Oars To The Ground

Project John M. S. Lecky UBC Boathouse, Richmond, British Columbia

Architect Larry McFarland Architects Ltd.

Text Adele Weder

Photos Derek Lepper

Nestled on the middle bank of Fraser River, the John M. S. Lecky UBC Boathouse subverts the usual bankside paradigm of architecture-as-fixed-anchor. Instead of attempting an illusory defiance of its site, the design team has conceived the Boathouse as a structure in sync with the sandy soil and shifting tides. With a simple palette of glass, metal and wood, the architects devised a kind of nautical architecture that works in much the same way as the boats themselves. Lead architect and former rower Craig Duffield points to “the moment of athletic poise, of athletic flexion” in rowing, where the rowers alternately pull and thrust, and then pick up enough speed for the boat itself to lift slightly off the water.

Neither the marina nor the building is anchored to the earth on immoveable piers. This is a floating dock that rises and falls with the tides, as does the structure adjoining it. The Boathouse itself is a strategically bifurcated structure. The physical act of rowing is based on the flexion point between the thrust and pull of the oars. The symbolic and also practical architectural correlation is the junction point between the two building components, a flexible “drawbridge.” This dual-module concept expresses in symbolic terms the double-beat rhythm of the sport, but also allows the practical functioning of the building as “floating architecture.”

The project is primarily a conflation of dock, boat shed, locker/ showers, offices and an events hall, the latter being the cash cow to subsidize the operating costs of the rest of the building. It’s a programme that is more complex than one might think, involving sculls– those competition-minded boats that require a lot more consideration in their circulation and storage than your average Canadian Tire canoe. The dauntingly long, narrow and expensive vessels–nautical hotrods, really–are engineered to move fast through the water with minimal effort, but also remain light enough for the rowers to carry and hoist onto the brackets in the boat shed. Moreover, at $30-40,000 a pop, the configuration of the path from boat to bay becomes critical: the diagonal positioning of the floating dock helps not only expedite the boats coming in, but also avoid dings and outright crashes. (It’s not surprising that Duffield has serious rowing experience under his belt–in fact, it was an essential qualification for the project).

The design team selected translucent polycarbonite panels to wall the boat shed, a choice at once functional and aesthetic. The translucent panels allow copious daylight into the garage such that on the overcast day of my visit, no artificial lighting was needed to navigate the space or hoist the boats up on and down from their bracket frames. It’s a proverbial green gesture, but it also means that a group of rowers straggling into the garage with a $40,000 scull in their grasp need not risk fumbling for a light switch. And, from inside and outside, the panels are quite simply beautiful: luminous, like water.

The luminescence of the polycarbonite panelling is one of many characteristics that hint, not holler, at the purpose of the project. “I disdained forms that look like upside-down boats,” insists Duffield. Still, the massing gently evokes the form of a boat, not only in the swell of the roofline but also in the contiguous line of the steel fascia that runs across the top of the building, which transforms into a supporting beam and then continues into an elliptical arc supporting the brise-soleil of the upper deck.

The cedar slats of the brise-soleil in turn serve to frame the otherwise bleak vista. Across this arm of the Fraser River, there is little more than scrub and scattered housing to look at, but the cropping of this stark expanse transforms it into a postcard of nautical charm.

With its clean simplicity and floor-to-ceiling glazing, the event hall opens up a panoramic river view. The ceiling is a splendid expanse of Douglas fir. Below the curved clerestory, an otherwise neutral space is enriched by a frieze with a fish-motif bas-relief sculpture created by Musqueam artist Susan Point. The one odd note is the faux-wood laminate flooring. The choice was predicated by cost considerations. But with real wood used strategically and sparingly elsewhere, and honest industrial materials like corrugated steel used for the cladding, it would have seemed more appropriate to specify a straightforward coloured laminate than an apologetic stand-in for hardwood.

Overall, however, the Boathouse is a smartly designed, light-infused structure with uncommon sensitivity to the end users. Glass-walled offices are suffused in daylight and offer a generous river view to the administration staff. The event hall is carefully calibrated to draw paying crowds for parties and celebrations that help bankroll the building’s operating costs. Most crucially, the project has a good, tight feel–the sense that space is modulated with careful precision and economy, with a focus on the highest possible efficiency–much like the design of an Olympic-calibre racing scull. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.


Client University Of British Columbia

Architect Team Craig Duffield (design architect + project architect), Carrie Gratland, Susanne Hunter, David Kitazaki, Alvin Martin, Penny Martyn, Larry S. Mcfarland (Principal), Dean Shwedyk, Robert Whetter

Structural (superstructure) Fast & Epp Structural Engineers

Structural (floats & gangways) All-span Engineering And Construction Ltd.

Mechanical Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Electrical Cobalt Engineering

Civil P. S. Turje & Associates Ltd.

Builder (superstructure) Kindred Construction Ltd.

Builder (floating structure) International Marine Floatation Systems Inc.

Code Consultant Gage-babcock and Associates Ltd.

Geotechnical Consultant Trow Associates Inc.

Marine Consultant Westmar Consultants Inc.

Area 1,920 m2

Budget $3.985 m

Completion June 2007