Future List 2022: Rheal Labelle brings a collective approach to urban design
People & Places

Future List 2022: Rheal Labelle brings a collective approach to urban design

When architect Rheal Labelle was growing up in Timmins, rainy summer days meant one thing: Lego. “My brother and I had buckets of them. Whatever my brother would do, I’d try to one-up him — like, ‘How can I make that better?’” 

Making better buildings, and enhancing communities in the process, is still a driving motivation for Labelle. The 43-year-old director at Hobin Architecture, which he joined in 2008, has worked on everything from acclaimed single-family infill homes to condos and large urban redevelopments, including Greystone Village in Old Ottawa East. 

Among his projects: the Queen Elizabeth Residences, a multi-award-winning 18-unit condo by Roca Homes facing the Rideau Canal. Labelle was the lead architect on the project, which we can see easily as we chat on a bench on the Flora Footbridge connecting the Glebe and Old Ottawa East. 

Completed in 2020, the three-storey building exerts a presence in the traditional neighbourhood without overstepping its bounds. The canal-facing façade is a mix of limestone (a tribute to the stone walls of the canal), copper, and other gracious natural materials. The building’s stepped-back edge echoes both the curve of The Driveway and sidewalk as well as the setbacks of the six older, single-family homes it replaced. The building’s terraces and articulated massing recall the varied appearances of the homes and their porches. Trees, a hallmark of the Glebe, stand between it and the road.

The sides of the building facing Fourth and Fifth avenues reference the individuality of each street. On the Fourth Avenue side, for example, the varied materials include red brick like that of nearby homes, while a setback at the roof level acknowledges a trio of dormer windows on a home a couple of doors up. As Labelle points to a section of horizontal wood siding at the roof level, he explains it both honours the modest wooden additions built on the backs of the original homes while helping soften the scale of the condo’s side by introducing a contrasting material. In short, the building belongs in its setting.

“I like to integrate instead of inserting something into a neighbourhood,” says Labelle. “It’s building an infill that responds to the mandate to increase density but doing it in a thoughtful, meaningful way that represents what once stood there.” The approach, he says, is one of “blurring the line” between past, present, and future, and between a building and its surrounding landscape.

Labelle, who is now married with a young son, landed in Ottawa after completing a college diploma and working summers in architectural technology in northern Ontario. He came here to study architecture at Carleton University because he found his job wasn’t very creative. “I really wanted to be on the imaginative side.”

Left: Portrait by Christian Lalonde. Right: Labelle with members of the Hobin Architecture team at the city’s 2017 Urban Design awards

After completing his bachelor’s degree while supporting himself as an architectural technologist, Labelle joined the Hobin team and later returned to Carleton for a master’s degree in architecture. Ottawa is lucky Labelle made the leap to the imaginative, according to Roca Homes president Roberto Campagna, who also worked with Labelle on an award-winning custom home in Rockcliffe, which Campagna singles out for the “cascading effect” of the exterior and the unique way in which stone, copper, and wood intersect. 

“The great city we live in definitely merits great creative minds,” says Campagna. “The fewer we have, the more our city is going to be impacted with stale and bland design. We need more creativity and vision when it comes to new architecture and development. Guys like Rheal can help us achieve that.”

For Labelle, imagination and creativity don’t exist in isolation. He likes to think of a proposed project in terms of its benefit to a community rather than its impact; a development plan can be an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the community and encourage responses. He says architecture is the result of a process that sees an idea become a physical reality, with public, city, and other engagement helping shape the result. 

“A collective is much more powerful and effective than the individual thought,” he says. “The collective allows it to transform and become richer because it’s an opportunity for others to interpret it and offer insightful, creative spin-offs.”

Labelle’s openness to engagement seems to come naturally, influencing even his conversational style. While he has clear ideas about design and has taken the trouble to make notes on his cellphone about what he wants to say when we meet, he’s also content to go where the conversation leads. In many ways, he and his buildings are equally comfortable to be with.

Labelle’s fondness for exchanging ideas — he stresses the team approach to projects at Hobin Architecture — is expressed in the way his buildings interact architecturally with their surroundings. It’s as though the buildings are influencing, and being influenced by, the people and the environment around them.

“Our buildings have to activate and animate,” he says. “If it’s a private residence, it should have a porch that activates the street. These small, fine-grained elements help to activate.”

That principle applies not to just single-family residences but to multi-unit buildings as well. Interaction occurs when people step out on their terrace to view their surroundings, or a passerby realizes they know someone who lives in the building. “How that interaction happens is in our hands,” he says. 

Activation helps define the work Labelle and Hobin Architecture have done on affordable homes for Ottawa Community Housing (OCH). The first phase of Rochester Heights, a multi-stage redevelopment project of apartment towers, townhomes, and commercial space in West Centretown, is already occupied, says Robert MacNeil, a director at OCH. Labelle has been the lead designer on the five-phase project since the conceptual stage.

Among other pluses, MacNeil says the first phase has “generous outdoor areas for gathering and public space, so it measures in well within the surrounding community and lends itself to families, as well as seniors, couples, singles, and mobility-challenged individuals.”

The first phase is a Passive House project, which means it is highly energy efficient, and was an award winner at the recent 2022 Greater Ottawa Housing Design Awards.

Labelle is also involved in the conceptual planning of Gladstone Village, an OCH project slated for the area west of Preston Street near Gladstone Avenue.

MacNeil says Labelle is a “passionate, inspired individual,” one who understands how a development needs to fit into existing surroundings. “He’s an emerging future leader in terms of Hobin’s office, and the industry, for what the next era of new builds is going to be bringing out in the city. He’s the new generation of architects.”

Labelle says since he arrived from Timmins with suitcase and dreams in hand, the way developments interact with the public realm in Ottawa has evolved. He points to Lansdowne Park, which Hobin had a major role in redeveloping. “It was a parking lot in the middle of the city. Look at the amount of life that is there today.” Ottawa’s new library planned for LeBreton Flats promises to be a bright, open hub; it is further evidence of the city’s growing focus on the future and increasing appreciation of design.

At the same time, he’s baffled by Ottawa’s continued blindness to its potential waterfronts. “When you compare it to Copenhagen and Montreal, why are we so conservative with our waterfront developments? Why are we afraid? I feel there’s a great opportunity in the future to engage with new generations of thought to rethink our approach to waterfronts and how we activate them.”

He also urges the city to allow more use of rooftops, including on waterfront properties, as outdoor living spaces that activate skylines rather than just housing a large building’s mechanical systems. “Rooftop activation is very important for cities and communities.”

Does Labelle think about how his work is influencing Ottawa and its future? “I don’t know if I’m conscious of it daily. Subconsciously, I think in any profession what you set out to do at the start of the day is to benefit everyone. That’s what drives a lot of people to succeed.”