Bringing The Past to Light: Conestoga College Student Recreation Centre, Kitchener, Ontario

The clients couldn’t have been more clear: tear down their existing ice arena, because only about one percent of Conestoga College students used it, and replace it with new gym and recreation facilities.

But when the team at MJMA began to consider the design brief, they soon realized that the building slated for demolition had a quiet elegance that deserved closer inspection.

Conestoga College Community Centre, Kitchener, MJMA
Instead of demolishing and replacing a 1970s arena as originally mandated, MJMA advocated for adaptively reusing it. Glazing was added to the sides and end of the barrel-vaulted volume, maintaining its structural integrity while bringing daylight to the interior. Photo by Shai Gil

Located in Kitchener, Ontario and designed by Strasman Wagman Partnership (SWP) in 1978, the original recreation centre consisted of two barrel vaulted sheds resting on wide swaths of bermed grass.It was an unusual move to crest the volume upon sloped earth. Although several new buildings were added to the campus in the intervening years, the vaults have remained prominent from the main road. According to Jim Strasman, FRAIC, he and Keith Wagman didn’t want to just place a box on the flat site, but to build something that reached the ground “quietly, logically and organically.”

An addition gives a fresh face to the building, while reorienting its main entrance to face the campus. The addition includes a wellness centre on the ground floor, along with an open-plan fitness centre and multi-purpose studios above. Photo by Shai Gil
An addition gives a fresh face to the building, while reorienting its main entrance to face the campus. The addition includes a wellness centre on the ground floor, along with an open-plan fitness centre and multi-purpose studios above. Photo by Shai Gil

To the south side of the building, one of the barrel vaults housed the ice arena in question. The north vault contained a “gymnatorium” shorter in length by about 20 metres. Between the two, a flat-roofed concourse tethered the two forms together. Because the vaults were structurally connected, MJMA recognized that demolition of one half of the building would greatly compromise the integrity of the whole. Blackwell—the structural engineers for the project—advised that tearing down one vault while supporting the remaining one could be fussy to implement and would drive construction costs upwards.

Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Kitchener, MJMA
The bar creates a sheltered pedestrian path alongside the recreation centre. Photo by Shai Gil

MJMA communicated to Conestoga College that they could do better by adaptive reuse. Aside from the obvious advantage of cost-savings, MJMA’s winning proposal consisted of three main ideas. First, they sought to retain as much of the existing structure as possible. Second, they wanted to bring natural light into the old arena space. And, third, with judicious new construction and a gut-renovation to the central concourse, they wanted to bring a fresh vitality to the entire recreation centre.

It was thanks to this vision—an approach with “ sensitivity and creative thinking”—that the old building could be saved, says Strasman. But what exactly was worth saving, the clients might ask? The sheet metal shell and concrete bleachers had the utilitarian, vernacular charm of a small-town, minor league hockey rink. A Canadian classic, perhaps, but not exactly a showcase that would attract students to the school.

Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Kitchener, MJMA
An intricate steel ceiling structure — part of the original design — is showcased in the arena-turned-gymnasium. Photo by Shai Gil

For MJMA partner David Miller, FRAIC and his team, the architectural strategy was uncomplicated. They removed all of the metal clad-ding from one end of the arena, and replaced the façade with a glass curtain wall. Then, along the length of the building, where the vault once met the top of the berm, they extended the angle of the roof so that the building could accommodate a new ribbon of glass. This decision was transformative. The roof now appears to float like an open parachute that has not yet touched the ground.

When the building was originally constructed, SWP included a fall arrest system of harness clips along the bottom chord of the joists, so that students could walk halfway along the underside of the vault and scrutinize the steel up close. Today, stripped of plywood cladding at the base and painted white, the structural ingenuity of the system is fully exposed. Light streams in from all sides and users can appreciate what had always been there: an atypical three-dimensional steel lattice spanning the open space. Each rib consists of two trusses that form a V in section and, as they extend downward, the structure splays into two billowing legs that taper like MC Hammer pants.

Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Kitchener, MJMA
Adjacent the fitness area, a running track encircles the gymnasium. Photo by Shai Gil

Bringing the form down to a point allows for more occupiable floor area. Where SWP had once extended permanent spectator seating down to the ice (a sensible move for a hockey arena), MJMA removed the concrete bleachers to provide an upper-level running track. New seating is the collapsible kind, stored behind a discreet datum of doors around the perimeter. Where there was once a skating surface, there is now a sprung-wood floor, a second gym for the students. The older gym has a fresh coat of paint, but the adaptively reused hockey arena, which is larger and airier, has become the preferred spot for pick-up games.

Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Kitchener, MJMA
Transparent walls lend a sense of spaciousness to the change room access corridors. Photo by Shai Gil

A new monolithic volume runs perpendicular to the two gyms and includes a wellness centre at grade, with a 580-square-metre fitness area and 280 square metres of multi-purpose spaces cantilevered above. This bar obscures the two barrel vaults from the campus sidewalk edge, but does the critical job of identifying the new front entrance, which was previously on the opposite side of the building. It also envelops the concrete mass of an electrical substation that could not be relocated. Equally important, the horizontal band of glass and sections of brick along the entryway complement the institutional language of the rest of the campus.

From within the bar are new views to the tree canopy of a nearby woodlot. As in the new gym, the continuous floor-to-ceiling window wall of the addition’s second storey makes the interior feel spacious, clean and contemporary. Bright orange flooring ties together the running track and the exercise rooms, but mostly the palette is either white or shades of grey, offset against the reflectivity of glass and sheen of metal. The decision to paint all of the brick white on the inside and black outdoors helps disguise the seam between old and new construction.

Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Kitchener, MJMA
The running track features panoramic views of the campus and a nearby woodlot. Photo by Shai Gil

The design further obscures the line between the existing building and new interventions through a series of voids that open up long sightlines. In the lobby, a double-height incision cuts across the interior, providing views of the two programmatic halves floating above. Down the hall, instead of doors, the entrances to change rooms are marked by sheets of frosted glass with large pictograms. This widens the corridor visually and spatially. Similar to other recent MJMA projects, the change rooms are mostly open-plan locker corridors with smaller, private changing stalls to the side.

Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Ktichener, MJMA
Orange flooring and an open-web steel joist ceiling in the new addition tie it together with the existing building. Photo by Shai Gil

From a heritage and environmental perspective, the decision to preserve rather than to demolish the existing structure was wise. But the real success of the project is in the vibrant spaces that it creates. The renewed recreation centre is a welcoming place for students to work out, play team sports, or enjoy a game of Ping-Pong. In the hands of MJMA, the original barrel vaulted sheds by SWP have once again taken pride of place on Conestoga’s campus.