The building almost appears as though it has risen from the earth.
Native planting winds its way along a walkable curved pathway from ground level to a green roof atop its second storey. Locally sourced granite lines the slope, contained in Gabion wire baskets, and features prominently on the face of the building’s lower floors.
In this way, the University College of the North’s (UCN) new Thompson, Manitoba campus doesn’t rely on overt symbols to express aboriginal values, says project architect Doug Corbett. Rather, it embodies them.
“This is a totally indigenous aboriginal building because it’s designed with the true philosophies that the aboriginal people used years ago where they were building with materials at hand,” Corbett says.
The $61-million, 87,780-square-foot building, completed in May 2014, is tailored to UCN’s unique student population. Specifically, UCN’s mandate is to increase access to post-secondary education in northern Manitoba. That means reflecting the aboriginal culture and regional realities.
As Corbett shares, he initially wondered why students couldn’t simply enroll in an urban school of the south, such as Brandon University or University of Winnipeg. Back in 2004, working for his own firm at the time, Corbett was hired by the Government of Manitoba to do a master plan for the proposed school. Also at that time, his son was leaving home to attend university in Montreal.
What Corbett would learn was that aboriginal communities have tight-knit family units, in which everyone, including aunts and uncles and grandparents, helps to raise children. The students who would be attending the school were, on average, age 27, many of them single parents. They couldn’t just uproot from their communities and leave their support systems behind.
The architect recalls aboriginal elders, who sit on a tri-council with UCN’s academic and administrative arms, telling him: “Unless the extended family is there, nobody is going to even think about going to university.”
So Corbett identified Thompson, known as Manitoba’s hub of the north, as the locale for a new campus in the master plan, which also importantly provided for student housing. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Government of Manitoba issued a request for proposals for the project. Smith Carter (now Architecture 49), the firm Corbett left his own to join, won the contract.
The City of Thompson was simultaneously investigating adding a gym, library and daycare to its local community centre. Situated on the same site as UCN’s proposed new campus, the Thompson Regional Community Centre (TRCC) already housed a curling and hockey rink complex.
In a money-saving move, Corbett proposed combining the two buildings and having their users share the amenities. And so it was that the city added the gym to the community centre and the province included the library and daycare as well as food services in its plans for UCN’s new facilities.
During the integrated design process that followed, some of Corbett’s greatest inspiration came from aboriginal elders.
He recalls: “One of them said, ‘Listen to the wind; look at the sun; make sure that this building has a really strong connection to the earth.’ ”
Along that vein, the natural materials found on the building’s exterior continue on the interior.
“We had a design concept called raw,” says Corbett. “We didn’t want to make it look like a lawyer’s office; we didn’t want to make it look like any kind of campus down south or in a major city. We wanted to build it truly vernacular to northern Manitoba.”
The raw concept is exemplified in the generous use of cedar, exposed concrete and steel, and granite. All told, the UCN project incorporated 2,672 tonnes of granite.
An aboriginal artist from Cranberry Portage hand-carved the cedar panels of the building entry’s vestibule wing walls to depict a story of transition that would echo the student experience. The main entrance leads into a four-storey atrium, which serves as the central node on an internal street connecting to the community centre on the left and to the school on the right.
The building organizes the 73-child daycare, administrative and food services, the Library/Learning Commons, and an Aboriginal Centre of the first floor. Small, medium and large classrooms and science labs are on the second floor. Faculty offices are on the third and fourth floors.
The classrooms and a 60-seat sloped-floor lecture theatre are outfitted with state-of-the-art audio/visual technology so instructors can deliver distance education to UCN’s 12 regional centres.
Unique among the building’s spaces is a dedicated Aboriginal Centre used for a variety of elder-led activities including drum building, moccasin making, smudging ceremonies, and storytelling. The cedar-clad room is furnished with curved lounge seating arranged in a circle and surrounded by real Aspen trees.
The LEED Gold-targeting building is expected to score well on indoor environmental quality for its natural daylighting and low-volatile organic compound (VOC)-emitting materials. What’s more, the high-performance building envelope is expected to earn the project high energy points.
“In northern Manitoba, how you stay warm is you wear your big down coat,” says Corbett. “For the building, we said: ‘We’re going to do the same thing.’”
The building’s “down coat” took the form of well-insulated walls with few windows on the north, east and west sides and a high-performance curtain wall made from triple-glazed, spectrally correct glass on the south side.
For the end user, the new facilities are a “game-changer,” says Chris Reddy, VP of strategic services and development, UCN. They replace renovated three-storey wooden buildings originally constructed in the 1950s as dormitories for Inco nickel mine workers.
“Our old building didn’t really allow any connection,” says Reddy. “Here, having such an open concept, no matter where you are in the building, you can tell that people are here, you can see students.”
Apart from facilitating a sense of community, he says, the new UCN campus has delivered much-needed study areas and research facilities, on-site daycare and family-sized housing units, and more.
“By being directly attached to TRCC, we are able to share their facilities, which gives us a hockey rink, wellness centre, extra meeting rooms and a curling club,” says Reddy, “so it’s allowed our students access to a lot of things we didn’t have before.”
UCN offers a mix of degree, diploma, certificate and apprenticeship programs, with the Thompson campus being a major delivery centre for nursing, business and trades training. Currently, the Thompson campus hosts around 600 students and 100 faculty members, instructors and support staff, with room for future growth.
In celebrating its grand opening, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said:
“By giving people access to high-quality training and post-secondary education, this new state-of-the-art campus means more opportunities for our young people to build their life right here in the north.”