Although you may not think of an abandoned industrial area as being the ideal location for a church, Toronto-based firm C. Y. Lee Architect has grown its business by specializing in transforming abandoned factories and warehouses into places of worship. Principal C. Y. Lee says one of the challenges—and rewards—of these projects is that “churches are not only used as churches these days. They’re also community centres, schools, and day cares.” In turn, this innovative transformation means the new structures can often help revitalize the industrial neighbourhoods that surround them.
Beyond the context of industrial retrofits, Lee also excels at all types of institutional design and out-of-the-box residential design. But no matter what the context or the particular project, Lee says one thing has always, through the history of the company, remained the same: “We design unique buildings.”
1990: market collapse
Toronto architecture firms lay off nearly half of the architects working in the city. Meanwhile, C. Y. Lee, 30 years old and just out of a Columbia University master’s program, works on his licensing exams.
1991: c. y. lee architect is founded
C. Y. Lee Architect opens its doors as a design-oriented, one-man firm. “It hadn’t been my intention to open my own firm,” Lee says. But with the economy the way it is, there aren’t many alternatives.
1994: a provincial award
The owners of a 50-year-old bungalow approach Lee about designing an addition. Rather than a traditional single-storey addition—which, says Lee, would have taken up the bulk of the owners’ backyard—he designs a two-and-a-half-storey tower. Despite its tiny footprint, the addition adds 400 square feet to the home. The unique design wins Lee an award from the Ontario Association of Architects.
mid-1990s: the move into churches
During the recession, many of Toronto’s industrial neighbourhoods stand largely vacant. Between that and how few empty lots are available downtown, factory retrofits and restorations become one of Lee’s specialties, in particular for faith communities.
1997: a new cultural centre
The Korean-Canadian Cultural Association hires Lee to redesign its cultural centre. Another renovation of an industrial building, the redesign isn’t a huge project. The project is partially funded with municipal and provincial funds, providing an excellent experience for the firm.
1998: The first full-time employee
Both the spate of church projects and the fairly high-profile cultural centre attracted enough attention (and, subsequently, work) that Lee is able to hire his first full-time employee. Nowadays, the firm stays at around 3–5 employees, and Lee says he prefers to stay a smaller company. More than 7–8 people, Lee says, “and I lose control over the whole design-build process.”
2007: the rock community church
Lee designs a unique layout for the Rock Community Church, which garners a lot of attention for the firm. The project is a particularly innovative because, while it seats 300, the congregation is young and growing. Lee designs the wedge-shaped building as a module that can be added onto over time. The project earns a Jury’s Choice Award from the Ontario branch of the annual Wood Works! Awards competition.
2009: clean living
The Bevdale Road residence in Toronto captures Lee’s unique style. Open space is framed with clean lines. The entire home brings a unique style to the street, positioned as it is between two more traditional homes.
2012: the retrofits continue
The last several years have seen a lot of growth for the firm, which now averages 15–20 projects a year. Lee continues to specialize in institutional design, particularly for faith communities, and coming up this year is another factory retrofit that he’s quite excited about. The 35,000-square-foot, ex-furniture factory will be home to a 500-member congregation, for which Lee has designed a timber-frame chapel that will rise up from within the existing building.
2012: getting into residential
A 17,000-square-foot custom-home project has had Lee in the wings for nearly three years. The project, for a family of eight, has been a challenge to get off the ground. The home sits on acreage, but with very specific regulations on preserving the property’s green space. The permits finally went through at the end of 2011, so Lee is putting the final touches on the home. With curved walls and complex timber systems, the home is bound to contribute to the firm’s reputation for cutting-edge design.