Joe Somfay



Published, EAC Communiqué, December 1989


illagers of Elora are delighted that the design of their proposed Town Hall has received an Award of Excellence from The Canadian Architect magazine. Plans will be featured in the December issue. It is fitting that this important civic building should be the conception of Architect Joe Somfay, whose style has strongly influenced the Elora-Salem area since 1969. 

This was the year Joe and Fred Thompson opened a partnership in Architecture, with offices above the present Desert Rose Cafe. Together they carried out much of the renovation of Mill St. Fred Thompson had influences from his studies in Sweden and Japan that were similar to Joe’s. “We respected the vernacular, but we didn’t want to recreate the past, and couldn’t. We both valued simplicity, so we stripped the buildings back to basics,” Joe explains. The local renovation style of “White and Wood” unglazed red quarry tiles, exposed interior walls of stone and brick date from those days, remembered as exceptionally creative and almost mythological by those who shared them. 

Joe Somfay grew up simply, on his grandparents’ subsistence farm in Hungary, without electricity or running water. For toys he packed mud in match boxes and cooked the small dried rectangles into miniature building bricks. From his family he inherited a bent for hands-on work which led naturally to construction architecture. Recently he built his own glider, for off work hours when he loves to fly. 

In 1956, Joe left Hungary during the uprising, and joined his father in Australia. He finished secondary school and Architectural training in Sydney, and is still an Australian citizen. After graduation, he set out to see the great cities of the world. A year passed, and he was still looking up at New York skyscrapers.  Everywhere he went he inquired at graduate schools. Visiting the University of Toronto in his travels, he found a remarkable master course in Urban Planning offered to nine students to be chosen from around the world. Joe applied, and was accepted.

“It was a very intense and exciting year,” Joe says. In the summer he worked for course Professor Jack Diamond and Barton Myers on the trend setting renovation project of York Square. During the academic year he paid his way by teaching first and fifth year classes of Architecture. He shared the urban planning course with Fred Thompson. They became close friends. 

In 1969, with Masters degrees, Joe and Fred joined the teaching staff of the School of Architecture, University of Waterloo. 

Joe started his own architectural firm in 1971. In ‘73 it was a time of oil shortages, and the name of “Somfay” became associated with simple solar design technology, for which he won HUDAC and Ontario Hydro awards. “I noticed the warmth of rocks in the gorge after the sun went down,
I remembered warm tidal pools in Australia, and hot rain running off my roof in summer. I noticed Canada had its clearest sunshine in winter, when the angle of the sun was low.” These realizations he combined with his knowledge of tropical architecture to design innovative solar heated homes, a number of which can be seen in the Elora-Fergus area. 

These days Joe Somfay has a booming architectural firm in Waterloo, with co-op students in training and innovative designers like Lawrence Kortweg, Michael Hannay and Stephen Petri, who assisted Joe in planning the Elora Town Hall.

Joe and his wife Debbie are awaiting the arrival of their second child. They are still part of our communities, living at the edge of Fergus, in West Garafraxa. their home is a collection of log buildings tucked away in the cedar trees, twenty feet from the Grand River. Thank you Joe, for giving Elora a town hall we can be proud of!

by Beverley Cairns, December 1989

I noticed the warmth of rocks in the gorge after the sun went down.

UPDATE – 1997

The Town hall design which won Joe Somfay the Canadian Architect’s Design of Excellence award in the winter of 1988 unfortunately never materialized as a focal point of downtown Elora, with the advent of the new Village Council. However Joe’s commitment to architecture of quality and innovative design is attested to by the extent and variety of buildings designed and built since the above Profile was written. The Health and Social Services Office Building, Waterloo, the Academic Sciences Building, Wilfred Laurier University (in association with Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners), and the Wet-dry Recycling Plant for Guelph are among the roughly 50 projects in building and renovation undertaken by Joe Somfay Architects Inc. over the last ten years.

Recently Joe Somfay moved from Fergus back to Salem with his wife Debbie and children Jesse and Erik.

UPDATE – 2005

Joe Somfay has continued with his active architectural practice. Recent projects include the Centre for Environmental and Information Technology for the University of Waterloo, jointly produced by Shore Tilbe Irwin & Partners, Stephen Teeple and his office,  all of whom share a Canadian Architect Award. Joe is currently working on a variety of projects for both Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo, apartment buildings for developers, office buildings for various clients as well as the occasional residential project when, he says, his creativity will be challenged.

He regrets that the more he pursues the business of Architecture the less he gets to roll up his sleeves to sketch, draw and design. Other artistic activities have fallen by the wayside and are replaced by not enough flying of gliders and single engine aircraft and the ever-present home renovations. Joe continues to live in Salem, and work from his office Joe Somfay Architect Inc.
in Waterloo.