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Thompson Rivers University building gets boost

A 45,000-square-foot addition transforms a 40-year-old facility into a campus landmark
Thursday, January 22, 2015
By Michelle Ervin

In its original concrete construction, completed in 1970, Thompson Rivers University’s Old Main Building reflected the design philosophy of its era. As Michael Leckman, a principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects, explains, the architecture of academic facilities at the time focused on functionality in its most limited definition, which ultimately suppressed expression.

Today, Leckman can barely recall what the bunker-style building, characterized by low ceilings and narrowly slit windows, looked like before his firm (in collaboration with Stantec) completed a 45,000-square-foot addition. Not only did the addition deliver two storeys of new space atop the existing structure, but it completely transformed the facility into a landmark befitting Canada’s first new law school in three decades.

“I don’t think anyone can even remember the previous building, because of the new cladding — the new expression — that we used on the exteriors,” he says. “We re-clad the existing bunker to have it be a coordinated whole now with the new roof.”

The variegated cement-board planks used on the existing façade echo the brush-stroke-like waves of the building’s new 400-foot-long roof. The roof, the design’s focal point, was inspired by an A.Y. Jackson painting of Mount Paul and Mount Peter, which serve as the stunning natural backdrop to the site.

More than an art piece, the roof responded to a complex riddle of challenges.

Thompson Rivers University began planning the revitalization of its oldest and largest building in 2010. The building has undergone a variety of interior renovations through the years, says Les Tabata, director of facilities at the university. The most significant one occurred in the 1990s, when the school’s trades shops were relocated to a trades and technology building.

The school’s need to increase its capacity while containing sprawl was a key driver of the latest project, says Tabata. So too were Old Main’s outdated appearance and strategic location at the centre of the 30-building, 250-acre campus.

Old Main was originally constructed in a way intended to allow for its future intensification. However, the addition needed to improve the facility’s seismic reinforcement to meet building code upgrades as well as increase the facility’s structural capacity to accommodate 40,000 square feet of space on a 30,000-square-foot floor plate.

The project brief proposed addressing both requirements by building a series of piers to support a roof spanning over top of a new storey that was slightly broader than the floor plate, recalls Leckman.

“When we looked at that, it occurred to us that it was going to cast deep shadows on the already existing narrow windows,” he says, “so we considered the possibility that, [with] the change in [building] codes between the late 60s and 2011, there might be some additional capacity found in the existing structure.”

The architects confirmed with structural engineer Fast+Epp that it was possible to build on top of the piers, rather than constructing new ones outside, if they were judicious in using light-weight additional construction.

A recent building code change to objective-based solutions paved the way for their eventual use of timber and fire retardant-treated plywood. Diamond and Schmitt turned to LMDG, a fire and life safety specialist, to conduct the required fire simulation test.

“They were able to show that for our building type, with our construction system proposed, our sprinkler density and our ceiling heights, that the critical temperature didn’t actually ever reach the underside of the roof,” says Leckman, “and therefore the roof wouldn’t have combusted.”

The use of prefabricated panels addressed the project’s key challenges of completing the scope of work on a $20-million budget and limiting construction to summer, evenings and weekends so as not to disrupt the university’s regular operations.

The panels were installed over a span of seven weeks during the summer of 2012, and the building remained open for the duration of the project.

When the project got under way, the Old Main Building housed classrooms, departmental offices, the TRU Art Gallery and the Actors’ Workshop Theatre. The addition gave the building a central atrium complete with spiral staircase as well as a law library, offices, double-height teaching spaces and a reading room.

At the project’s outset, Thompson Rivers University had yet to confirm that the interior program would be its new law school. Based on Diamond and Schmitt’s past experience with educational facilities, the firm applied its knowledge that providing a variety of spaces is important to successful student environments, says Leckman.

The addition includes small, intimate spaces, such as the library’s paper collection, and grand spaces such as the lobby and double-height reading room.

“One can imagine that, with those tall spaces, there’s just enough room for all your thoughts,” he says.

The dramatic ceiling and a glass elevator tower on the north side now clearly mark the entrance. The newly canopied north and south entrances are also now linked, connecting previously unconnected sides of the building. And the waves of the roof help to fluidly weave together the east and west wings of the building, which were previously interrupted by the prominent mechanical penthouse.

Though LEED certification was not a priority for the project, says Leckman, Diamond and Schmitt adhered to its usual standards of finding an efficient and effective mechanical system as well as the best glass, glazing system and insulation possible.

Most changes to the building’s existing spaces occurred externally. However, Thompson Rivers University did make some cosmetic upgrades to cohesively integrate old with new.

“We took the opportunity to do some repainting and refurbishing,” says Tabata. “Design elements and signage are now harmonized.”

Students and faculty moved into the Old Main Building addition in January 2014.

Already the project has garnered recognition. The Society for College and University Planning and The American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Architecture bestowed it with the 2014 Honour Award for Excellence in Architecture for Building Additions or Adaptive Reuse.

“It’s really the heart of the campus and now, with the architectural upgrades that it’s had, with the roof and the cladding, it’s quite iconic,” says Tabata, “not only for TRU but for Kamloops.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

Photo by Ed White.