Cultivating an appetite for architecture: John Donkin Architect

Oct 6 • Architects, OTTAWA • 2295 Views • 23 Comments on Cultivating an appetite for architecture: John Donkin Architect

By Phil Roberts…


Failure precedes success. And sometime the failures are many, making the successes even sweeter. After realizing that he wasn’t going to be a carpenter, and finding no passion in building decks and sheds, Ottawa-based architect John Donkin discovered that architecture got the best out of him.


“One has to remember what ones expertise is,” says John. His construction experience gives him an appreciation and an understanding for how a wood frame building works. The crisply detailed Wakefield House in Ottawa, with its exposed laminated beams and cantilevered ceiling joists, is one of his projects where he feels his hands on experience made the difference.

Unlike some architects who get mocked by tradespersons the second they step off a construction site, John feels respected. He’s been in their place. “I’m able to develop a relationship with the trades by listening to their ideas.”


Realizing that even laypeople have design ideas is what has made him very popular with his clients. Through his design counselling service, he gives homeowners 2 to 3 hours of expertise for their renovation projects. Think of it as a more personable, intensive seminar than watching HGTV all day.


“ A guy in San Francisco did it, so I gave it a try,” recalls John. With this service he targets two types of clients: those who need referrals of competent contractors and those who need a small design, but not full scale architectural services. 


“There’s a certain commonality of problems that people have with their homes,” explains John. “The kitchen always doesn’t work. The connection to the backyard always doesn’t work. There’s always never enough space at the front door for the family to put their 20 pairs of shoes and boots.”

Unlike sales calls where people call his office to gauge whether they need an architect or not, calls for simple design counselling are for those looking for the maximum input they can get without a lengthy contractual commitment.


It’s a friendly gesture from a professional to a homeowner with an idea. “They WAVE their arms and imagine things, so I come over to WAVE my arms and imagine with them. Sometimes it leads to a job.”


John believes that despite the media geared towards home building and renovation making clients more aware of what is possible, it does not make them more sophisticated. Every client is still different. Some may want a specific type of house. Others, may desire a unique house. Some may want refined designs for even the most utilitarian details and are willing to spend hours with an architect just to get it right. For John, these differences give life and personality to every design.

“Clients are surprised by what they can get from using an architect,” describes John. At the end of projects he is often told ‘we had no idea what we could have.’


When asked what two pieces of advice he would give to young architects, John speaks passionately about his profession. “My first piece of advice would be…DON’T DO IT . . . UNLESS YOU JUST HAVE TO MAKE BUILDINGS. don’t do it, there’s no point, but the only reason to bother is if you must.”


“The second bit of advice would be for recent graduates to find the architect that you most want to work with in the whole world and work under that person,” exhorts John. “Who you work for and where you work is more critical to your success in architecture than most other professions.”

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