Canadian Architect

Feature

Schooling Sustainably

A dynamic addition to this suburban Montreal school provides a contemporary learning environment while incorporating many sustainable initiatives.

October 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect

PROJECT COLLGE NOTRE-DAME-DE-LOURDES, LONGUEUIL, QUEBEC

ARCHITECT LEMIEUX+SMITH VIGEANT ARCHITECTES COLLECTIVE (JEAN-GILLES LEMIEUX ARCHITECTE AND SMITH VIGEANT ARCHITECTES)

TEXT DAVID THEODORE

PHOTOS STUDIO YVES BEAULIEU, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED

Since Quebec architects have few opportunities to build new schools these days, it is not surprising that the consortium of Jean-Gilles Lemieux and Smith Vigeant Architectes leapt at the chance to renovate one. The joint-effort firm designed a crisp new gymnasium and multipurpose caf-theatre for Collge Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, a private secondary school in Longueuil, just west of the Jacques Cartier Bridge on Montreal’s south shore.

Over the past 15 years, partners Daniel Smith and Stphan Vigeant have built a reputation for careful renovations. They won a 2003 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence for Cube, their condominium project in Montreal’s gay village. On this commission, they collaborated with friend and architect Jean-Gilles Lemieux. The group worked unusually closely with the school community to turn a simple maintenance study into a full-fledged, two-phase, five-year renovation project. Indeed, the original mandate, which arrived in the middle of delicate contract negotiations between the college’s administration and teachers, was only to assess some envelope and infrastructure problems. The architects initiated an extremely productive collaboration with the client, including getting the school to participate in an aggressive material recycling program. It’s a client-first, collaboration-oriented philosophy that’s paid off. The architects say the students, especially the boys, think their new buildings are “cool”–and enrollment is up 33 percent.

The project, like many others in contemporary Quebec, brings urban place-making to suburbia. There is a growing realization that contemporary architecture may be more at home in the ‘burbs than downtown. Collge Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes sits close to a particularly unappealing slice of contemporary suburbanity–Taschereau Boulevard–an expressway lined on either side with strip malls. The original 1950 building, a two-and-a-half-storey ochre-coloured brick structure with stone details and a prominent entrance stair, is the centrepiece of the south-facing faade on a pleasant residential street. But additions and renovations in 1953, 1969, and especially 1985 left the institution cramped and confused, bereft of basic gathering spaces. Even the existing cafeteria was too small.

The Lemieux and Smith Vigeant proposal consolidated the buildings into a U-shaped ensemble. In total, the project’s $7-million budget covered 5,078 square metres, which included renovations to five existing pavilions and two new ones. They turned the parking lot on the north side into a much-appreciated outdoor running track, and added new athletic facilities on the east side and a multipurpose performance space and eating area on the west. These additions, which maintain the same height as the old buildings, are oriented to protect and define new exterior activity areas. At the same time, renovations to the older buildings rationalized, reorganized, and expanded space for student life on the inside.

The new structures are steel frames clad on the outside with horizontal 1″ x 6″ Ipe (ironwood) boards. “Ville de Longueuil’s by-laws require that all institutional buildings be covered with masonry,” said Smith. “We wanted to avoid what was done over the last 35 years. Ipe was finally accepted after we proved that the material is very durable and has a Class A NFPA rating.”

The more dramatic addition is the 457-square-metre caf-theatre, which opened in 2003. Its steel structure includes a colonnade of sharply angled columns. Narrow windows glazed with coloured glass punch through the Ipe faades following the angles of the steel colonnade. Especially at night, these walls colourfully signal the energy and drama of the inside activities. This multipurpose room, which can be both cafeteria and performance space, includes a mezzanine level and new classrooms on the floor above. Along with locker areas and computer rooms reorganized nearby, the caf-theatre serves as a significant meeting place for students.

The gymnasium, finished in 2005, includes a number of efficient planning ideas. The new weight-training room, for instance, is neatly tucked under the bleachers, and an end wall is angled at 10 degrees to serve double duty as a rock-climbing wall. Their open collaboration with the client allowed this climbing wall to partially replace the interior Ipe cladding (at no extra cost) even though construction was well underway. Considerable clerestory and ground-level glazing lets in natural light while avoiding glare, and allows for a visual connection across the outdoor athletic track to the caf-theatre. This connection is made physical by a rusted steel “drawbridge” (a former handicap ramp stripped of paint) that descends outdoors from the bleachers to the track. The architects also renovated the existing gymnasium just to the south, so the students benefit from almost double the space for athletics.

One impressive feature of the process was the strict management of materials left over from demolition and construction. Bricks from the exterior walls were pulverized and used to form the athletic track, as was some of the interior concrete; wood and metal doors were carefully disassembled and reused or sent to resellers, as was the fluorescent lighting; and, most significantly, concrete blocks were recycled to build corridors and service areas in the cafeteria and the weight room walls. A provincial consulting agency, Recyc-Qubec, carried out a triage of all the waste materials. Apparently though, the acoustic tiles and gypsum board did not find resellers or recycling uses. The lesson here might be that reusing demolition materials in the same project, rather than relying on recycling centres, is an effective way to achieve waste reduction. “We believe that everyone involved should be responsive in integrating sustainable actions,” said Smith. “We encourage it.”

Finally, it’s worth spending a moment considering the project’s architectural achievement. On the one hand, there are some drawbacks, moments where strong design ideas are not quite translated into coherent construction. Where, for example, does the imagery of the caf-theatre come from? Likewise, wood cladding and coloured glass are becoming a design clich on the Quebec scene. And unfortunately, the way the glazing meets the Ipe strips–the slanted glass on the caf, the clerestory, and the ground-level glazing of the gymnasium–makes it difficult to understand the additions as wooden boxes. Instead, it appears visually as if the wood is applied in patches like wallpaper–not quite convincing tectonically as the “box of emotions” (caf) and “energy box” (gymnasium) the architects had in mind.

On the other hand, it is clearly the architects who have made the difference here. The challenges and conditions they faced at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes are growing. The 4,200 primary and secondary schools in Quebec have an average age of about 40 years; most of this stock of educational buildings is now overdue for renovation. So it is a significant achievement that they convinced the client of the value that architectural interventions (spatial, organizational, and material changes to the building) could bring to the school community. While the neighbourhood surrounding the Collge is indifferent to the light-filled, lively forms they’ve inserted, the project clearly demonstrates the possibility of good design in suburbia. Lemieux and Smith Vigeant’s deft client-centred process–and their down-to-earth approach to recycling–make their work an important model for the larger job of updating the other 4,199 schools.

David Theodore is Research Associate and College Lecturer at the School of Architecture, McGill University, where he teaches courses in architectural
design and studies the history of health care architecture.

CLIENT NAME COLLGE NOTRE-DAME-DE-LOURDES

ARCHITECT TEAM JEAN-GILLES LEMIEUX, DANIEL SMITH, STPHAN VIGEANT, MAGALI GILBERT, MARIE-VE LVESQUE, JULIE QUENNEVILLE, MYRIANNE TISSOT-CHENIER, OWEN ROSE, CECILIA CHEN, ALAIN DE CROMBRUGGHE

STRUCTURAL NICOLET CHARTRAND KNOLL LTEE.

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL LE GROUPE FARLEY INC.

LANDSCAPE LE GROUPE ROUSSEAU LEFEBVRE INC.

INTERIORS LEMIEUX+SMITH VIGEANT ARCHITECTeS

CONTRACTOR YERGEAU CART INC.

AREA 5,350 M2

BUDGET $6 M

COMPLETION FALL 2005




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