Ahsanul Habib didn’t set out to be some kind of saviour to preserve Thunder Bay’s architectural past.
But something stirred inside him when he saw a community that was too quick to swing the wrecking ball in demolishing its historical and cultural legacy.
The soft-spoken president of Habib Architects and Habib Enterprises said his award-winning artistic style and entrepreneurial mindset has been shaped by circumstances.
“Moving to Thunder Bay set the course for what I’ve become. Preserving buildings was not my thing, but after seeing what was happening, it changed my course.”
When Habib started out with a predecessor company in 1987 with then-partner Jim Peterson, potential clients in Thunder Bay weren’t always ready to listen to his preservation pitch.
School boards opted to tear down what Habib viewed as structurally sound 40- and 50-year-old buildings in favour of new construction. Habib tried to convince them that the replacement building doesn’t always produce the same quality results.
These days, a big beneficiary of his vision is Thunder Bay’s south side business core where he owns four properties, including a theatre that he plans to convert into a performing arts centre.
His efforts to purchase and save a burned-out bank facade from demolition and reconstruct a former hospital and high school into condominiums offer new hope for an area in desperate need of revitalization.
Over the years, his 14-employee firm has won multiple professional awards and set design benchmarks in producing spectacular results that have changed the region’s landscape including the Dryden Regional Cultural and Training Cenre, Lakehead University Health Sciences Centre and the Northwestern Ontario Technology Centre.
Born in Bangladesh and educated in Ankara, Turkey on a John F. Kennedy Scholarship, he came to Toronto in 1976.
After toiling for three different Toronto design firms for a decade, opportunity beckoned when Jim Peterson, a Thunder Bay structural engineer, dusted off an old resume and came calling for a design partner.
As Peterson + Habib Consultants, the fast-moving company held its own against established local firms. When they won a local design-build competition for the former Bell Canada Telecommunications Centre with its eye-catching curved design, he realized there were no limits to what could be accomplished.
Habib was able to demonstrate to clients that added design didn’t translate into extra costs.
With his own firm, Habib incorporates local building materials into his design and uses local wood–shaping and metal–fabricating tradespeople whenever possible.
The creation of Habib Enterprises in 2005 was a diversification effort to develop his own projects.
His centrepiece is the reconstruction of the former McKellar Hospital into a $12-million retirement home and commercial space, an all-consuming project that he attributes to being “either too brave or stupid” to take on. A huge building at 120,000 square feet, it was an empty shell that vandals were slowly taking over.
With bank financing, private investors and his contractor, Aurora Construction, he’s preserved the exterior brick, foundation and floors, and plans to tack on 35,000 square feet of office and practitioner space.
“It’s been a team effort. I put my neck out but all the major trades and investors, who had faith in me, helped make this happen.”
Habib’s niche of breathing new life into older buildings is finding more converts. The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board hired Habib Architects to undertake additions and renovations on 11 schools.
While venturing into the heritage restoration was never in his career plans, Habib said his efforts appear to be resonating with the public.
“I didn’t know that I was noticed. Now when I go to a mall, a school or a meeting, people come up to me and thank me for what I’m trying to do. They care and that’s encouragement for me.”