Cowichan Regional Visitor Centre opens

The Cowichan Regional Visitor Centre is a new place in the Cowichan Valley for public gathering, exchange and display. It was developed as a joint venture between the BC Forest Discovery Centre, the Chambers of Commerce of the Cowichan Valley, and by the Municipalities of Duncan and North Cowichan. It has been described by locals as a “public living room” – a vision that guided design firm Cohlmeyer Architecture Limited (CAL) as the project moved forward.

CAL has been involved over the past several years with exploring how local and vernacular traditions can open new ways of making contemporary architecture; and as discussions evolved, the importance of local agricultural traditions in one of Canada’s most fertile areas became increasingly apparent. The traditional barns of the South Island have evolved a striking consistency – with their central steep-roofed gables and “gull wing” extensions of shallower roofs. These gull-winged barns are a wonderful iconic presence in the local landscape, and though often overlooked by locals, as familiar surroundings often are, they help make the Cowichan Valley special and identifiable. This form suited the functional requirements of the development, and provided an excellent framework for architectural exploration.

The site plan evolved independently from any architectural decisions, and the resulting framework of a new park, entries to the existing museum, a natural bioswale, and the requirements for the new building lead to a triangular building form between the central parking lot and bio-swale and the highway. With this as a discipline on the exterior form of the building, design explorations began with a traditional rectangular barn and cut it in half on the diagonal – creating a triangular building with one typical barn elevation to the south and an elongated barn form facing the Trans-Canada Highway; this stretched form creates an exaggerated billboard along the highway, and when approached from the north it is compressed into a front elevation of a typical barn. The cut barn was then cut two more times: first at the south to create a front portico facing the park and the Forest Centre grounds, and second at the north to create a covered entry from the northeast.

The building is constructed with locally harvested wood, and clad with local cedar, reflecting the traditions of rough wood board and batten sidding, but with the twist that the battens are reversed and lined with galvalume flashing, reducing rainwater intrusion in the building envelope and creating a strong architectural presence.