Students of Canada’s newest architecture school won’t have to venture far to see lessons from the classroom come to life. The latest addition to Laurentian University’s real estate portfolio highlights, rather than hides, the way it was constructed.
“The whole idea behind the facility was to make the entire building structure part of the pedagogy of the school, so we’ve exposed the structure to all the buildings, both old and new, so the students can see how buildings go together,” said Brad Parkes, associate vice president of facilities.
Laurentian University’s McEwen School of Architecture brings together facilities constructed from masonry, timber, concrete and steel, and engineered wood on a satellite campus spanning 72,849 square feet. Completed on a budget of $42.6 million, the project delivered classrooms and faculty offices through the adaptive reuse of two historic buildings in its first phase and an auditorium, design studios, a lecture space and library through the addition of a new building in its second phase.
Northern Ontario context
The new architecture school — Canada’s first in decades — is differentiated from the country’s 11 existing architecture schools by its curriculum, which is rooted in its northern Ontario context. This mandate is exemplified by its facilities, which also bring lessons to life by reflecting local history, resources, climate and cultures.
McEwen School is located in downtown Sudbury, roughly seven kilometres off of Laurentian University’s main campus. Parkes said selecting this site was a deliberate decision made with the post-secondary institution’s municipal, provincial and federal project partners. The goal, he said, was to breathe new life into the city core with the energy of the up to 400 students that the facilities can accommodate.
The triangular property is also where the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Trans-Canada Highway once met, giving it both local and national importance. Not only did these transportation routes connect the country from coast to coast, but the local construction of the CPR unearthed the resource wealth that would precipitate Sudbury’s meteoric rise in the global mining industry.
Reminders of this storied past were preserved through the adaptive reuse of the site’s two existing buildings, a masonry building that originally served as a CPR telegraph and ticketing office and a timber rail shed that was used to transfer goods from CPR boxcars to trucks and wagons. With the addition of concrete flooring and heating and cooling, the rail shed became workshops, while the upper floor of the former telegraph and ticketing office was transformed into faculty offices and meeting space.
Contemporary technologies introduced
“The new building that we introduced was a combination of CLT and steel, and part of that was to demonstrate two more contemporary technologies doing what they do best,” said Janna Levitt, founding partner of LGA Architectural Partners, “so the spans and the thinness of the steel versus the thickness and the span of the CLT building — materials that you can leave exposed and structural materials that you have to enclose because of thermal bridging.”
The addition of the L-shaped, two-wing building offers students a study in contrasts between these two modern construction methods, as well as between 19th-century-style timber construction and 21st-century CLT construction. Levitt said CLT was a natural choice considering the importance of timber and wood resources to northern Ontario, although there was little precedent for its institutional application in Canada at the time, much less on this scale.
“Everybody thinks an institutional building is supposed to be no wood, but because of the style of wood — heavy timber — it’s okay under code,” said Parkes.
He explained that at the time the new architecture school was in design, the Ontario Building Code limited the heavy timber construction of assembly buildings to two storeys, adding that this height restriction has since been lifted, paving the way for taller heavy timber assembly buildings.
George Brown College, for example, expects to break ground in 2021 on a 12-storey mass timber building at its waterfront campus. The University of Toronto, meanwhile, expects to break ground as early as late 2019 on a 14-storey building that will combine CLT and concrete at its downtown campus.
McEwen School is also intended to be instructive for students in terms of how to achieve sustainable design in the north. In this geographic context, it’s not as simple as following a template provided by established standards for producing green buildings, such as LEED. As an example, Levitt pointed to the way the new building lowers the demand placed upon its mechanical systems by taking advantage of solar heat gain — a phenomenon that would need to be tempered on a traditional LEED project.
“We had to make sure that the building could operate for two or three days without any heat if some of the HVAC machinery broke down, because that’s how long it takes to get something from Toronto shipped up,” she explained.
In addition to taking advantage of heat gain during the cold but sunny winter months, the new building buffers the property from harsh northerly winds with strategic siting. During the hot summer, operable windows make it possible to take advantage of the breeze that is typical in the area at that time of year.
“I’m a firm believer in free cooling, and the more we can use it, the better,” said Parkes. “If I don’t have to turn on a fan or an air-conditioning unit, great.”
When air-conditioning is needed, the buildings run on energy-efficient HVAC equipment selected for its durability and adaptability. Parkes said he eschewed systems with 12 to 15-year lifespans in favour of systems with lifespans of 25 years or longer, citing the perennial “battle for deferred maintenance.” At the same time, said Levitt, it was important to be able to upgrade equipment as technology improved. The labelled “plug-and-play” components that were used will make it easy for the facilities department to replace parts and for students to see how the systems work.
Broader community welcomed
McEwen School of Architecture’s facilities have been up and running as intended since the fall of 2016, when their doors were opened not just to students, faculty and staff, but to Sudbury at large.
Externally, the new building gave back to the broader community by including in its programming much-needed public venues — namely, an auditorium and a theatre. Internally, the adaptive reuse of the telegraph and ticketing office considered the unique needs of the community by allocating offices to Indigenous elders. This was among several culturally sensitive provisions aimed at being inclusive of the tri-cultural community, which also has large French and English populations.
As is the case with most projects, the work isn’t entirely over. A ceremonial fire pit is still to come in the interior courtyard, as is a “storefront” slated for the ground floor of the former telegraph and ticketing office, where the broader community will be invited to bring its architecture questions, providing a place to share lessons beyond the classroom.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.