FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Bill Chomik
March 4, 2017
Musician – plays, still. Composer – his daughter has taken up dad’s calling. Smart kid, crashed his dad’s new Chrysler into a government helicopter, story teller. Farm kid, drove the dairy truck. Do these equate to globe-trotting celebrated architect, leader, mentor and success? Indeed they did/still do …
Bill Chomik was born in the Viking, AB hospital – began childhood on the farm at Innisfree. Dad failed at farming – he wasn’t a bad farmer but got hailed out six years in a row, so he set up a dairy operation in Two Hills, and the family moved. Mom was homemaker and mother of four – Bill is the eldest. He excelled in school academically, top student every year, was socially active, curled, played piano ...
An adventure one evening at 15 – without permission, taking dad’s new 1969 Chrysler Windsor and some buddies to see a helicopter that had landed near town – provided a painful lesson. In leaving, in reverse by mistake, he crashed the car into the chopper. “Total terror!”
Bill tells me he has written a short story on that subject. During grades nine through 12, Dad made him work off the $4,000 damages by driving the dairy truck, farm work, babysitting – anything he could make 50 cents an hour at … until the debt was paid. Imagine his surprise when the $4,000 was provided back to him – ‘here’s the money you earned – use it for university’, because otherwise university wasn’t an affordable option.
At University of Alberta he studied music, got elected President of the Student’s Union, earned his B.A. in Music - then studied Architecture at University of British Columbia and sustained himself playing in rock bands – though looking at him today it’s hard to see ‘the rocker’ in him …
What caused that change of direction? “My uncle Peter often came to visit – he’d sent me pictures of pavilions and Habitat at Expo67. I’d never been anywhere or seen buildings like that – and I wanted to get involved in building things like that. He advised me to go to architecture school, so I did.” In three years he obtained his B.Arch. (Hons), won some awards and medals, travelled to Japan, became fascinated by ‘simple, elegant, functional’ concepts he saw. He attracted the interest and attention of star-chitect Arthur Erickson, not just for winning the Arthur Erickson Award, an association which helped his career later on.
Along the way Bill accumulated a family. His gal Diane, from U of A days – is still with him after 44 years. She’s a teacher who has done yeoman service (and put up with Bill!) supporting them during those early struggling days in his career. They have three children and two grandchildren.
After graduation, getting married – Bill had no job and poor prospects in Vancouver, so Chomiks elected to move to Calgary, being a comfortable distance from family in Edmonton in hopes of better prospects for Bill. His career path working for others and establishing his own shop is a long list of familiar names of current and past firms in Calgary – (I’ve left out a few steps, twists and turns in the interest of brevity) starting with Stevenson, Graham et al (now GEC), trying Vancouver again, back to Calgary, Bill Chomik Architect, working for BMO in-house. Then Arthur Erickson called with work on the Red Deer Performing Arts Centre, he worked on many projects; then, in 1987 re-established Bill Chomik Architects – BMO work, designing homes, City of Calgary projects, then Chomik Crittenden, continued growth, had a falling out – Chomik Architecture Group is formed, 15 people and things were going great. Then Don Kasian came calling – looking to expand the Kasian firm across the country. From 2000 to present Bill has been the Calgary leader of the firm. His current label is ‘Senior Principal, VP Infrastructure’. The Calgary Court House complex, Alberta Children’s Hospital - and designing a host of planetaria (24 at last count – most of which have been built) around the world round out an ample resume. He describes his role as, “I do the basic design, bring in the work and/or hold the client’s hand while we get it built”.
Along the way he’s sat on many boards, been the President of the Canadian Architectural Association and currently is a member of the Senate at the University of Calgary.
Why are you successful? “Because, since I was a kid, I learned to be a people person. I sold milk to people who didn’t drink milk – we needed the money. I learned so much from my early experiences.”
What has held you back? “I am not a big risk taker. In trying for so much of my early career, to be a generalist – learning later the merits of going down a single path of specialization could have been wiser.”
I first met Bill Chomik in 2000 – shortly after I returned to Calgary, exploring options and team building for the Calgary Court house project (one his firm ended up designing) – and our paths crossed again recently as part of a group of middle-aged overweight guys trying to lose some weight (a.k.a. Fifty Flames Fans) who George Brookman and Ken King have organized. Bill and I are ‘struggling’ at our monthly weigh-ins, as are most of the group – but we are having lots of fun for a good cause.
How do you see your business – an architectural practice – going forward over the next quarter?
… it’s outstanding. We are hiring – we are very busy. We are working literally, around the world. And, we collaborate and share work with our own offices across the country.
And over the next five years?
… most large and growing firms are moving more into specializations rather than being generalists. The generalist firm is fading. I see architects taking on a larger role in city-making, to create more habitable environments.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… highest and best value – after analyzing thoroughly. Values-based decisions, both personally and professionally.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Bill Chomik, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… They tell me – you seem to have a better handle of the ‘whole picture’, and I try to create a ‘whole relationship’.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… inclusive, caring, firm. I mentor a lot.
… YES! … now I do.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… about politicians mostly – making terrible decisions that will ruin our lives and the future of my grandchildren. About my health - high blood pressure, osteo-arthritis in my knees.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my parents. My uncle Peter – if it wasn’t for his encouragement I wouldn’t be an architect. My grade 12 literature teacher, Mrs. Lytwyn, who taught me the joy of reading. My composition teacher at U of A, Violet Archer – she had a gift, an ability to get me to open up creatively. And Arthur Erickson who showed me how architecture can make such a difference in people’s lives.
… golf (hdcp 22), cook, read. Taking my grandchildren to Mexico soon, to an all-inclusive resort, so there goes the diet!
What do you read?
… fiction almost exclusively. I love the Flavia de Luce series of mysteries by Alan Bradley.
… 2013 Hyundai Sonata. I’ve driven all the designer brands – for me it’s about engineering and value!
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