Cottage Life

PROJECT Bridgenorth Library & Community Hall, Bridgenorth, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd. in association with Phillip H. Carter Architect
TEXT Ian Chodikoff

Designed by Levitt Goodman Architects in association with Phillip H. Carter Architect, the new library and community hall built in Bridgenorth, a small town 150 kilometres northeast of Toronto, celebrates the region’s identity with architectural references that acknowledge its local geography and history by providing a sense of place while avoiding contrived formal gestures.

Levitt Goodman Architects has achieved tremendous success over the course of its 21-year history, notably with projects it has completed in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, such as the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Cambridge and the Waterloo Children’s Museum. To set itself apart from other Toronto-based firms, the 25-person office has been honing its identity as a Southern Ontario practice sensitive to regional architecture. Firm partner Brock James and David Warne led the Bridgenorth Library and Community Hall architect team to design the 8,500-square-foot building with a modest $1.8-million construction budget. James joined Levitt Goodman Architects in 1996, becoming a partner roughly five years ago. Artist-architect Warne joined the firm in 1999. Like most of those who work at the firm, both James and Warne are graduates of the University of Waterloo and have previously worked on two library projects in Cambridge, Ontario: the Musagetes Architecture Library at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, and a renovation to the Cambridge Libraries and Galleries. Another library project for the firm is the Scott Library at York University, which will open in September 2010. Bridgenorth was their first standalone library.

Warne explains that it is a constant challenge for any Toronto firm to remain competitive when it comes to library commissions, the majority of which tend to be offered to a handful of firms. Therefore, to strengthen their competitive advantage, Levitt Goodman Architects associated with Phillip Carter, an architect who maintains a small Toronto office. Since he began his practice in 1972, Carter has designed over 60 libraries. While continuing to pursue small commissions on his own, he has been sharing his library expertise with Levitt Goodman Architects, forming a strategic alliance to pursue other projects in addition to the Bridgenorth facility, such as the $5-million Scarborough Centre Branch along the south side of the Scarborough Civic Centre which is expected to be completed in 2012, and the Kitchener Public Library, a $40-million-plus expansion in the city’s central district that will be built atop a new three-storey underground parking facility. The Walter Fedy Partnership is the third member of the Kitchener Public Library design team, and will be largely responsible for the parking garage, as well as acting as the engineering and LEED consultants.

Overlooking Lake Chemong, Bridgenorth is part of the Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield township, forming part of the Kawartha Lakes region. During the summer months, the region swells from 16,000 inhabitants to over 40,000 people, largely due to the exodus of city-dwellers who spend their summers vacationing at cottages located in the area. The Bridgenorth project was awarded through a straightforward RFP process, and the architect team met the clients for the first time only after the project had been awarded.

During the initial meetings, the client group presented the architects with a few suggestions to connect the project to the history of the area, including the possibility of designing the circulation desk to resemble a paddle wheel from one of the original ferries that operated on Lake Chemong a hundred years ago. The architects responded by politely shifting the dialogue to completely involve the client group in a design process that would eventually see the paddle boat suggestion translated into a symbolically important outdoor reading deck, where library patrons can read their books on deck chairs with views toward the town.

The Bridgenorth facility can be thought of as a contemporary incarnation of a cottage, or a great lodge. This analogy helped define some of the more potent design ideas found in the building, such as the metaphorical reference to the nearby trees, rock, and water. Undoubtedly, the clients initially imagined a more traditional building with a hip roof, but the architect team was successful in bringing them to a place where they could begin to understand the value of contemporary architecture without feeling as though they had been tricked into something they weren’t prepared to support.

“One of the first things you learn in architecture school is the analogy,” explains Warne. “The tall vertical strips of windows provide light that is analogous to the geometry of the forest. It isn’t a cynical approach, but a way of looking at the geometry of the forest and abstracting that geometry into the architecture of the building.”

The clients certainly got a lot of building for the $1.8-million construction budget. They had initially been given the impression that the project could have been achieved for around $150 per square foot. Since they wanted an affordable wooden building with the qualities of filtered light, a bit of ingenuity was required to meet their initial budget expectations. Achieving an affordable design and construction process necessitated, in the words of James, “a strategy to figure out a method using utilitarian pieces of wood construction.” With conventional wood trusses used in typical suburban houses, along with ordinary wood studs and chip board, the architects exposed these various elements in a rational way, resulting in a price that came in lower than the quantity surveyor’s estimates but more than what the town had originally anticipated. To achieve such economical results, the architects carefully dimensioned the building to maximize the efficiency of the trusses and the spacing of the studs, thereby minimizing thermal bridging, unnecessary detailing around openings, and material waste. The process resulted in a lot more work for the architects, creating that familiar and uncomfortable dilemma of putting more work into a project to reduce client costs at the expense of the architect’s fees.

Modifying the wall and roof assemblies so that the wooden truss and stud elements remained exposed on the interior resulted in a clearer architectural expression of a treed canopy. Because the roof structure necessitated cross bracing, the architects applied a few rows of flat steel bar so as not to distract from the clear visual rhythm of the wood trusses. Painting all the elements–truss, bracing and connector plates–a single colour helped achieve a more unified aesthetic. Building code requirements for sprinklers and additional fire and life safety equipment did not apply here, as the building’s square footage fell within 400 square feet of its sprinkler-exempt category. Unfortunately, not every building element could be concealed. The architects tried to run the ductwork beneath the concrete slab, but the cost was simply too high. To complement the interior finishes, suspended light fixtures come to represent stars and the flooring pattern reinforces the elements of the region–water, trees and stone. For a wood building with exposed elements, the overall aesthetic has been kept successfully restrained and minimal.

Located a couple of streets from the town’s main arterial roadway and adjacent to an existing school and church, the new building is a marked improvement to the social life of the community–the old premises were located in a local strip mall. The new facility sits on the crest of a hill that gently slopes down towards the north end of the site. The east elevation is clad in corrugated steel siding that protects the building from the driving rain wh
ile picking up on the barn analogy–a leitmotif strengthened by the stone cladding at the base. This elevation is perhaps the strongest and most iconic of the building, yet visitors only drive past this elevation before parking their cars and entering the facility on the south side. It is along the north elevation where the reading deck provides the perfect cottage or grand lodge analogy. All things considered, there are many rich components incorporated into this facility, one that is essentially built like a suburban bungalow.

Considering the tight budgetary considerations, the Bridgenorth Library and Community Hall is a charming example of a contemporary project that successfully connects with its local context while meeting the needs of those who still experience the joy of visiting their community library. CA

Client Township of Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield
Architect Team
Brock James, David Warne, Cynthia Dovell, Chris Knight
Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.
OTS Engineering
Kirkland Engineering Ltd.
Garritano Bros. Ltd.
8,500 ft2
$1.8 M
March 2009