South Calgary Duplex
Del Rio Photography South Calgary Duplex
Matthew North, Catherine van Olm, and John Brown
Courtesy housebrand Matthew North, Catherine van Olm, and John Brown

Housebrand is no ordinary architecture firm, and its founding principal, John Brown, RAIC, is no ordinary architect. Yes, like any other the firm it is in business to make money, but its mission statement holds that everyone should have access to a well-designed home.

“Our goal is to help as many people as we can create great a place in which to live,” Brown says. “We want to empower people to step outside of the mainstream cookie-cutter fast housing industry and take more control over where they live.”

Run by Brown, his wife, Carina van Olm, and designer Matthew North, housebrand is a real estate agency (Brown is a licensed Realtor), an architecture firm, general contractor, interior designer, and furniture store. It helps middle-class consumers find houses and then tailors those houses to the way the clients live—through design, construction, and decor.

Housebrand specializes in approachable, practical, modern architecture that is light-filled and well-executed. And although it does houses from the ground up, its passion is updating existing homes for the way clients really live. This highly unusual business plan is a proven winner in the firm’s hometown: it completed 15 projects in 2010.

Brown has taken his philosophy to the world with Slow Home, a nonprofit Web effort he launched in 2006 to promote alternatives to builder-driven housing through how-to videos and other features. “I know from my professional experiences that a well-designed house doesn’t have to cost any more than a badly designed one.” Indeed.

What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?

I think the most gratifying part of my job is having the opportunity to help individual people improve the quality of their domestic lives. There is an intimacy and directness with residential projects that is absent when the client is a corporation or business. Houses also play such a significant role in people’s lives that it’s a real privilege to be able to help them make their daily lives better.

What is the most frustrating aspect?

My biggest frustration is not with the process of design or construction and has nothing to do with budgets, schedules, or stylistic preferences. I get upset about the low design quality of the houses in which most people live. Typical cookie-cutter production houses, what we call fast houses, don’t function very effectively. As such, they make the routines of daily life more difficult than they should be. These houses also have an unsustainably high environmental footprint. I’m frustrated because the average consumer doesn’t think that this is the case and too often ends up settling for something that isn’t worth all of the money they paid for it.

What is your mission statement or firm goal?

We believe that everyone should live in a well-designed house.

What is the most indispensable tool in your office?

I have two: my tablet PC and my video camera.

What software does your firm use?

AutoCAD and SketchUp for drawing. Basecamp for scheduling.

Who is your ideal client?

My favorite client is someone who didn’t think they could afford to work with an architect and live in a professionally designed home. They want a higher quality of life and to live in a more sustainable manner, but they aren’t sure how to go about realizing it. They are ready to move beyond the conventional idea that their house is a mass produced product like any other commodity.

What is your favorite building?

The Salk Institute by Louis Kahn.

If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?

Matthew North, my partner at housebrand.