August 31, 2018
by Graham Livesey
In recent years, Calgary has built a large number of multi-purpose recreation and community centres, typically in partnership with a multitude of agencies. The latest iteration is the recently opened Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge, by GEC Architecture, on the outskirts of northwest Calgary: a spectacular curvilinear building inspired by the surrounding foothills landscape. Calgary-based GEC Architecture has a long history of designing sports and recreation facilities going back to the 1983 Saddledome and the 1987 Olympic Speed Skating Oval. The Shane Homes YMCA, programmed and built by the City of Calgary, sits on a 2.6-hectare site between a wetland and a hill that is the highest point in the city. The YMCA is the operator and long-term leaseholder; the Calgary Public Library, physio clinic, and vendors hold sub-leases with the YMCA. (The adjacent wetland and hill are outside of the YMCA lease, and maintained by the city’s Parks and Recreation department.) As key stakeholders, the YMCA and Public Library were part of the design process.
Photo by Michael Wach.
Like the Genesis Centre of Community Wellness in northeast Calgary (by Gibbs Gage with Quinn Young Associates) and the Reming- ton YMCA at Quarry Park in the southeast (by GEC Architecture), the projects are often sponsor-named after local developers and home builders. Shane Homes, the building’s main sponsor, is one of the largest home-builders in Calgary.
The façade is made up of large curving expanses of high-performance glazing, which offers key views from within the facility while selectively revealing the interior activities to passers-by. Photo by Michael Wach.
As a form in the landscape, the building presents a myriad of com- positions unveiling themselves as one moves around the building. The architects successfully created a shape that responds to both internal and external elements, and found appropriate ways to structure and fenestrate the form. The complex shape of the building is covered mainly in brass tiles that will weather to a warm brown; the skin covers a very large structural system that employs long span glulam beams supported on steel. Reportedly the largest YMCA in the world, with the largest roof of its kind in North America, the structure boasts a form created through parametric design. Benefits of this approach resulted in many design efficiencies, including using only one jig for shaping the large glulam beams.
All program elements are set beneath the undulating glulam timber roof structure that links the spaces together and responds to their individual height requirements. Photo by Adam Mork.
“We used the Grasshopper plug-in for Rhino3D to parametrically develop the design, optimise the curvature deviation between each beam length, and control the amount of sacrificial lamination required for the glulam beam manufacturing,” says GEC associate Adrian Benoit. “The parametric modelling also allowed for real time exterior envelope calculations to run parallel to the design process to ensure we maintained as low an area as possible. These tools were extremely beneficial to the design process but also played a large role in delivering 3D geometric controls to the glulam and steel fabricators. The project was documented and delivered in Revit, with the parametric model information translated into the BIM model to produced the contract documents.”
The natatorium, like other main programmatic elements, can be viewed from the main concourse as well as from outside. Photo by Adam Mork.
This project thus represents the use of very up-to-date parametric and BIM software in the design and delivery of a large multi-function- al building. These tools enabled the architects to optimise a shape to cover the disparate elements of the program, allowing for a building that can be largely experienced as one big space.
The facility’s mass-timber glulam roof is the largest in Western Canada and one of the largest in North America. Photo by Michael Wach.
The ability to work directly with the Penticton-based Structurlam, the manufacturer of the glulam beams, also allowed for the successful construction of an unconventional design. In describing the building, GEC Architecture partners David Edmunds and Andrew Tankard are justifiably enthusiastic about the process and completed building. The project has already won a number of design awards, including a 2013 Mayor’s Urban Design Award from the City of Calgary, and a 2018 Prairie Design Award of Excellence.
Photo by Michael Wach.
The result is a community facility that is strikingly different from a formal point-of-view, and already intensely busy with users. The building is accessed through two major entrances, and several secondary ones. The aquatic centre, fitness area, running track, hockey rink, leisure ice, outdoor paths, play areas, three gymnasia, and skatepark provide recreational uses. While the library/gallery, theatre, gathering spaces, art studios, youth centre, and meeting rooms support a range of community activities. Finally, a daycare, physio centre, and food services complement the rest of the program. Like other such complexes in Alberta, it is effectively the town centre for the surrounding neighbourhoods, a served population of 100,000 residents.
Despite a number of minor challenges resolving the numerous connections and the complex geometries of the design, the building is ultimately a remarkable work of architecture. The design features a surface topography that corresponds with the context and successfully houses a broad range of functions. The use of advanced software allowed the architects to rationalize the design in terms of volume and surface, and to resolve the structuring and technical aspects of the concept. The building is intended to meet LEED Gold requirements, and employs a co-generation system that also utilises waste heat.
As clients increasingly demand higher performing buildings, architects will have to be adept at using both industry-specific software packages, but also those that compliment and enhance the design of buildings. In the case of the Shane Homes YMCA the architects were able to demonstrate at an early stage in the process that they could design and deliver a unique project within the typical budget and constraints of a complex community project.
Graham Livesey, MRAIC is a professor in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Calgary.