Below the Horizon

Project University of Lethbridge–1st choice Centre for Health & Wellness, Lethbridge, Alberta

Architect Gibbs Gage Architects in association with Barry Johns (Architecture) Limited, Ferrari Westwood Architects and Cannon Johnston Architecture Inc.

Text Ian Chodikoff

Photos Robert Lemermeyer, unless otherwise noted.

When approaching the city of Lethbridge from Calgary in a small propeller plane, it is immediately apparent how the great rift of the Oldman River valley, with its environmentally sensitive coulees, cuts the city into two halves. On the edges of those coulees lie two forces. The first is the University of Lethbridge and the elegant University Hall designed by Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey. This iconic lowslung concrete Prairie Modern building opened in 1972 and still commands spectacular views and a poetic relationship to the natural landscape. The second force occurs along both edges of the river valley and is defined by the subdivisions and sprawl inching toward the coulee’s edge, marring its natural beauty in the desire to capitalize upon the expansive views of the remarkable prairie landscape beyond. When combined, these two forces create a condition of conflict between preserving the sublime aspects of this community, and the need for progress.

Since the campus opened in 1972, the student population at the University of Lethbridge has grown to nearly 7,000 fulltime students. Campus expansion has not always been kind, as various additions have concealed and detracted from the elegant simplicity of the original EricksonMassey design–in which Modern architecture was successfully integrated with an undulating topography and a respect for clear views across the horizon. Since the 1970s, a series of unfortunate–even misguided–master plans have forced the campus to turn its back on its prairie landscape origins, thereby encouraging windswept surface parking and outdoor spaces that are completely antithetical to the early vision of a university life where students would socialize indoors rather than trudge across harsh exterior landscapes.

In an effort to rectify these wrongdoings, the 1st Choice Centre for Health & Wellness successfully enhances the social, athletic and community life at the university by healing the spatial disjuncture resulting from the campus expansion. A recent phenomenon at universities across Canada, the concept of a “wellness centre” replaces the less holisticsounding “athletic centre” through a broadbased approach to the sports and recreation requirements of a university. As a young practitioner, Barry Johns, the design and LEED consultant of the facility, worked in Erickson’s office. When the time came to modify his mentor’s earlier vision, both Johns and partner in charge Doug Gage of Gibbs Gage Architects, the architect of record/prime consultant, wanted to complement some of the original design intentions of University Hall.

Consisting of a new, belowgrade triple gymnasium, an elevated 200metre running track and roughly 12,000 square metres of new space, the 17,250squaremetre facility was completed in June 2007 at a total cost of approximately $23.3 million. The gymnasium and track complex is primarily new construction while the remainder of the work is carved out of the existing building. In deference to University Hall, the design team mitigated the bulk of the vertical programming and massing of the new facility by effectively burying substantial portions of the building below grade. Designed to accommodate both university and community athletes, recreational athletics and even regional and national sporting events, the facility’s programming is vast. It includes kinesiology and physical education programs, biomechanics and human performance research, classrooms and multipurpose community facilities. There is also a fitness centre, climbing wall, and new locker facilities. Serving both the university and the local community, fundraising activities were made easier. The university financed the majority of the project while the City of Lethbridge contributed $5.3 million, and a communityled capital campaign topped up the balance of the money required to make the building a reality.

The entire redevelopment construction process spanned two academic years with the building being continuously occupied except for the partial summer recess. The first phase involved the demolition and salvage of a small classroom wing and the conversion of a concrete, semicircular gymopposite nastics studio into a tiered lecture theatre accommodating 300 people.

The main entrance on the north side guides visitors through a “central street” linking the old building with the new facility, allowing visitors to experience the excitement of looking onto an elevated fourlane indoor track within the large 50foothigh volume housing three gymnasia with retractable seating for 2,100 people. Regularly held spectator events and convocations will be serviced via track access to the retractable seating in the gymnasium. The daytime activities will emphasize university program and academic uses with sports and recreation activities during the evenings. The triple gymnasium is oriented in a northsouth direction, and excavated deep enough below grade to connect with the existing and adjacent Physical Education complex, Max Bell Pool and the Student Union Building through a system of tunnels. Also on the main level are kinesiology research labs, classrooms and other foodservice facilities.

Critical to the success of the design is an additional floor that was inserted in between the main level and the level of the gymnasium floor which contains the control/management centre, multipurpose rooms, fitness areas, sports medicine clinics, and change rooms–both for the students and for the community. David Hewko, a building program consultant with Cannon, orchestrated this achievement. Building a new floor into the volume of the existing gym allowed the program elements to fit together, enabling a much needed expansion to the otherwise constrained locker room areas at the gym level while transforming the original dark corridors on the main level into more generous daylit spaces. There is even a glassenclosed climbing wall that provides a focal point to the interior of the facility as it rises up through the structure, defining the building’s verticality and sense of athleticism.

The architect team was initially targetting the building for LEED Silver, but in fact they are now pursuing LEED Gold. Through a range of sustainable design strategies, the project has achieved energy savings of more than 40 percent, as compared to a similar building of its type and size. With a partially buried building, the design certainly incorporates a highperformance building envelope. To enhance its sustainability quotient, the facility uses strategies such as PVC roofing to reduce heat absorption, displacement ventilation, and a water reduction program resulting in a 30percent decrease in water consumption. To power the building, the centre has a 10year power contract with a nearby commercial wind farm in McGrath.

The horizontal perimeter of clerestory glazing is a driving architectural element in the new building, providing light during the day and emitting a glowing band of light at night. The material palette of the exterior is straightforward, comprising groundface masonry units, concrete, zinc and composite aluminum. Materiality on the interior is equally simple with the addition of wood elements wherever possible. The interiors originally envisioned more timber and wood elements that were eventually sacrificed. Nonetheless, there is still an effective contrast between the heavier elements of concrete and the comparatively lighter elements of prosaic drywall and tempered glass guardrails. The glazing used in certain areas around the gymnasium and the climbing gym certainly helps enhance the perception of unencumbered space and increased nat
ural daylight.

In 2007, the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction recognized the project for its unique steel structure supporting the roof. To stabilize the floating roof over the gymnasium and to maximize the effect of the clerestory windows, steel columns were specially designed to provide more lateral bracing than usual. The structure incorporates threedimensional HSS trusses, spanning 36 metres and supported by sloping Vshaped columns. Secondary trusses span over the primary trusses, thereby creating roof overhangs that cantilever almost five metres beyond the building face, achieving the effect of a floating roof. The curved bottom chords of the trusses were developed to maintain the roof’s sleek profile and to minimize truss depth, maximizing transmission of natural light from the clerestory windows that surround the building. Engineers used shear walls to provide additional stability. When combined with the light shelves oriented primarily in a northsouth direction, the clerestory permits light levels in the gymnasium and running track to exceed 400 lux, allowing the facility to operate during the day without lighting.

The new University of Lethbridge–1st Choice Centre for Health & Wellness is a sympathetic addition to the campus. It is a building whose vertical circulation is highly expressed, as illustrated by such devices as the gymnasium, climbing wall and central stair. But as much of its

program operates below grade, it maintains a low profile on campus, thereby respecting the architecture of its EricksonMasseydesigned neighbour while acknowledging the importance of the horizon line–an element that is so important to this prairie community.


Client University of Lethbridge

Architect Team Doug Gage, Vince Dods, Ed Sych, Harold Bichel, Tom Khuu, Sandra Zelt, Keith Armbruster, Jeff Cordick, Barry Johns, Graeme Johns, David Hewko, Darryl Johnson, Bruce Hagedorn, John Paulsen, Bob Johnston, Larry Podhora, Art Ferrari, Dan Westwood, Henry Warszawski

Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Engineering Ltd.

Mechanical Wiebe Forest Engineering Ltd.

Electrical Stebnicki + Partners

Landscape Gibbs Gage Architects

Contractor Graham Construction

Area 17,250 m2

Budget $23.31 m

Completion June 2007