication. This gives the office a brighter look and opened up work areas for increased collaboration.

“It felt really closed off before, but now I can turn around and my coworker and manager are right there,” says Matt Day, a communications advisor at CREA. “Everyone also has a standing desk option, which we use a lot because it makes meetings and brainstorming quicker. It helps us to be more creative and get excited about our ideas.”

CREA was also able to take advantage of the previously unoccupied building basement, turning it into an all-hands meeting space. With the help of Schroeter and her team, CREA created a special projects space and innovation lab, which houses employees working on technical prototypes for the association, such as voice-controlled website applications.


The lab mirrors the clean, modern design of the other floors, with pops of green and teal adding colour to the industrial-style space.

As the CREA team continues to settle into its new space, Cowan says they still marvel at the changes ASDG made to the office and how well the interior reflects the culture within the organization.

“I love coming into the office every day – it’s just where we all want to be,” she adds. “It’s casual yet functional. It really checks all the boxes.”