Modern Vernacular

Nicola Valley Institute of Technology, Merritt, British Columbia

Busby + Associates Architects

For most of the last century, there was little connection between mainstream Modern architecture and vernacular building. In the case of the latter, which can best be characterized as an empirical and pragmatic approach to design, the choice of building form, orientation and materials are primarily developed in response to environmental and micro-climatic conditions.

For all its rhetorical emphasis on the honest expression of function, the relationship of Modern architecture to the natural environment had been essentially a formal one. Paying little heed to solar orientation, large areas of glazing have commonly been used to emphasize the skeletal nature of steel and concrete structures, or to create a sense of continuity between indoor and outdoor space. As a consequence, Modern buildings have had to rely heavily on high-energy HVAC technology to maintain comfortable environmental conditions. The limited palette of the International Style promoted a homogeneous global aesthetic, often prejudiced against the use of indigenous materials, and ignoring the geographic and cultural context that might be termed “the particularities of place.” Toward the end of the 20th century, this approach to design was vigorously questioned.

But mainstream Modernism has been pulled back from the brink of oblivion by the very environmental forces it so long kept at bay. From the growing desire to arrest global climate change and conserve energy and resources, an “eco-tech” architecture has developed which deftly combines the timeless lessons of the vernacular tradition with the aesthetic refinement and technical virtuosity of modernism.

In Canada, Busby + Associates Architects of Vancouver have emerged as leading exponents of this genre, completing a number of “green” office buildings including those for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (see CA July 1997) and Revenue Canada (see CA January 1999). To date, these have all been urban projects, but the firm’s latest building breaks new ground, being their first designed for a native client, and their first large commission outside a major metropolitan area.

The 4,500 square metre Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT) is tucked into a forested south-facing slope on the outskirts of Merritt in the interior of British Columbia. It is the first building on the school’s new 17-hectare campus, and its semi-circular plan form is the first gesture toward the circular scheme of the campus master plan. Emerging from the hillside as a two-, then three-storey building, Phase 1 includes classrooms, faculty offices, social spaces, labs, a bookstore, a cafeteria, and a library arranged along an interior street. The main entrance axis bisects this street at right angles, the intersection taking the form of a two-storey atrium that culminates in a glazed roof lantern. A central fireplace accentuates the sense of arrival and provides a focal point for this informal gathering space. There is a feeling here of both grandeur and intimacy.

In common with other contemporary First Nations projects in Canada, NVIT incorporates the now-familiar paradigms of orientation to the cardinal points of the compass, an east-facing main entrance and a non-hierarchical arrangement of functional spaces. In its response to aboriginal heritage and use of technology, however, it bears a closer resemblance to international work such as Renzo Piano’s Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, or Stein Halvorsen’s and Christian A. Sundby’s Sami Parliament in the Norwegian Arctic. In common with these projects, NVIT reveals its cultural context not as an assemblage of symbols and metaphors, but through the embodiment of intrinsic cultural values. Equally important, it reinterprets traditional architectural archetypes not simply as formal elements but as functional systems.

Much of the recent work for First Nations clients in B.C. has provided primary facilities for remote reserves. For their disadvantaged and embattled communities, these buildings have become important instruments of social and cultural rehabilitation.

In most cases, the architecture has drawn heavily on traditional forms and building techniques. The dominant material has invariably been wood, often used in dimensions and diameters that require the cutting of increasingly scarce first growth timber.

By contrast, NVIT addresses the broader implications of the burgeoning aboriginal renaissance. Canada’s First Nations are a growing force in contemporary society. As ancestral stewards of the land and its resources, they have positioned themselves at the forefront of the environmental movement. It is appropriate, therefore, when commissioning new facilities, that First Nations clients should espouse the principles of green building, and embrace the use of leading edge environmental technology. In keeping with this philosophy, the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology has been designed as a fully integrated environmental system that uses sophisticated energy modelling techniques and state-of-the-art control systems to optimize performance.

The Nicola Valley experiences hot dry summers and moderately cold winters. In response to these conditions, aboriginal people devised two highly pragmatic forms of shelter. The teepee was a simple and efficient ventilation structure that promoted cooling by convection in the summer months. The pit house, on the other hand, was an earth-sheltered structure built with a southern orientation to maximize solar heat gains in winter and which relied on thermal mass to minimize heat losses. Traces of several pit houses are still to be found on the NVIT site.

As a building designed for year-round occupancy, NVIT incorporates both these functional systems into its overall environmental strategy. Without replicating the conical form of the tepee or the domed shape of the pit house, the new building exploits their environmental principles. Earth-sheltering further enhances the thermal insulation of the building envelope, and the atrium creates the pressure differential necessary to naturally ventilate the building. The thermal mass of the concrete floors helps to attenuate diurnal temperature variations. A portion of the roof is planted with kinnick-kinnick, an indigenous shrub that further assists the thermal performance of the structure and ties the building visually to its surroundings.

In contrast to other recent First Nations buildings, NVIT is sparing in its use of wood, preferring to express the cultural importance of the material in a measured celebration of its structural and visual qualities. The building structure is an innovative combination of wood and concrete. Exploiting the material’s strength in compression, faceted Douglas Fir glulam columns, cut using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology, are used to support flat concrete floor slabs. The columns and slabs are connected top and bottom by elegant custom steel castings. The close spacing of columns gives a strong rhythm and character to the interior street, and alludes to the surrounding forest and the trees replaced by the building they support. The density of columns increases around the atrium, where poles up to 12 metres in height rise through the building to support the roof lantern. The wood lends a warmth to the interior spaces and provides a welcome counterpoint to the solemnity of the concrete slabs and the coolness of the steel and glass balustrades.

The building envelope is equally innovative. A faceted modular wood frame rainscreen wall, clad with horizontal bands of yellow cedar, is designed with a single membrane performing the combined functions of traditional water and vapour barriers. The cladding module incorporates horizontal bands of PVC-framed tilt-and-turn windows, shaded by moveable panels of yellow cedar sun shading louvres. Left untreated, the walls will age gracefully over time to a silver grey, blending with the landscape and natural vegetation.

Within the con
straints of urban sites and corporate agendas, Busby + Associates’ previous work has successfully manipulated the modernist palette according to local environmental criteria, hinting at an architecture that is technologically advanced yet regional in character. However, with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology it becomes apparent that it is beyond city limits that geography, topography and micro-climate exert the greatest influence on the architects’ response to program.

It has been the opportunity afforded by a rural site and the cultural prerogatives of an aboriginal client that have served as the inspiration for Busby + Associates’ most stimulating project to date. The Nicola Valley Institute of Technology presents a new and refreshing perspective on our First Nations and the contribution they make to our collective contemporary culture.

Jim Taggart, MRAIC is an Associate of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia.

Client: Nicola Valley Institute of Technology/ University College of the Caribou

Architect Team: Peter Busby, Susan Gushe (associate-in-charge), Rod Maas, Alfred Waugh, Brian Wakelin, Nathan Webster, Thomas Winkler

Project Manager: Philip Hamner, UCC

Structural: Equilibrium Consulting Inc.

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: Earth Tech Canada

Civil: True Engineering

Landscape: True Engineering

Contractor: Swagger Construction Ltd.

Code: Pioneer Consultants

Quantity Surveyor: Helyar and Associates

Area: 4,500 m2

Budget: $7.6 million

Completion: December 2001

Photography: Nic Lehoux