Extended Family

PROJECT Native Child and Family Services Ghesig Daycare Centre, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Levitt Goodman Architects
TEXT David Steiner
PHOTOS Ben Rahn/A-Frame Studio

A new building for Native Child and Family Services of Toronto sits in the city’s east end along a wide commuter road, among a jumble of car lots and sombre apartment towers. It is attached to a century-old farmhouse out of which their programs have operated for the last decade. When the group got a grant from the government they bought the adjacent lot, combined the sites and set out to expand their facility to accommodate child care, community programs and adult education. 

 The form of the new building is enigmatic, something between a modern barn and a rusty piece of machinery. Cor-ten steel covers the roof and bends down over the north and east façades in a continuous sheet, uniformly rusted, while the building’s girth slims down and twists slightly as it approaches the corner of the site to the south. Along the west façade, the cladding is Eastern White Cedar lumber. The overall effect is that of a large red shell, resting beside an Ontario farmhouse, that has been cleaved apart, its underbelly exposed to the sun. 

Levitt Goodman Architects, the building’s designers, have had a long relationship with the Native Child and Family Services group, constructing several projects for it over the last decade (including a major renovation to its head office in downtown Toronto). The scope, function and form of the House of Ghesig (pronounced Gee’-shik), as the centre is known, were developed over a series of discussions between the architects and the community group. Opinions varied on what kinds of spaces would best serve its community needs. They were also not attached to a particular style. However, their request to avoid kitsch was explicit: overt references to First Nations forms–teepees, longhouses, wigwams–were considered inappropriate. They wanted the building to be a modern representation of the various First Nations groups who use the facility.

Easy to say, but how do you do that? “Like any good building,” says Dean Goodman, principal of Levitt Goodman Architects, “it responds to its physical environment.” Filling the southeastern wall with windows lets in maximum light and views to an adjacent woodlot. A narrow outdoor space runs the length of the building, parallel to the main corridor. People on the first floor can spill outside in warm weather. The outdoor space accommodates a bioswale for site drainage and a play area for children. The metal shell to the east minimizes the exposure to Kingston Road while still letting in light through the various oversized windows.

A community room, the child-care areas, and the adjacent corridor seem to capture best the feeling the client sought. Separating the hallway from the child-care areas by simple millwork rising 1.7 metres in height gives the classes visual privacy, while providing sightlines from one side of the building to the other. One feels contained in a protected, natural place. “We were looking to find things in the spirit of traditional structures,” said Goodman, “that would imply ‘house’ or ‘extended family’–two concepts important to the client.”

Conventional wood stud construction, left exposed and finished with a clear stain, was used throughout as a way of being expressive using an economy of means. Two-by-four studs, glue-laminated beams and columns, residential roof trusses and exposed plywood sheathing are both the structure and interior finish.

However, the space has the right amount of drama to make it welcoming rather than feeling like an unfinished shell: every roof truss is different–allowing the building plan to bend and taper eastward. The hallway running along the south of the building widens, creating another space in which the children can play. And the second-floor ceiling, held up by the trusses, is about five metres at its highest. “We wanted a finish that wasn’t too precious. Something that was very liveable,” explains Goodman. Indeed, the interior has the cozy feeling of a great big cabin, where everyone might live together in friendly tumult.

Finding a contractor and sub-trades to provide the same level of care in their rough framing as the final finish is not easy. Danny Bartman, the project architect, worked closely with them, requesting that they select the best pieces of lumber available, taking care to expose the best faces. With its structure and mechanical systems on display, the result is an interior that is neither polished nor rough; it is elegant in its pragmatism.

Energy efficiency was critical to the client. As such, the facility is heated and cooled through a geothermal system. Twelve tubes, each extending 100 metres below the parking lot surface, shed heat in summer and warm the building in winter. The tubes connect to the mechanical room, supplementing a conventional forced-air system and reducing its energy consumption. As well, the building insulation and vapour barrier are located on the exterior of the sheathing–a building assembly superior to residential wood-frame construction in which the insulation sits between studs, and the vapour barrier is immediately behind the gypsum board. With the insulation placed on the outside, the wood sheathing and its grain pattern is exposed, becoming part of the interior finish.

Alachia Woods, a program administrator, recalled that when the original Native Child and Family Services facility opened in the heritage farmhouse, a feast was held to celebrate. During the ceremony, the name Ghesig, a First Nations word that means “the house of sunshine,” came to one of the elders. The farmhouse is notable for its brickwork and historic value but was dim inside, filled with small windows and rooms. Now, some years later, the centre is made of spaces more appropriate to their function, and is filled with sunlight and a bright future. CA

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

Client Native Child & Family Services of Toronto
Architect Team Dean Goodman, Danny Bartman, Yvonne  Popovska, Greg Latimer, Katrina Touw, Sharon Leung, Leigh Jeneroux
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership
Mechanical/Electrical  Jain & Associates Ltd.
Landscape Scott Torrance Landscape Architect Inc.
Interiors Levitt Goodman Architects
Heritage ERA Architects Inc.
Civil Fabian Papa & Partners
Contractor Struct-Con Construction Ltd.
Area 10,000 ft2
Budget $4 M
Completion June 2011