Quest for the Future

Project Quest University Canada, Squamish, British Columbia

Architect Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects + Urbanistes

Text Tanya Southcott

Photos Nic Lehoux

The challenge of place-making in the heart of Sea to Sky Country is to create an architecture that is responsive to the dramatic landscape of coastal British Columbia rather than subservient to it. Located in Squamish, a community geographically midway between Vancouver and Whistler, Quest University is Canada’s first private not-for- profit, secular liberal arts university. It was created through the vision of David Strangway, a former president of the University of British Columbia who had a vision to build a private university soon after he retired as president in 1997. The process of creating Quest University was not without its challenges from those who felt that the university would undermine the public educational system. Despite these challenges, Strangway managed to open the university in 2007, with 160 students enrolled in an institution that charges a $25,000 annual tuition. Today, the $100-million campus considers itself an integrated community that draws its inspiration from its spectacular context while nurturing an intimate sense of community akin to the European hillside village, albeit one with state-of- the-art sustainable design.

In 2003, Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects + Urbanistes were retained by the Sea to Sky Foundation (now known as Quest University Canada) to develop a master plan for the university. Located at the mouth of Howe Sound, the new campus sits atop 240 acres of coastal mountain range in the Garibaldi Highlands about 10 kilometres outside Squamish’s town centre. The first phase of the project featured the design of key campus buildings including the library, academic building, services building and the recreation centre. Yet to be completed, the second phase will feature more community-driven development including residential market housing, a chapel, a theatre and a neighbourhood commercial hub, not to mention more academic buildings to accommodate a student population that will eventually surpass the university’s current capacity of 800 students.

The university marks a new direction for postsecondary education in Canada. Designed primarily for undergraduate studies, the liberal arts and science program approaches its curriculum thematically, integrating multiple disciplines into intensive three-and-a-half-week “blocks.” Classes are kept small through seminar-based learning with a student-to-teacher ratio of not more than ten to one. Even the university’s motto–Intimate, Integrated and International– attempts to describe this unique educational experiment while setting the stage for an architectural manifestation of its ideology. The opportunity to develop a campus design that responds to the university’s philosophy while addressing the students’ yearning for a different educational environment is unprecedented.

Winding its way up and around the campus, the approach along University Parkway reveals a series of robust buildings carefully integrated into their natural surroundings. Of note is the central academic complex that sits at the top of the steeply sloping knoll like a modern acropolis. But rather than design pristine sculptural objects set against the landscape, the architects designed campus buildings to firmly embrace the site and its surrounding beauty.

At the core of the university, buildings are designed to take advantage of dramatic views that frame a series of interlocking plazas. The campus’s library sits on the uppermost peak while the academic and services buildings are set into the more steeply sloping western portion of the site. Collectively, they frame the main outdoor social area for the campus whose fourth side opens up to the landscape beyond. Outdoor walkways, landscaped open spaces and large terraces link one building to the next and tie the complex together through numerous opportunities for visual connections with the outdoors.

The library serves as both the heart of the campus and a gateway to the university community. Yet it is an introverted, centrally focused building constructed around a large three-storey interior atrium functioning as the main social hub for the building. High clerestory windows allow daylight to penetrate deep into the interior, creating a room that is warm and welcoming, even during the shorter days of winter. An opportunity for impromptu social engagement, the central staircase connects the administration, student services and caf at the ground level with the upper two levels of the library. With 360-degree awe-inspiring views as a panoramic backdrop, only the view from the library stacks uses the landscape as a visual focus.

The academic building is the largest building in the complex. Organized around a central exterior courtyard that follows the natural contours of the site, each floor plate is designed to create a series of social spaces that contribute to the academic life of the school. Modestly sized seminar rooms are located along the perimeter of the building, while smaller breakout rooms are focused inwards. Wide corridors with framed views of the courtyard below and the mountains beyond link these two areas together. To give another level of expression to the building, each study and meeting space is coded by door type and differentiated by glass panels that feature a different piece of a larger poem.

Both the services building and recreation centre are designed as meeting places for students and faculty as well as the local community. The double-curved roof of the services building opens up toward the south while overhead doors open up to the patios and plazas to maximize sunlight and provide opportunities to connect outdoor spaces with the large informal cafeteria and multipurpose room. To date, the recreation centre accommodates a collegiate-level gymnasium, fitness area, squash courts and change rooms. Commercial units are still under development and have yet to become operational. As the first development along Village Drive–the university’s main street–the recreation centre offers the opportunity to become a more authentic village centre once development in the area increases.

While the experience of each building is governed by its individual program-driven design, the buildings complement each other throughout the complex via common materials, colour, and their relationship with the outdoors. The materiality of the buildings–heavy timber and laminated beams, or horizontally laid corrugated metal siding–is clearly informed by the industrial context of the region. Canopies and shading devices are assembled from a kit of parts, adapted throughout the campus to further enhance the user experience. Along with concrete, metal, glass and wood, colour is used to unite the architectural expression of each building and becomes a tool for wayfinding within the complex. Individual floors within each building are distinguished by fields of colour, as are prominent circulation cores that become beacons of colour and light.

Both compact and walkable, the campus is also completely accessible. Visitors are dropped off at the library where access to all buildings and amenities is convenient and close. Parking and service areas are located underground, along a “utilidor” that runs beneath the complex and beyond pedestrians’ experience. These are accessible from one entrance bay only, thereby eliminating requirements for excessive service access roads.

Part of the mandate for Quest University was to use environmentally, socially and economically responsible principles going back to Strangway’s original motto, and to this end the strategies read like a checklist. Geothermal heating and cooling, used as the main energy source for the campus, are distributed through radiant-slab systems. Si
ting was sensitive to the existing conditions of the landscape to minimize rock blasting while retaining the maximum number of trees. Moreover, the design of interior and exterior spaces was also governed by solar orientation. All buildings have operable windows for natural ventilation and user comfort while exterior sunshades and high-performance glazing were used wherever appropriate. Locally sourced materials, the use of bioswales, infiltration fields and retention ponds further reduce environmental impact of the campus.

Though modest in program and spatial requirements, Quest University could have easily been accommodated by one building with a more compact footprint. As it sits, the campus uses 60 acres to accommodate fewer than 1,000 full-time students, faculty and staff. The decision to spread the program across the site reflects a socially motivated attempt to instill a more urbane, user-friendly environment for the new student population. The use of circulation to enhance social interaction in the creation of more sustainable spaces has been a focus of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden’s work since their redevelopment of Vancouver’s Granville Island in the 1970s. While the transformation of a dilapidated industrial site into a vibrant, livable community was visionary at the time, its successes draw significantly from its location in the heart of a metropolis of over two million people. Quest University, by contrast, feels empty and isolated, and its ability to act as a catalyst for local development might better be served by a more integrated approach. Currently under capacity, the state-of-the-art facility is limited in terms of the social and support networks it can offer its young student body and in the level of security and control the secluded campus can provide.

For Squamish, a town historically fuelled by the local pulp-and-paper mill, the development of a postsecondary institution helps position the community within a larger global context while creating new economic opportunities for residents otherwise affected by the decline in the British Columbia forest industry. By using the campus as an opportunity to showcase British Columbia and its landscape, Quest joins a long tradition of pioneering and speculation that has made the West what it is today. While the long-term viability for private postsecondary education in Canada remains to be seen, the ambition of Quest University’s architecture speaks to the potential of such an institution and its long-term possibilities for the region.

Tanya Southcott is an intern architect living and working in Vancouver.


Client Sea to Sky Foundation (now Quest University Canada)

Architecture Team Joost Bakker (Principal in Charge), Bruce Haden (Associate Principal), Andrew Larigakis (Project Architect), Chantal Bobyn, Julie Bogdanowicz, Matthew Cencich, Michael Cencich, Stephanie Forsythe, Won Kang, Brian Kao, Paul Klimczak, Sandra Korpan, Roland Kupfer, Rose Linseman, Teresa Lowe, Aaron Outhwaite, Nigel Parish, Kassra Tavakoli, Deryk Whitehead

Planning Consultant Cornerstone Architecture and Planning Group

Landscape Architect Vaughan Landscape Planning & Design

Interiors Masson McMillan Interior Design

Structural Bush Bohlman & Partners

Mechanical Stantec Inc.

Electrical R. A. Duff & Associates Inc.

Civil Webster Engineering Ltd.

Geotechnical Thurber Engineering

Code GHL Consultants Ltd.

Acoustics Daniel Lyzun & Associates

Building Envelope Levelton Consultants Ltd.

Specifications Morris Specifications

Contractor Scott Construction Group

Area Library 44,170 FT2; University Services 31,550 FT2; Academic 50,660 FT2; Recreation Centre 28,202 FT2

Budget $100M

Completion September 2007 (Phase 1)