Hitting All the Right Notes

Former musician Curtis Olson, founder of Shift Development, uses his creative energy and technical expertise to build The Two Twenty, an innovative, collaborative work environment in Saskatoon

Curtis Olson has worn many hats, including that of a musician, engineer, finishing carpenter, entrepreneur, and real-estate developer. His combined passions have all come together in green real estate, through the formation of Shift Development, Inc.
Curtis Olson has worn many hats, including that of a musician, engineer, finishing carpenter, entrepreneur, and real-estate developer. His combined passions have all come together in green real estate, through the formation of Shift Development, Inc. PHOTO: René Prefontaine

Curtis Olson is an interesting guy: he’s a former musician with an engineering degree, and this unusual mix of creative energy and technical expertise is what makes his sustainable-development firm, specializing in residential and commercial, so successful. Shift Development Inc., which Olson launched in Saskatoon with his wife, singer/songwriter Carrie Catherine, in February of 2009, has created quite the buzz. So much, in fact, that Olson was one of the eight finalists for the 2012 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award, which grants $100,000 to a young entrepreneur with an innovative project.

Olson’s project, The Two Twenty, has become a hub for young, inventive professionals interested in working in an environment that fosters collaboration, connections, and creativity. Essentially, The Two Twenty is a large office space where start-up entrepreneurs, freelance designers, and consultants can come together to work, share resources, and learn from one another. Located in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Riversdale, The Two Twenty creates a means for people to truly experience the neighbourhood and get to know their neighbours. As it turns out, fostering community is very important to Olson.

“The idea for the project came about organically; it didn’t come from a strategic plan or a marketing campaign,” Olson says. “I always look at projects and see what opportunities there are to build community around it; it’s just my nature.”

By the Numbers

$5 million
Value of all current Shift Development projects under construction

25%
Growth in the dollar value of Shift’s projects in the past year

10
Shift Development projects within a one-mile radius of Olson’s home

46
Number of companies currently calling The Two Twenty home

Building a community office space just made sense. At the time, Olson was working out of his home office, and just one block away his architect was working out of her home office. Close to both of them was Olson’s graphic designer, who was working out of his home, which was designed by Olson’s architect. “We swapped horror stories about working from home and how you’d spend all morning cleaning the kitchen for a meeting rather than prepping for the actual meeting—that’s when we knew it was time for a change,” Olson says.

When planning for The Two Twenty, Olson was in search of a small building, around 2,000 square feet. Instead, what he settled on was a 17,000-square-foot structure that he converted into a sustainable, modern workplace. “When I found the space, I thought, ‘Why look for a smaller building when I can just look for more friends?’” Members can pay anything from $15 a day to $200 per month for an office space and find themselves working next to a street theatre group, a roofing company, musicians, or anything in between.

Along with community, sustainability is at the core of everything Shift Development does. When Olson was in college studying engineering, he realized that what he was learning was really about energy. When he designs, this is where his mind goes first.

Exterior shot of the LEED-certified Shift Home. PHOTO: Jeff Howe
Exterior shot of the LEED-certified Shift Home. PHOTO: Jeff Howe

“The way sustainability comes to life in my projects doesn’t necessarily mean including solar panels; it’s about the neighbourhoods we build in and making the most of existing structures,” he says. “The Two Twenty is in the Riversdale neighbourhood, which is flanked by downtown and a riverbank. You can’t deny the green aspect of repurposing furniture factories from the 1960s. It’s a better use for the land and building, ensuring that an existing structure gets another 50 years of life.”

The Two Twenty isn’t the only Shift Development project bringing creative types together. The Shift Home, the first LEED Canada for Homes–certified house in Saskatchewan, was an online collaboration by an innovative community whose interesting ideas came together to inform the design of the home.

“Transparency isn’t very common with developers, but it was important for us to engage people and let them contribute,” Olson says. “The first design of the house wasn’t great, and when I began sending out the rendering I was amazed by the recommendations I received. Those recommendations made the home everything it is today. Also, we didn’t just find sharp designers in Saskatoon—we found great product manufacturers who were local and willing to unite with us on this project.”