Canadian Architect

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Civil Action

A whimsical roofline tops Canada’s newest law school, reflecting local landscape motifs and providing aspiring lawyers with flexible spaces for socializing and study.

January 1, 2015
by Adele Weder

A recent renovation gives a facelift to a 1970s academic building at Thompson Rivers University, adding a two-storey addition, a new entrance, and refreshed cladding.

A recent renovation gives a facelift to a 1970s academic building at Thompson Rivers University, adding a two-storey addition, a new entrance, and refreshed cladding. Photo by Ed White

PROJECT Thompson Rivers University Old Main Academic Building Addition, Kamloops, British Columbia
ARCHITECTS Diamond Schmitt Architects and Stantec Architecture (associate architect)
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Tom Arban and Ed White

A small city nestled in the British Columbia Interior, Kamloops is an atypical locale for a Diamond Schmitt project, and an even less likely site for a law school. Most of Canada’s 22 law universities are in major urban centres, and none have the backdrop of Thompson Rivers University (TRU). Unusual too, for a Diamond Schmitt project, is the modest scope: essentially a two-storey addition to a once-bleak shoebox of a building. But the significance of TRU’s newly expanded law school is not its size but its reach. Further north than any law school in the province, the TRU Faculty of Law aims to attract and train students that are too often marginalized from the big-city professional schools in the faraway south.

Incorporated in 2011, TRU Faculty of Law is Canada’s first new law school in 30 years. With its recent addition, the school offers not only physical proximity but also a confident architectural presence to a diverse student population. The university’s backdrop is not a herd of high-rises but a series of craggy brown hills spiked with jackpines. “We’re understanding this environment for what it is, not as a substitute for an urban environment,” says architect Michael Leckman, MRAIC, of Diamond Schmitt.

You will never see a roller-coaster roofline like this in the heart of Toronto, or even in North Vancouver—where, despite that city’s own mountainous backdrop, Diamond Schmitt designed the new central library with a more conventional rectilinear massing.

The swooping roofline reflects the curving brows of nearby mountains. Photo by Tom Arban

The swooping roofline reflects the curving brows of nearby mountains. Photo by Tom Arban

In generating the distinctive shape, the design team started off with a fairly literal nod to the surrounding landscape: a two-humped roofline that evokes the twin peaks of Mount Peter and Mount Paul, mountains that have been sacred to the region’s aboriginal Secwepemc community. In the Kamloops Library, the design team found an image of the peaks’ double curvature in the reproduction of an A.Y. Jackson painting. The 400-foot-long undulating roofline redefines the bedraggled old building known as Old Main and provides an extra 45,000 square feet of interior space.

This kind of almost-representational design scheme comes dangerously close to being an architectural one-liner. While the incorporation of local aboriginal values and history is important, appropriate and often effective, it does not automatically make for better architecture. And the strategy of deploying an almost-literal riff on an adjacent form—whether natural or manmade—risks creating an unconvincing sequel to the first form.

A view of the library reading room, where the curved roof frames dramatic views of the campus and its alpine surroundings.

A view of the library reading room, where the curved roof frames dramatic views of the campus and its alpine surroundings. Photo by Ed White

However, in this case, Diamond Schmitt offers a convincing practical rationale for the twin-peaks form. The roofline creates generous, dramatic spaces for the functional elements of the program, and could also be built with a pre-fab system of panel assembly.

The original building had not been structurally designed to hold a double-height addition. During a charrette with structural engineer Paul Fast—who principal Don Schmitt, FRAIC, describes as “a magician with wood”—a series of solutions emerged. An in-depth engineering analysis determined that the original 1970s-era structure did have the capacity to carry a certain amount of extra weight. To extend that surplus capacity to meet the needs of the program, the engineers and architects selected strategically lighter building materials—steel and timber—for the addition. The original concrete load-bearing columns were vertically extended with extremely slender five-inch-diameter steel columns to support the double-height addition. And in a deft two-for-one design approach, the required seismic upgrade—conceptually suggested as exterior buttresses in the concept illustrations—was made on the interior of the building with reinforcement plates and angles. In this way, the seismic upgrade serves the dual purpose of bracing the building for earthquakes while strengthening its load-bearing capacity enough to carry the addition.

The roof structure is comprised of panels prefabricated off site, allowing for the addition to be erected in a short seven-week timespan over the summer months. Photo by Michael Leckman

The roof structure is comprised of panels prefabricated off site, allowing for the addition to be erected in a short seven-week timespan over the summer months. Photo by Michael Leckman

To meet a tight summer installation, the team conceived of a prefabrication system that allowed for construction to take place in a short seven-week timespan. Panellized sections were built offsite, and then brought onsite for quick assembly atop the existing building. Each panel is constructed using glulam beams, wood joists and plywood sheathing. Innovative thinking was required to comply with the building code. The addition was too tall to permit combustible materials in its structure, so an alternative solution based on heavy timber and a fire-retardant treatment was developed, using computer modelling of fire conditions. The structure was also designed to entail the use of pine-beetle-infested wood and other so-called waste wood.

The design team knew that this would be the only law school for hundreds of miles in any direction. But they had no firm enrollment projections to work with, so they had to create a structure whose interior spaces could address dynamically changing needs.

A glazed interior wall enables sight lines between the lobby and library reading room, while a dramatic staircase accesses the upper floor.

A glazed interior wall enables sight lines between the lobby and library reading room, while a dramatic staircase accesses the upper floor. Photo by Ed White

The interior cleaves into two distinctive spatial geometries: a dramatic double-height set of spaces—foyer, classrooms and reading room—on one side, and two single-height floors—library stacks, offices and service rooms—on the other. A reading counter that wraps around the upper-floor balustrade currently serves as a linear gathering place, but the uses can shift as the programming and student population changes. “We often talk of buildings that are given a long life because of a loose fit,” says Leckman. “It was exactly that: a loose fit over the basic program that we knew would be there.”

A wide corridor provides overflow study space and doubles as a panoramic venue for informal gatherings. Photo by Ed White

A wide corridor provides overflow study space and doubles as a panoramic venue for informal gatherings. Photo by Ed White

A huge expanse of glass between the foyer and the library reading room is a visually ambiguous division of space: library users can see all the action transpiring next door, and join in as they see fit. This is not a traditional cloistered law library, physically set off from the more active spaces. The design strategy nods to the social dimensions of legal education, which have always been crucial to the embryonic careers of lawyers, but far easier in the oak-panelled bars of the big cities.

“We were looking for a way to turn up the volume, no question about it,” says Leckman. The students and faculty are, if not exactly marginalized, still far removed from the power centres and Supreme Courts of the Lower Mainland. “They need to be found,” says Leckman, “and they need to make themselves known as a place for a new way of teaching.”

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.

Client Thompson Rivers University | Architect Team Diamond Schmitt Architects—Donald Schmitt, Michael Leckman, Walton Chan, Matthew Tsui, Gerry Lang, Matin Moghaddam, Eric Fung, Tyson Milani, Jason Wu. Stantec Architecture—Brian Christianson, Alexandra Fessler, Rob Hajdasz, Kelvin Lit, Jody Martens, Alice Shether. | Structural Fast+Epp | Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Consulting | Landscape Stantec Consulting | Interiors Diamond Schmitt Architects | Contractor Yellowridge Construction Ltd. | Lighting Design Concept Marcel Dion Lighting Design | Code LMDG Building Code Consultants Ltd. | Area 45,000 ft2 including 5,000 ft2 renovation | Budget $20 M | Completion June 2014




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