back to articles
Nov 15, 2021

Where It All Began

Post by 

1991 was the tail end of the 80’s era of high-interest rates, multiple bankruptcies, the Bre-X fiasco, and the near-collapse of Apple Inc. During the aftermath of this tumultuous period, two architects, Bruce McFadden and Len Brown formed a casual professional association. They rented affordable office space in the southwest part of Edmonton, sharing the accommodation with a group of realtors, an interior designer, and a landscape architect. A few months later, along with my HP Plotter, I joined Bruce and Len in their cramped 12’ x 10’ space. This casual association was marketed with limited success as a collaboration of three individual architects. This soon resulted in the unwieldy and short-lived mouthful of a name (Sunearth, Leonard Brown Architect, A. V. Brammar Architect, in Collaboration) which didn’t inspire much confidence with potential clients and was wisely abandoned. A new, easy-to-remember name was needed, and after several abortive attempts, ACI Architecture was born. Initially, times were tough with three architects, an accountant, and bills to pay. Salaries frequently were what little was left in the till divided by three. On one occasion, a large cheque mistakenly arrived for the American Concrete Institute. It was reluctantly returned.

ACI initially struggled along working for small developers (some of whom thought paying the last installment of the fee was optional) and on small projects for private clients such as custom homes, motel facelifts, signage, and on and on. However, these bits and pieces kept things going until a breakthrough happened! ACI won a contract for a large school in the hamlet of Cadotte Lake, halfway between Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray. This was followed by a series of health units for Indian Affairs and minor school renovations for the Edmonton Public School Board. ACI finally hired some help, one person, and moved to a new space on the west end of Edmonton.

Shortly after relocating, Bruce left the firm to pursue a new passion for underground concrete dome housing that was fashionable at that time – but not for ACI.

By now, Len and I were successful in expanding the business, including projects such as schools, hospitals, health care, First Nation administration facilities, and miscellaneous interior design projects. ACI also had success with EPSB in modernizing some of their older schools. Strathcona Senior High modernization won the CEFPI (Council of Educational Facilities Planners International – now A4LE – Association for Learning Environments) award in 1999. That was the first of many awards that ACI would go on to win.

The client list was growing, and so was the firm, with eight persons by then, including the partners. Early in the new millennium, ACI moved again, this time just down the road. It wasn’t long after our move, that Len left to start a new a venture in British Columbia.

With more employees, the firm established teams to focus on production documents, contract management, interior design, site supervision, and accounting. Work volume increased with ACI’s early involvement in Public-Private-Partnerships in association with Alberta Public Works. The firm was growing and expanding its client base.

My previous involvement with Stephens Kozak Ltd. allowed us entry into the world of RCMP projects, large and small. ACI and SKL undertook the design of the new RCMP Headquarters in Fort McMurray. In collaboration with this firm, ACI secured a succession of police and protective services related projects. Unfortunately, when design firms cease to exist after the partners leave or retire, their legacies sadly go with them. I realized that would be the outcome with SKL. So, in this case, a legal association with ACI would ensure that SKL’s legacy would not be lost following the retirement of the partners.

ACI’s philosophy from our small beginnings has been to establish a firm that would endure and not cease to exist with the exit of the shareholders. Current partners must select and secure their successors, and when the new shareholders’ turn comes, they must also do the same.

A final note… the acronym – a secret revealed:

The initials “ACI” were generated to reflect the collaboration of the three of us starting the new company in 1991 – we thought they sounded interesting, easy to say, and remember. The initials came first before the wording was crafted. “Architects Collaborative Initiative” was devised after the fact to fit the initials. We never made the wording official, and since then, many people have wondered what ACI stood for, and it has prompted many wild guesses. At the time, we envisioned that the firm have a transferrable name to allow it to be passed on to a new generation of owners without losing its identity in the marketplace. Such a transition has already happened successfully and will happen again. Also, in 1991 the Alberta Association of Architects preferred firm titles to include the architects’ names. We were one of the first to get approval for the use of anonymous initials within the firm’s name. Other architects soon followed suit.

And now you know!