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Context Matters at Matter Architectural Studio inc.

A pair of Windsor natives took London by storm, and are bringing the fruit of their knowledge and expertise back home
Author: Matthew St. Amand
Photographer: Syx Langemann
2 weeks ago
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Of all the intermingling factors required to create success, chief among them is having the right combination of people come together at the right time. The Beatles didn’t become the Beatles we know today until Ringo Starr joined.  Nirvana was just another Seattle band until Dave Grohl took over on drums.  And Rush was playing high school gymnasiums until Neil Peart came on board.  Steven Cooper and Phil Sharron, co-founders of matter architectural studio inc., worked for competing architecture firms in London, but it wasn’t until they met and joined forces that the magic began to happen.  Fun fact: Steven and Phil are both drummers.

 Steven and Phil are Windsor natives who have created a substantial footprint in London.  They’re now turning their eyes homeward.

“We played in bands in Windsor,” Phil says, “and I’m sure Steven and I played a show together, at one time.  It’s amazing we didn’t connect earlier.”

“We had the same peer group from different high schools,” Steven says.  “I went to W.F. Herman Academy Secondary School and Phil went to F.J. Brennan Catholic High School.”

Following secondary school, Phil attended the Architectural Technology program at George Brown College in Toronto.  Steven is a graduate of the Architectural Technology program at St. Clair College and Master of Architecture program at Lawrence Technological University in Michigan.  Life and happenstance led each of them to London, where they now run an established, acclaimed architecture firm.  In their world, there is no such thing as “having arrived”.  It’s always about the next project, the next challenge.  Among the current projects is establishing a presence in their old hometown: plans are in motion to expand their firm,  matter architectural studio inc., into Windsor.

“Windsor is an important aspect of our lives.  Both of our families and friends live in the city,” Steven explains.  “We’re in town every couple of weeks.  We’re working on securing office space in Windsor, but haven’t selected a specific location yet.”

This is great news for Windsor, considering the variety and technical complexity of the projects matter has designed and executed to date.

Starting out in 2015, matter’s founding duo worked out of Steven’s basement.  Fast forward to 2019: matter expanded into a 5,500 square foot studio with a 15 member team.

One of the many aspects that sets matter apart from the competition, is the in-house design/execution process they developed: “Remarkable Architecture.”

“Our Remarkable Architecture concept is the intersection of proper contextual design response and the way it’s technically executed,” Steven says.  “It’s about creating a vehicle to take a group of people from start to end.  It’s about the intersectionality of design and technical rigor, while staying on time and on budget.”

“It’s more than drawing a pretty picture,” Phil says.  “You need to know how to actually build the design, how to detail it.  Otherwise, the concept will be ruined in construction.  We show clients something they fall in love with, and have the technical skill to deliver it.”

One example of this intersectionality is the Lake Huron Residence, a luxury summer retreat.  The design trade publication, Onekindesign.com, describes the home as “a showpiece in design, technology and sustainability, which meaningfully connecting with its beautiful natural setting and exploring new alternatives to enhancing the lifestyle experience of the family summer getaway.” 

“With the Lake Huron Residence, the sourcing of materials and finishes came from as far away as Cape Town, South Africa, Germany, and Ireland,” Steven says.  “Our ability to work for our clients this way is where we add value as Architects.”

 matter architectural studio inc. also possesses the versatility to deliver solutions in more challenging spaces.  One of the most technologically complex projects matter completed occurred with London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), on the design and construction of a “Hybrid Operating Room at University Hospital”. 

matter was the first architecture firm in LHSC’s history to use virtual reality to convey architectural design intent,” Steven says.  “We took a robotic heart surgeon through a virtual reality rendering of our design.  This is a person who uses VR to perform his surgeries via robotics.  He was extremely impressed by our use of VR.”

matter worked, step-by-step, with LHSC to determine their needs, showing them designs in the  matter Virtual Reality (VR) Suite.  Without the VR goggles, the VR Suite looks like a large room with a huge video screen.  With the VR goggles on, the Suite turns into any one of matter’s projects, rendered in breathtaking detail.

“When you put on the VR goggles, you are walking through a 3D physical representation of the design,” Phil explains.  “You experience the project scale, its context, textures, colours and even the size of specific furniture and equipment. It’s a one-to-one representation of the design.”

To perfect the design for the operating room, Steven committed himself to the project and sat in during a robotic heart surgery to ensure his team understood the intimate nuances required of the design.

“I was invited into the OR to review their process, to see how the users interacted with each other and was fortunate enough to view the surgery via a Da Vinci Surgical System,” Steven recalls, “ this system allows you to see the surgical area with a 10 times magnification rate.   In this regard, we are very proud of our involvement with healthcare related projects and feel that they are a true vehicle to making communities a stronger place.”

matter is bringing that experience and expertise home to Windsor.

“Every project is unique,” Phil says.  “Health Care is tremendously technical.  Our approach to providing solutions is team-oriented.  We are sensitive to factors, such as patient experience, while also mindful of building code, and Canadian Medical standards.  We not only understand the type of user going into that space, but we also understand the details surrounding that space.”

“We do not walk into rooms with cape and monocle,” Steven adds.  “We encourage our clients to bring builders to the table during design.  Doing this gives the client real-time pricing, competency, and answers to their questions in tandem with our concepts.  It helps them weigh their options in real time and make the right decision for their projects.”

How did a couple of Windsor guys arrive at a point where they undertake these next level projects?  For one thing, they’re artists.  In their youth, they each channeled this into music.  They were also each inspired by their parents.

“I think it goes back to my dad,” Phil says.  “He wanted to be a  Landscape Architect and did a stint in that field.  He helped me build models.  I did a lot of drawing as a kid.  In high school, I enjoyed drafting classes at school.  Getting into the computer aided drawing was mind-blowing at the time.”

Steven remembers: “My parents showed me their high school art class drawings—both are very talented artists.  For me, it was always about the connection of a pen to paper and putting something on it that was from my mind.   I am, and continue to be, extremely passionate about design.  For example, during my senior high school I was asked what I wanted to do with my life.  My response was simply: ‘I want to be an architect.’”

 matter architectural studio inc. melds outside-the-box thinking with tangible, practical solutions.  Plus, they like people.

“We haven’t built a business based on transactional relationships,” Steven says.  “We are here to help people who need a trusted advisor when they don’t know the answer to the question.  We are approachable.  It’s all about creating Remarkable Architecture together.  This resonates with people.”

Both founders look forward to bringing their methodology to Windsor, where each of their origin stories begin.  In fact, they have already started work in their hometown.

“We recently completed the first phase of St. Clair College’s business school expansion downtown,” Phil says.  “We have also been named a  ‘vendor of record’ with the City of Windsor.”

Steven and Phil know and love the lay of the land in Windsor.

“We understand that architecture is ‘cause and effect,’” Steven says.  “You cannot place a large object in a space and expect it to have no impact.”

When asked to expand on what this statement means, Steven says: “Placing an object in a space has an effect. It can be difficult if you have not constructed a building before to fully understand this.  How do significant buildings affect the urban realm?  Those conversations need to occur.  For me, that’s how we approach the work—it’s always contextual:

“If I place an object in front of you,” he continues, “you move around it.  How do you go around it?  Is there a path?  Is it soft or hard?  Is it lit?  Is it a civic space?  If so, should it be dedicated to someone?  These are the details we consider.  We like to deconstruct and understand how cause and effect alters our concepts, how it can be affordable, and how the result satisfies the ultimate goal of our clients.”

“Typically, we present designs that are bold,” Phil adds.  “We take calculated risks in our work, striving for a balance between design excellence and physical construction.  Does Windsor need that?  We believe it does, but the market will tell us.”

These two Windsor natives say their hometown still holds an important place in both their lives.

“We are keen to be a part of Windsor’s growth, and to contribute to its current forward momentum,” Steven says.  “How can we help the community we grew up in?  I would love to go back to my high school, or to St. Clair, and talk to students, and tell them how it’s possible to be a positive contributor via Architecture.”

“Passing your knowledge on, you’re making your world a better place to live,” Phil says.  “The cool thing is we also play a major role in shaping the cities future.” To learn more about Steven and Phil and the next level work being done at matter architectural studio inc., check out their website www.matterinc.ca.