Outside the Box (October 01, 2006)

Project College of New Caledonia-John A. Brink Technical Trades and Technology Centre, Prince George, British Columbia

Architect Mcfarlane Green Architecture + Design

Text Jim Taggart

Photos Mcfarlane Green, David Burdeny

The College of New Caledonia (CNC) has offered a wide range of university credit, technical, vocational and general interest programs to students in British Columbia’s Central Interior since 1969. Its main campus lies on the outskirts of the city of Prince George, an area characterized by big-box retail stores and other vehicle-oriented uses.

For many years the Canadian Tire Corporation had a landmark presence in the area, owning and operating a retail store and auto repair shop immediately adjacent to the CNC campus. In 2002, as part of a market repositioning, the company abandoned the existing store in favour of a new and larger facility. Recognizing its potential to accommodate a much needed campus expansion, and to rationalize its programs by bringing several of its trade schools under one roof, the college quickly moved to acquire the property.

The purchase received the assent of the Ministry of Education based on an initial feasibility study that had identified a budget of $3.6 million for the conversion of the building to academic use. At only $63 per square foot, this budget addressed functional and regulatory considerations, general upgrading to meet code standards applicable to the change of use, and reconciling the proposed program with the available space. The new revised program consisted of a range of activities, including specialized shop areas for carpentry, wood technology, electrical training, auto repair, and customized industry training, in addition to classrooms and faculty offices.

What the budget did not address were the overriding architectural and urban design challenges presented by the project. The existing structure had many of the characteristics common to a “big-box” typology: large setbacks for parking that isolated the building from its surroundings, and an almost windowless envelope in which the only significant glazing was at the main entrance lobby. Over time, several additions and renovations had left the building with a hybrid structure, with the exception of the retail floor itself, a labyrinth of partitioned spaces.

McFarlane Green’s analysis of the project identified four key design goals: the rationalization of interior space to improve legibility and coherence; the introduction of natural light wherever possible to improve working conditions; the creation of an internal meeting place to facilitate interaction between students and faculty members of various departments; and finally, creating a connection to the existing campus and responding more appropriately to the urban context.

In order to facilitate the necessary manipulation of the modest budget in pursuit of these goals, the architects realized they would be limited in the architectural moves they could make. From the outset, they were determined to work with an uncompromising material palette and industrial detailing of the existing structure deeming it acceptable for a trade school. This enabled them to concentrate on the careful detailing of key areas in which the building occupants would interact with one another. These elements create a human scale within the larger existing box, and a refined contrast to the rugged backdrop of the existing structure.

In plan, major program areas are arranged around clear and simple circulation spaces connecting to the two main building entries. A new entry vestibule responds to students approaching from the heart of the main campus and anticipates the future campus master plan. The existing entry on the east side provides access for those approaching from the parking area.

The simple and orderly plan allows for easy reconfiguration in the future. The shop areas are designed to maximize their available open space, facilitating equipment reconfigurations. Noisy shop spaces are grouped to the west, separated from the quieter classroom areas by an acoustic buffer of storage and service spaces. Distinct entry “portals” into each of the different shops provide a strong threshold to areas where safety is paramount. The automotive shop capitalizes on the pre-existing garage area of the old Canadian Tire space, reusing many of the existing specialized systems. Classroom spaces, used by all of the various trades divisions, are designed to be multi-purpose and flexible. Faculty offices are grouped around a glazed shared meeting area to support the exchange of ideas.

McFarlane Green’s design locates key programmatic elements adjacent to the three existing window openings and introduces three large skylights into the ceiling of the central corridor. Budgetary restrictions meant that the heavy masonry construction of the existing exterior walls preclude the introduction of new perimeter windows. Natural light is thus borrowed from the circulation areas through a glazed display case at each of the classroom entries. These display cases are intended to be used as “conversation pieces” in which each department would exhibit materials and products representative of their work. Additional skylights supplement the major shop areas while preserving valuable wall space for shelving and displays.

A lounge, caf, and gallery area are located in the light-filled centre of the building where it is hoped they will encourage informal interaction between students and faculty. The freestanding caf is positioned as an object within the large central volume, mediating between the human scale and the scale of the big box. The design approach is conceived as carpentry rather than a joinery element, illustrating the elegance of simple wood construction. The choice of wood for this and other feature areas of the building comes as no surprise in Prince George, but was further mandated by John A. Brink, the building’s major benefactor and a key figure in the local forest industry after whom the facility was named.

To balance the desire to showcase wood with the modest Ministry funding available for the project, the design concentrates an emphasis on wood in distinct areas. Recycled edge-grain plywood flooring welcomes visitors while fir plywood casework and benches bring warmth to the various shop spaces as well. Cedar fencing is used externally to break down the iconic image of the original building while creating a strong physical connection to the main campus, and announces the new facility at an urban scale.

Having raised their profile with their striking and sophisticated extension to the Prince George Airport (see CA, October 2005), McFarlane Green have now broadened it with this thrifty and highly pragmatic project. With an economy and elegance of architectural language, the firm has taken this most prosaic of buildings and transformed it into something that comes close to poetry.

Jim Taggart, a retired Vancouver architect, works as a freelance journalist and educator.

Client Name College of New Caledonia

Architect Team Steve Mcfarlane, Michael Green, Vicki Brown, Susan Scott, David Flynn

Structural Equilibrium Consulting

Mechanical HPF Engineering

Electrical NRS Engineering

Landscape College of New Caledonia

Interiors McFarlane Green Architecture + Design

Code GHL Consulting

Cost TBKG Consultants,

Contractor Western Industrial Contracting

Area 60,000 Ft2

Budget $3.7 M

Completion August 2005