Located in the heart of Calgary, Alberta, is Neoma — the city’s first-ever vacant office buildings to be turned into an affordable housing complex.  

Neoma is managed by HomeSpace Society, a charity that builds and maintains affordable housing in Calgary. The original 10-storey office space was constructed in the 1950s, when many oil companies began setting up their headquarters in Calgary. With the economy thriving, the city’s population and infrastructure followed suit.

Today, the city still thrives, but vacancy rates in downtown office buildings are at an all-time high and there is a shortage of affordable housing, particularly in central neighborhoods. It seems like there’s an obvious solution: convert the empty office space into affordable housing.

However, conversion isn’t as simple as it might appear. It requires an experienced builder that is committed to its community and provides innovative, customized solutions for its client. As its work with HomeSpace Society demonstrates, PCL is that builder.  

While working on the Neoma complex, PCL demonstrated its solution-provider approach in a multitude of ways, and this dedication to the client’s vision created a strong, successful partnership. “Due to the timelines and PCL's intel into the building, we felt incredibly taken care of by PCL,” says Matt Vermunt, director of acquisitions and developments at HomeSpace Society. “We’ve never worked with a group that executed a project so strongly, and we developed a great relationship with the team.”

First there was the budget: HomeSpace is a non-profit organization, so the project’s budget was firm due to public funding limitations. The project also had to be fast-tracked, since it was part of the Federal Government’s Rapid Housing Initiative. In just 14 months, the conversion was complete.

“We had to bring in targeted trades early to work through the designs and ensure they stayed on budget while still achieving the intent of what the building is going to be for,” says Rob Mitschke, PCL’s project manager on the retrofit. “We made our decisions and stuck with them, and the result is that we held the project timelines and installation schedules.”

The team also implemented additional strategies to ensure it could meet budget and timelines, such as the advanced procurement of materials and equipment, along with the simultaneous interior demolition, envelope removal and the mechanical-electrical rough-in before the design was done. 

PCL also completed several detailed assessments to understand the integrity of the building’s interior and exterior components. Since the building was initially constructed in the 1950s, the audit reviewed all the pre-existing building materials and their adherence to modern building codes to determine what could be kept, upgraded, reused or replaced. 

“We couldn’t tear everything out. We had strict budget limits,” Mitschke says. “We had to be critical about the ‘must-haves’ and ensure those items were covered first and foremost.”

On one side of the building, for example, PCL replaced the windows but retained the original brick cladding. To pay homage to the building, PCL turned part of the original exterior envelope into an art piece for a feature wall in the lobby and transformed leftover metal grating into a light fixture.

This extensive attention to detail proved that PCL was willing to go above and beyond to help meet HomeSpace Society’s unique vision for the building.

While the central location of Neoma is perfect for its residents, the same could not be said for the construction team. The building was constructed right to the property line and, due to site logistics, only one public alley was available for site deliveries. “There also wasn’t enough room to install a material or skip hoist, so we had to rely on the building’s passenger elevator inside for moving materials,” says Mitschke.

What may seem like a limitation to some was taken as an opportunity for innovation. PCL’s Job Site Resourcing software, a cloud-based platform, was implemented and utilized to its full extent to schedule all deliveries and ensure seamless material loading on site. The technology allowed the on-site team to maintain positive relationships with adjoining properties so that the deliveries did not impact their business.

“Our PCL technology helped us a great deal in overcoming very tight, challenging logistics,” Mitschke says. The platform drastically reduced congestion on the project site, enabled the team to complete all deliveries from multiple trades, eliminated delivery conflicts and created an efficient flow of materials into the project site. 

After the instructive success of Neoma, both HomeSpace Society and PCL anticipate more office-to-residential transformations in Calgary and beyond.

“Many eyes were on the project from a municipal to federal level, wondering what is going to happen with the city’s office vacancy, and this was one piece of the puzzle,” Vermunt says. “I’ve also spoken to other jurisdictions, post-secondary students, the media, all calling to ask questions and use this project as a focal point for what they’re working on or studying.”

“For a non-profit organization looking at this approach for affordable housing, it’s a viable option for not only them but governing bodies as well,” Mitschke says. “Taking vacant buildings and turning them into places where people can live and thrive ticks many boxes when using public funds. Plus, the city becomes more vibrant.”

Along with its suites, Neoma operates with drop-in spaces and on-site resources for the city’s vulnerable population. The area intends to provide help and shelter to those who have needed it for decades. Being a part of something that will benefit the city far into the future comes with a profound sense of accomplishment for both Vermunt and Mitschke.

“Any time you see someone move into one of our buildings and get help, whether it’s youth or someone who did not get a fair start at life, it’s tear-jerking,” Vermunt says.

Mitschke adds, “I've worked in downtown Calgary for my entire career, predominantly working on office spaces, and there’s always a sense of pride in building a high-rise and shaping a skyline. But this project is different because, at the end of the day, we know that people have a bed to sleep in, and a good life becomes a bit more possible for those people.”