Rick Arndt loves to draw. Even after almost 50 years as a student and practitioner of architecture, having been involved in marquee projects like the Art Gallery of Alberta, he still likes to sit down with paper and pencil and sketch designs.
“Architecture is art,” he says with youthful enthusiasm. “Being able to draw by hand is important because I think as I draw.”
While clients describe what they want their new homes to look like, he’ll sketch floor plans, revising as they talk. In a profession now dominated by computer-aided design, Arndt is a bit of a throwback. “There are lots of days I wish I could design on a computer because you can project a 3D visualization for clients,” he says, “but I still enjoy and believe in my old-school way.”
The design of the home is crucial, and the smallest details are what make it special. Arndt’s homes are low-profile, not raised, to fit better among the surrounding home. Decks are just two steps up, closer to the yards’ ground planes, negating the need for a guard railing and leaving more open space. He articulates the home’s footprint based on the yard and incorporates existing trees, which add character to the finished product. Deep, wide window wells allow more light penetration into the basement and create a more welcoming in-ground environment.
His comprehensive take goes back to his roots, where he learned to blend urban planning, landscape design and architecture. “We create amazing foregrounds with landscape design to enhance the architecture through careful selection of plant materials and lighting,” he says.
Arndt is 64, short and energetic with a machine-gun laugh. He’s retired from the large architectural firm he founded, but he’s not gone quietly. He continues to design and build new homes with two of his kids, works on volunteer projects and advocates for good design. “It doesn’t cost any more money, so why can’t we do good design?”
Arndt was born and raised in Edmonton. His parents, he says, were “blue collar.” Encouraged by a teacher at Harry Ainlay High School, he found his passion for drafting and architecture and began sketching.
In 1973, soon after graduating from Ainlay, Arndt walked into the offices of Edmonton’s pre-eminent architect, Gene Dub, who had just won the competition to design the Legislature grounds. Dub hired him on the spot, and Arndt worked for Dub every summer while completing his university education. First, he studied industrial design, landscape design and urban planning at the University of Alberta. “They all relate to one another,” he says of his diverse studies. “They all need to be operating in concert.” He continued his education at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of architecture for one year until a professor suggested he get more design experience and helped him get into UCLA, where he studied under architectural greats like Charles Moore, Barton Myers and Frank Gehry. “They were teaching us ways of thinking about sculpture and art,” Arndt says. “Gehry was just in the infancy of his career, but he’d already built his chain-link home in Santa Monica.” You can see Gehry’s influence in the sinuous curves of the Art Gallery of Alberta, for which Arndt spent eight years as the volunteer project director.
He returned to Edmonton every summer to work with Dub, eventually becoming his partner. The firm won the competition to design a new city hall in 1982, but the economic slowdown delayed its build. When the project came back in the early ’90s, Dub led part of the company to complete it. Once it was complete, Arndt formed his own firm, eventually taking on Joe Tkalcic and Brian Bengert as partners and growing it to 65 employees. He continued to design custom homes, but the partnership grew to include civic design in their work. In one of his many award-winning projects from this period, he designed the Courtyard Block, at the corner of Jasper Avenue and 112th Street. It was the city’s first “inverted commercial retail development,” meaning the retail units were street fronted, with parking in the rear. “That broke the standard commercial development rules that were out there to that point,” he says. “Now everyone does it.”
Arndt retired from Arndt, Tkalcic, Bengert in 2014, and took six months off. After, he continued to lead the development of The Estates at Waters Edge, a 50-acre master-planned community on the north shore of Lac Ste. Anne. He says about 80 per cent of its 133 lots are now developed. He also founded a new company, Urbis Infill Homes, with his son, who manages the company, and was eventually joined by his daughter, also an architect. Urbis’s focus and passion is infill homes, those neighbourhood-densifying projects that, in Edmonton at least, have come with their share of controversy. Arndt remembers the race that started in 2013 when the City first allowed 50-foot lots to be subdivided into two 25s and a pair of “skinny homes” to go up.
Arndt says two things contributed to the backlash: Poor communication and a lack of respect. “If you
communicate with your neighbours, meet with them before you go in the ground … things go much better,” he says.
Arndt says infill has brought life and energy to many central neighbourhoods like Ritchie, Bonnie Doon, Holyrood and Strathearn. It means more people to support businesses, more kids to attend local schools and, in most cases, increased nearby property values.
His passion for residential design continues unabated, as does the pleasure he takes from sitting with a client, pencil in hand. He enjoys the back-and-forth conversation about what the client wants, and he sketches vision into reality. “There’s nothing better than to design something and then, when the clients
move in, they say, ‘Wow, you built our dream home.’”
Five things Rick says the City of Edmonton should do
1. It should not be in the development business. “They have a huge amount of residential land in their portfolio: Blatchford, Rossdale, Northlands. Sell those lands to developers and let them come in and develop it.”
2. Run more competitions for the design of public buildings like fire halls, libraries and schools.
3. Continue to support laneway housing. It increases density, brings income to homeowners and increases safety by getting more “eyes on the laneways, like in Vancouver, where they activate the laneways into a second street.”
4. Support the “missing middle,” low-rise, medium density infill housing such as four-storey walk-ups that an inner city needs to raise density. He acknowledges that this is a tough one for neighbours to accept, because “it really changes the scale of the neighbourhood.”
5. Create better connections to the river valley, including a gondola from Old Strathcona to downtown and the High Line over the High Level Bridge, and provide more outlooks along the river edge pathways. “These are the kinds of things we need to get behind.”