A Warm Respite: Northern Lights College – Trades Training Centre, 
Dawson Creek, British Columbia

Alluding to the aurora borealis, a large clerestory is animated by dyamically changing LED lights at night. The illuminated façade is a colourful presence along Dawson Creek’s main throughfare.

ARCHITECT McFarland Marceau Architects

PHOTOS Michael Elkan

Amidst a rolling landscape of fields and forests just west of the Alberta border, Dawson Creek is an energy hub, fueled by development and growth in the oil and gas sector. Along the city’s main thoroughfare lies the sprawling campus of Northern Lights College, touted as “BC’s Energy College.” The view as you enter the college grounds is now anchored by a new trades building, designed by Vancouver-based McFarland Marceau Architects, a practice now led by Marie-Odile Marceau.

On a campus that sits at the heart of a region propelled by fossil fuels, the college is advancing a vision to be at the forefront of the renewable energy sector. When the project for the new trades centre started, the school had recently established a Centre of Excellence in Clean Energy Technology. Regional facilities manager Murray Armstrong carried the college’s vision for a building that would embody a commitment to new energy sources. This commitment also extends to the building’s program: it houses shops and classrooms for the college’s millwright, welding, and carpentry offerings, as well as for its wind turbine course of study.

Located 150 metres across an empty field along the community’s main thoroughfare, the trades building provides a coherent face to an otherwise haphazard campus, converted in the 1960s from a military station into a vocational school. A large clerestory runs the length of the east façade, animated by day with coloured glass, and by night with dynamic LED lighting. The lit façade nods to the aurora borealis, providing a sense of whimsy in the long, dark winter. During the coldest months, the lights are in full glow as the community goes to work in the morning and returns home in the evening.

Coloured glass animates the east façade during the daytime.

The building’s program required large spaces within a limited budget. The architects proposed a straightforward massing: a simple, but highly functional box. This decision freed up budget for the predominate use of wood in the building’s construction. The light wood structure, along with pile foundations, helped deal with the site’s clay plastic soils. More importantly, wood finishing demonstrates the use of a renewable material, exudes warmth in an otherwise cold shop environment, and honours the craftmanship of the tradespeople being trained within.

While the surrounding urban area is generally constructed for the dimensions of a pick-up truck, a series of intentional moves bring human-scaled design to the centre. For instance, although the exterior cladding looks uniform from afar, the building is wrapped in a skin of metal shingles, adding texture that breaks down the façade. Narrow, vertical windows perforate the long façades, providing glimpses of the outdoors from the shops and classrooms, while still permitting the walls to be densely kitted-out with equipment. Inside, details like exposed neon-coloured conduit turn the building itself into a teaching tool.

The building includes coloured conduit along the walls, while suspended cables allow for the flexible location of power tools.

A link connects the trades building to the existing Campus Centre. Together, the buildings frame a new courtyard. On a campus where most arrive by car, the courtyard offers a rare outdoor public space, providing both visual relief and shelter from the winter winds that dominate the otherwise open landscape.

CLT and glulam frame the link connecting the trades building to a new main campus entry.
A new entry courtyard for the campus is framed by the trades building, along with a new link and entrance to the main campus centre.

Trades training buildings typically comprise a central corridor flanked by classroom and workshops, with an exterior works yard to one side. For Northern Lights College, McFarland Marceau rejigged the plan to bring the outdoor space indoors, responding to a local climate that sees winter temperatures dip to -40˚C. 

The plan centres on a “workshop commons” that connects the teaching areas, including an indoor works yard. The workshop commons allows for a range of activities—from serving as a loading bay for trucks discharging materials, to hosting the opening ceremony for the building, where tool cribs became tables for full-service catering. Perforated metal along the base of the corridor wall provides protection from heavy machinery, and a space for hanging tools.

Garage doors connect the workshops to the shop commons, an indoor works area that can double for hosting gatherings.

Lighting was an important consideration not only for the main façade, but also in the design of the shops. Spacious and versatile, the shops and workspaces are naturally lit by skylights and stained-glass clerestories, offering soft, diffused light and reduced glare. As architect Craig Duffield puts it: “It feels like you’re walking into a church rather than a shop.” Wooden slats add acoustic attenuation, reducing echo in an otherwise noisy environment. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) shear walls and partitions surround the shops, providing robust, flexible support for equipment.

The long-span glulam structure allows for runs of clerestory windows along the building perimeter, bringing natural light to the carpentry shop.

While not originally identified in the program needs, McFarland Marceau carved out the space and budget to include a student commons—an area for collaboration, study and relaxing between classes. Facing north onto the entry courtyard, the student commons is transected by a curved screen of laminated veneer lumber. The screen separates circulation from seating, and softens views between the lounge and adjacent classrooms. A light scoop reflects warm southern light off the exposed mass timber structure into the seating alcoves.

The student commons includes a curved wood screen that separates circulation from seating areas.

The client’s commitment to sustainability led to several important energy-saving features in the project. These include a solar wall on the south-facing exterior, which preheats air as it enters the building. Atop the centre is a demonstration green roof; rainwater is also collected from the roof for non-potable uses. Although the region is abundant in fossil fuels, building heat is provided by waste wood chips and a heat pump.

The Trades Training Centre at Northern Lights College is not your traditional shop. In a community known for its harsh northern landscape, the building exudes light and warmth. In counterpoint to the emerging technologies and trades housed within, it is constructed from materials that evoke tradition, such as wood and stained glass. It embodies a progressive vision of a renewable energy future—created not by robotic machines, but by well-trained human hands.

Landscape architect Heidi Redman is a Principal with LEES+Associates. The firm includes offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Whitehorse.

CLIENT Northern Lights College | ARCHITECT TEAM Marie-Odile Marceau (FRAIC), Craig Duffield (MRAIC), Leung Chow, Michael Hammock, Richard Buccino, Jay Alkana, Kelly-Anne Caulfield, Jesse Garlick | STRUCTURAL Equilibrium Consulting | MECHANICAL Rocky Point Engineering | ELECTRICAL Jarvis Engineering | LANDSCAPE McFarland Marceau Architects | INTERIORS McFarland Marceau Architects | CONTRACTOR Ledcor Construction | AREA 5,600 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION September 2018

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (OPERATIONAL) 184.3 kWh/m2/year | BENCHMARK 283 kWh/m2/year (NRCAN, 2014, elementary and secondary schools built after 2010) | WATER USE INTENSITY (OPERATIONAL) 0.09 m3/m2/year | BENCHMARK 0.09 m3/m2/year (RealPAC water benchmarking study of 83 office properties, 2012)