Bing Thom Architects is based in a former factory that manufactured rubber diving suits. Even in 1982, the year that Bing Thom, AIA, built his studio, he was looking forward with plans for growth. “I wanted a space where I could move into other warehouse spaces cheaply,” he says. And so he has done—leasing and expanding into adjacent warehouse spaces and houses and increasing his studio size 400 percent over three decades.
Today, the firm in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, employs 30 people. Thom describes them as “hyphenated”: engineer-architects, interior designer–architects, MBA-architects. The firm’s designers hail from 10 countries and speak 12 different languages.
“My office is a hidden oasis in the middle of the city,” Thom, 71, says. “It’s a sanctuary space for thinking and contemplation and keeping the outside world away, where we can be on our own. It has the feeling of a warehouse, but very serene.”
When Thom first leased the factory space in 1982, he didn’t wait to add a sunlit floor for extra space. “My structural engineer told me, ‘Add the second floor. Either you’re going to make it or you’re going to go broke.’ ”
Thom sought out an industrial space that reflected his personality. Before his additions, the studio was a one-story concrete block located at the foot of the Burrard Bridge, a dramatic, Art Deco structure. “I’m an edgy guy,” he says, “in the sense that I don’t like to be in the middle of the action. I like to be on the edge and making my own conclusion. That’s why I’m in Vancouver and not New York or Shanghai. I like the tranquility. I do my best work when I can be observing.”
“It’s more like a school,” Thom says of his studio. “It’s really not an office.” He isn’t exaggerating: The firm in fact hosts classes from the University of British Columbia, which are run through the studio’s research and development division, BTAworks.
“The office is now quite mature,” Thom says. “Most of the staff has been here for over eight years. We’re very quick to decide what we want.”
It’s fitting that Thom built his studio so close to False Creek, a short inlet that runs through Vancouver, as water is a key theme in the firm’s work. Recently, BTAworks performed a study on the consequences for Vancouver of rising water levels. The firm is performing a similar study for Hong Kong—where some of Thom’s suggestions draw blank stares. He would like to export to Hong Kong the signature downtown beaches of Vancouver. “Beaches are very good for filtering water,” he says.
The year that Thom built his studio, city workers in Vancouver were on strike. By the time the strike was over, Thom was able to apply for permits to build his studio—but he had in fact already completed the project.