Donald Schmitt, principal with Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects, has received hundreds of honours during his 40-plus-year career but when he got word just before Canada Day he was being appointed a member of the Order of Canada, it was still a big thrill.
And so out came the champagne, shared with members of the team in his Toronto office.
“It is an exciting way to celebrate Canada Day,” said Schmitt recently. “As one of two architects this year it is a great honour and I am pretty humbled by the recognition.”
There was no advance notice, he said, it’s just a phone call from Rideau Hall, so the news caught him by surprise.
“I’ve had so many wonderful emails from colleagues in the profession and outside the profession, which has been very rewarding and humbling,” Schmitt said.
The citation from Governor General Julie Payette recognized his “rehabilitation of iconic heritage buildings and…his sustainable architectural designs.”
Recently acclaimed heritage projects have included the National Arts Centre and the Senate of Canada Building in Ottawa, and the firm has even done an upgrade of a building it originally designed a generation back — the Toronto Central YMCA (1984), renovated in 2011-12.
The project won the Prix du XXe siecle in 2018.
The Senate building, originally the Union Train Station, recently opened as the temporary home for the Senate of Canada. It too has been honoured, with a 2019 North American Copper in Architecture award.
In total, Schmitt and his firm have won more than 300 design awards, including six Governor General’s Awards.
Mastering sustainability has been a newer tool for Diamond Schmitt, he said.
“In fairness, I would have to think I learned that later in my career,” said Schmitt.
The longer in the tooth I get, the more I am enjoying it,
— Donald Schmitt
Diamond Schmitt Architects
“It has really been in the context of the practice in the past 15 years that we have become more conscious, more educated and more aware of what’s possible.
“We are now doing new carbon-zero buildings, net-zero-energy buildings, both on the institutional side and the commercial side. Ten years ago I didn’t think that was possible, I didn’t know how to do it, and I think we now understand much, much better how that works.”
Recent projects with significant sustainability elements have been the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning at Sickkids in Toronto and Lazaridis Hall at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.
Schmitt said his firm has prospered through collaboration and has always sought the best engineers and consultants in the business to work with — “Architecture is a team sport,” he noted. And today he enjoys the process more than ever.
“It is interesting, the longer in the tooth I get, the more I am enjoying it,” he said.
“You develop a greater and greater sense of being able to contribute. Architecture is pretty complex and the experience pays off in terms of knowing where to push, where to pull back, where to balance the competitive objectives.”
Schmitt was born in South Porcupine, in northern Ontario, in 1951 and studied at the University of Toronto School of Architecture. He has practised with Jack Diamond since 1978.
Most of the staff at Diamond Schmitt are much younger than him now but that only energizes him, he said, as he takes on new projects, such as the new Ottawa Public Library and a major new sustainability systems project for McGill University in Montreal.
“Inside the office, it is a very young group by and large, I am an old dinosaur, and they are so bright, and the people that work in the office are so energetic, they are so committed, and they’ve got a skill set in terms of drawing and rendering and representing, it pushes people like me in a very good way,” Schmitt said.
“They bring fresh ideas and approaches and I bring some experience and judgment from many years of practice and that is a strong and balanced combination.”
The other architect named as a member of the Order of Canada is Raymond Cole, University of British Columbia professor, also cited for excellence in sustainable architecture.