Forced to flee after the Russian invasion, these architects will help rebuild Ukraine from Toronto

Anastasiia Kalinichenko says after getting her Canadian visa and applying for over 200 jobs, she's grateful she ended up at WZMH Architects ⁠— a firm that's working on solutions to help rebuild her home country. (CBC/Kirthana Sasitharan - image credit)
Anastasiia Kalinichenko says after getting her Canadian visa and applying for over 200 jobs, she's grateful she ended up at WZMH Architects ⁠— a firm that's working on solutions to help rebuild her home country. (CBC/Kirthana Sasitharan - image credit)

Anastasiia Kalinichenko, an architect from Ukraine, recalls how surreal it was going into work after the war began.

"I was in the middle of working on a design, and trying to understand what was happening," she recalled, adding her family could hear bombs from where they were living closer to the Russian border.

"We didn't know what to do, we just kept going to work."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24.

At the time, Kalinichenko was working on designing large homes in mountainous areas from her office in Lviv, but soon it wasn't safe there either, and she knew she needed to escape.

She applied for a Canadian visa and sent dozens of resumés across the country, including Toronto-based WZMH Architects, after hearing the firm was hiring Ukrainians. After a conversation with the head of the firm, she was brought on the team.

"I started to work right away ... I was really inspired."

CBC/Kirthana Sasitharan
CBC/Kirthana Sasitharan

Kalinichenko is now one of seven Ukrainians who have been hired at the firm since mid-May. And part of the team that's now also helping to rebuild the country.

For Zenon Radewych, principal at WZMH Architects, the war hit close to home. He says both of his parents are from Ukraine, along with his wife.

"Right after the war started people were contacting me asking are there any opportunities for Ukrainians coming to Canada that have an architectural background to be employed at my firm," he explained.

"Being Ukrainian and wanting to support Ukraine and the war effort I said yes, and it was kind of a first come first serve basis."

WZMH's unique solution 

Shortly after that, Radewych and his team realized some of the work they were doing in North America was also applicable to facilitating reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.

Dubbed Speedstac, WZMH's solution, according to its website, is a prefab system consisting of precast concrete modules that can be assembled in stacks or in rows and inserted into apartment buildings to replace existing units.

Speedstac was initially created to help solve North America's housing crisis amid a labour shortage. But the technology could also replace portions of mid-rise and high-rise buildings damaged by fire and missile strikes without needing to demolish the buildings altogether.

Radewych says the firm has also offered employment to people back in Ukraine to help with Speedstac. But he's adamant that the help goes both ways.

"We're helping each other. Yes, we're giving them jobs, but they're helping us because there's a labour shortage and a shortage of architectural staff in the province, so they're actually filling a void of staff we need. It's mutual, it's benefiting both of us," he said.

Radewych adds that the Ukrainian architects on the team are also excellent visual artists and have an understanding of local standards in the country, which makes working with the country that much smoother.

"The bulk of reconstruction will start to happen when the war is over. So, right now what's happening is we're getting ready for that," he said.

"We're spending a lot of time and doing research so that when things start there's a solution in place that they can start implementing right away."

Helping from home

Yuliia Fedorenko, one of the Ukrainian architects at the firm was working on government projects including parks and housing back home. When the war started, she said she hid in bathrooms and bomb shelters before coming to Canada.

She knew she wanted to help her country, and would only be able to do that from somewhere safe.

CBC/Kirthana Sasitharan
CBC/Kirthana Sasitharan

Fedorenko was part of the discussion when the team realized they could offer their solution to the war-torn country.

"It's been very inspiring. And it also gives architects there the chance to think about something really important: rebuilding," she said.

"I believe after the war, Ukraine will quickly rebuild."

It's that promise of a brighter future that keeps Radewych motivated, too.

"It's all about hope to me," he said.

"We're giving them hope, and they're giving us hope."