Faith in Form

PROJECT Expansion of the Motherhouse for the Daughters of Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sherbrooke, Quebec
ARCHITECT ACDF* architecture | urbanisme | intrieur
TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTOS Marc Cramer

With an average age hovering around 80 years old, the Daughters of Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are becoming increasingly frail, their health issues more complex with age. The largest concentration of this Catholic order lives in Quebec, where their population currently sits at just under 300 members. But the Daughters aren’t planning on going anywhere yet. A 56,680-square-foot expansion to their existing motherhouse in Sherbrooke has recently been completed. As they age in place, these women will soon require a long-term-care facility that must be integrated into their daily lives, while not overshadowing their religious activities. As a result, the architects were charged with the task of achieving a social balance between the elderly Daughters of the community and the more able-bodied nuns while maintaining a high level of social connectivity in an environment where most of them have spent the past 60 years. In this motherhouse in Sherbrooke, which contains roughly half the Quebec population of this Catholic order, the Daughters are also contemplating future eventualities, such as opening their new long-term-care facility to a wider population, or even possibly selling their entire campus altogether.

To Guy Courchesne, Sylvain Allaire and Maxime Frappier–the three partners of ACDF*–the project provided an excellent opportunity to balance the needs of 160 religious women and 40 staff members occupying this significant site along the Saint-Franois River. A new 54-room health-care unit with all the necessary medical facilities is firmly rooted to the site, and connects to the existing chapel. The architects also designed a new kitchen to serve 200 people, a physiotherapy room, a library, an inner courtyard, and maintenance workshops. Winning the commission can be attributed to Courchesne who completed a feasibility study of the Daughters of Charity’s changing demography four years ago, and the firm continues to undertake similar work for the Daughters in Rimouski and Quebec City.

The original design for the Sherbrooke motherhouse positioned the new addition perpendicular to the original building, creating two gardens on both sides of the original chapel to form an H-plan configuration. As the view toward the Saint-Franois River proved to be too important, this idea was dropped in favour of extending and terminating the central axis with a well-proportioned U-shaped expansion that is connected to the chapel through an active common gathering space. This strategy also provided every room with a view of the river while framing a centrally located outdoor garden accessed from the main gathering space. The garden concept was developed by NIPpaysage, and has plants that bloom from spring to early autumn.

Both the client and architects wanted to encourage the nuns in the long-term-care facility to move about the entire building as much as possible, and to mingle with their relatively younger colleagues in the main gathering spaces. This strategy was useful in reducing the dependency on nursing and medical staff to monitor the residents. The convent typically has six medical staff on duty–four during the day and two at night.

A large gabion wall is situated beneath the termination of the two expansion wings. This stone wall is intended to defend the building against regular flooding that occurs nearly every year, while emphasizing the motherhouse’s connection to the riverfront. “We can feel that this overall campus was moving toward the river,” notes Frappier. Some attempts were made to create a riparian landscape in front of the gabion wall, but this did not occur. Hopefully, a more resolved planting scheme will be designed in the future.

The architects chose a blue-grey face brick for the new wings to complement the slate roof on the original building, while providing contrast to the historic red brick. The reflective nature of the blue-grey brick was also helpful in presenting a dynamic range of colour under a variety of light conditions. Perhaps most importantly, the blue-grey brick was chosen to express a clear distinction between the health-care facility and the main motherhouse, providing a level of reassurance to the more able-bodied Daughters who are not yet ready to move into an assisted-living environment. Tucked in at the back of the new facility is a service area that is easily accessible by ambulances and paramedics, keeping such activities far away from the chapel entrance. Visitors arriving at the campus can clearly distinguish between the sacred programmatic elements of the motherhouse and chapel and the more prosaic health-care functions. At one point during the design-phase discussions, there was talk of having a separate building for long-term care but this strategy was heavily discouraged by the architects. Having a completely separate building would give the impression to the Daughters that this was a building where they would go to die.

Along with many architects–in Quebec particularly–Frappier was seduced by the allure of torrefied wood, largely because of the rich hues it offers and its affordability in comparison to traditional wood cladding materials. Torrefied wood–essentially roasted wood–consists of heating wood at high temperatures to lower its moisture level to almost zero. The wood is then stabilized with a steam injection to bring the material’s moisture content back up to around four percent. The end product offers a richer colour palette, but the material is also sensitive to cracking. After having experimented with torrefied wood, Frappier is eager to return to working with traditional materials such as concrete and brick. “We can produce a lot of interesting architecture with standard materials that we have been using for thousands of years,” he states. One of the architectural motifs that he finds particularly interesting is the contrast between soft and hard materials. Thus, to accentuate the integrity of the project’s material palette, he juxtaposed the softer qualities of the wood with the solid aspects of the brick veneer. “For me, architecture is about the manipulation of objects, not a manipulation of faades,” he adds.

Financing for the project came from the motherhouse’s collective savings. Most of the Daughters had been earning salaries as teachers or nurses, and are now collecting their pensions and spending their money saved up over the years. There was no set budget, but the project was certainly designed with quality in mind–the Daughters were not interested in paying higher operating costs over the long term as a consequence of selecting inferior building materials. They even managed to include geothermal and radiant-floor heating in the project. Although the client chose to withhold the final budget, the construction cost worked out to be roughly 15-20 percent more expensive than a typical developer project. Throughout their lives, the Daughters have put considerable faith in God, and when it came time to put faith in their architects, it wasn’t too much of a stretch. But faith is not blind. The 12-person building committee was extremely drawing-literate and the members were able to ask pertinent questions throughout the design and construction process.

Along with Benoit Dupuis, Allaire, Courchesne and Frappier established ACDF* in September 2006. Dupuis recently left to set up his own firm, while the three remaining partners continue to evolve their approach to operating a practice that is different from most similarly sized firms. The three prefer to work on every project together, rather than divide the office into three defined segments. Typically, Courchesne handles the business side of the practice, while Allaire looks after some of the technical and project management aspects. Frappier dedi
cates his time to design development. This division of duty has enabled the office to achieve a consistent standard of work, while strengthening the office’s collaborative spirit. Allaire was the partner in charge for the motherhouse’s expansion.

With an office of around 50 people, ACDF* is going through a period of new growth. It has been pursuing tower projects in Vietnam, and is currently working on two interesting projects here in Canada–the Cit Collgiale main campus in Ottawa, and the library competition that they recently won in Saint-Eustache, Quebec. Certainly, their expansion to the motherhouse for the Daughters of Charity in Sherbrooke indicates that they are able to marry sophisticated building programs with an evocative architectural expression to better define and give identity to regional centres. CA

Client Daughters of Charity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Sherbrooke
Architect Team Sylvain Allaire, Maxime-Alexis Frappier, Guy Courchesne, Benoit Dupuis, Lise Parenteau, Laure Giordani, Joan Renaud, Marie-Eve Barnab, Robert Dequoy, Jacques Deslandes, Mathieu St-Hilaire, Martin Houle, Denis Lavigne, Suzanne Mondor, Gabriel Villeneuve
Structural CIMA +
Mechanical/Electrical Teknika HBA
Landscape CIMA +, NIP paysage (garden concept)
Area 56,680 ft2
Budget Withheld
Completion February 2010