Fire-damaged Southern Okanagan Secondary School welcomes students once again

In September 2011, KMBR Architects and CEI Architecture had been working on an extensive renovation and addition to the Southern Okanagan Secondary School. A landmark in Oliver, BC, the original school was built in 1948 at cost of over $1 million, and was designed in the Art Deco Streamline Moderne Style.

As students filled the halls that September, they had access to a bright new gymnasium, science lab and multi-purpose space, and renovations to the existing classroom wing, library and Frank Venables Auditorium were underway.

Soon after the school year started, a massive fire destroyed the existing older structure, causing School District 53 and the design team to go back to the drawing board. As part of the addition, the design and construction team included a firewall between the existing school and the new facilities, so the newly added space remained intact. Gregg Brown, the KMBR partner-in-charge of the project, recalls, “The fire was devastating and hard on everyone involved. But the focus had to be on moving forward, to raising a new facility from the ashes that the community would be proud of.”

A new scope of work was outlined, in which the team would design a new 395-seat theatre, theatre lobby, library and classroom wing, to replace the spaces destroyed in the fire. They would also add a neighbourhood learning centre, with a daycare, community counselling and adult learning space. The project was fast-tracked due to the urgency of getting students out of temporary accommodations (portables) and into a permanent and properly equipped and designed learning environment.

“The objective was to design a contemporary school that embraces the principles of 21st-century learning,” says Nick Bevanda, architect and partner with CEI Architecture. “The resulting spaces have a flexible design that can adapt over time to changes in methods of teaching, technology needs and other educational evolutions.”

Gregg Brown adds, “The aesthetic is a unique melding of contemporary design with deliberate references to the historic Art Deco Streamline Moderne style that the original school was known for. Strong horizontal lines, the use of glass and anodized aluminum, and cylindrical or curving forms are prominent features of the new school and also characteristic of the aerodynamic Streamline Moderne style.”

Completed in February 2014, the building form of the new portion was inspired by the rolling hills that surround the site.

“We wanted to make sure the design respected the heritage of the building, and maintained a connection to its South Okanagan location,” says Bevanda. “The design preserves views of the landscape, and brings in lots of the Okanagan sun while guarding against excessive heat gain.”

The material selection also reflects the location, featuring an expressive use of wood as a structural and decorative element, along with concrete, glass and masonry. Wood is exposed in places, but protected from the hot summer sun; it is used in soffits on the exterior and extensively throughout the interior.

A notable feature of the building is the new rotunda, a social gathering space with a 30-foot ceiling and crowned by an octagonal skylight with a decorative wood structure. The curved drum element expressed in the rotunda became a design motif that appears throughout the building, in the rounded space of the theatre lobby, in the concrete arched benches on the campus grounds, and as a recurring element in the interior design.

The new 395-seat theatre is a modern marvel, and one of the best-equipped community or school theatres in the province. Designed in consultation with noted theatre consultant Robert Hamilton, the facility has state-of-the-art lighting, sound and video systems. The theatre lobby features floor-to-ceiling glazing with broad views of the South Okanangan landscape and a curving staircase leading to the upper level.

While the former Frank Venables Auditorium was operated by the school, the new theatre is a community resource, operated in partnership by the school district, the Town of Oliver, the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen and the non-profit Oliver Community Theatre Society.

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