Rehabilitation Revolution

Project Whitehorse Correctional Centre, Whitehorse, Yukon
ArchitectS DGBK Architects with Ron Dies Architecture and Kobayashi + Zedda Architects
Text Alan MacDiarmid
Photos Latreille Delage Photography

From above, Yukon’s capital city Whitehorse is a blip against a vast carpet of boreal spruce, shadowed by the high peaks of the St. Elias Mountains. With no other city within 1,000 kilometres, it is firmly embedded within the North’s natural beauty. For those building in the Yukon, however, this environmental stockade introduces a multitude of unique architectural challenges. The remote geography presents limited infrastructure and mobility networks, severe cold weather conditions, and a population density too low to support specialized construction labour and large-scale manufacturing industries. In addition to logistical considerations, social sensitivity towards the North’s long-marginalized indigenous populations adds a further degree of complexity to any Northern project’s viability. 

Such concerns are doubly compounded with respect to the design of correctional facilities, largely stemming from Canada’s troubled, historically “corrective” relationship with its First Nations. Underscoring this tension in the present, First Nations represent 25% of the Yukon’s general population, yet constitute some 75% of its incarcerated individuals.

In 2006, the Yukon Justice Department sought to reframe the territory’s overall system of correctional facilities. The government’s Correctional Redevelopment Strategic Plan of 2007 placed a greater focus on cooperation and inmate support, rather than retributive justice. In terms of architecture, this was to take place both through updated facilities and through programmatic development for those buildings that supports a new operational philosophy. The Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC), opened in spring 2012, is the cornerstone of this plan.

The seven-hectare WCC complex is located on the site of the 1967 Whitehorse Jail, in the historic downtown neighbourhood of Takhini. Since the WCC also falls within the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’an Council, consultation between local and other Territorial First Nations and the project team were woven into the process. 

DGBK Architects of Vancouver led the design team with the help of corrections advisors Jug Island Consulting and Ron Dies Architecture. They coupled their specialized correctional design expertise with the local design knowledge of Whitehorse-based Kobayashi + Zedda Architects (KZA). The general contractor for the WCC was a joint venture between Canada-wide Stuart Olson Dominion Construction and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. An effective outcome of this partnership was continuous First Nations involvement with the project throughout its various stages.

The first phase of the Centre’s redevelopment involved the construction of a Transitional Women’s Living Unit on the southwest corner of the site, designed by KZA as a subconsultant to DGBK and completed in 2010. The larger WCC building, designed by DGBK, is adjoined by a 50-square-metre Spiritual Healing Room, spearheaded by KZA. All three of these spaces were envisaged as components in a project narrative of community healing and regrowth.

Generally, the main WCC building houses inmates awaiting trial and inmates serving sentences of up to two years. During this time, they are accommodated in one of five largely self-contained living units, each comprised of 18 to 20 cells over either two or three floors, arrayed around a common space. Adjacent to each common space is an exercise room and an outdoor courtyard for use by inmates in that area. A central command core between the second and third floors allows officers to oversee activity within all the living units. Other corrections officers are stationed within the living units for direct supervision. The design–which conforms to Generation 3 corrections operations principles that emphasize the humane treatment of inmates–offers several operational advantages. Its spatial organization requires fewer staff to monitor inmate activities while simultaneously reducing the amount of inmate movement, reducing costs and potential confrontations. 

The WCC also houses inmate medical, dental and video court facilities on site. This reduces the need to transport inmates to and from downtown Whitehorse, affording further efficiencies, improved security and more immediate service to inmate needs. Although incarcerated in a secure facility, the Centre provides a supportive environment and connects inmates to the community through a diverse array of other auxiliary spaces within the facility, including a library, various workshops, a Yukon college campus, space for extended family visits, and gathering spaces where First Nations elders and family members perform traditional native ceremonies including solstice celebrations, smudging, and ceremonial game meat preparation. 

One of the most dramatic architectural features of the Centre is the Spiritual Healing Room, which is intended as a quiet, inclusive and secular space. To avoid prioritizing any one of the Yukon First Nations’ varied traditional building typologies, a common natural form–the Prairie Crocus–was abstracted in the room’s shape. The Yukon flower is known for its early springtime germination following prolonged winter darkness, making it an appropriate symbol for an inclusive space of renewal. 

Light plays a key role in the Spiritual Healing Room. A radiating series of curved fin walls cascades toward the west, revealing vertical glazing strips, akin to the faint openings between the petals of the Prairie Crocus. Through this glazing, slivers of daylight illuminate the perimeter wooden benches and articulate the curved white walls. Diffuse clerestory light renders the wood beam ceiling with a buoyant glow. 

Natural light is given similar importance throughout other areas of the building, used strategically to both provide a more humane environment for inmates, and to symbolize the collective nature of their rehabilitation. Within the living units, communal spaces have been afforded a generous amount of daylight, borrowed from the courtyards’ skyward-facing apertures. 

The Centre’s material palette was chosen primarily to meet security concerns and durability needs. Although uncommon in corrections facilities, to add warmth to inmates’ daily environmental experience, wood is included throughout as an accent on doors, millwork and ceiling beams. Given the project’s relatively large size, few materials were available through local suppliers. This meant that in order to avoid delays in construction, material considerations were necessary early in the design stage. Additionally, the erection of the building envelope before winter was critical in ensuring the project was concluded on time and, ultimately, under budget at $58 million. 

The project was designed to LEED Silver standard; an impressive feat given the dramatic energy loads imposed by both climatic conditions and the project’s high-tech security features. In order to offset energy demands, DGBK originally contemplated a geo-exchange heating and cooling system. When it was determined that the system would be ineffective due to the high porosity of the glacial gravel underlying the site, the alternative of a biomass energy generator fuelled by high-efficiency wood pellets was selected. Other LEED features include low-voltage lighting, in-floor hydronic radiant heating and cooling, and displacement ventilation. 

In its ability to successfully navigate Whitehorse’s complex social and climatic environment, the WCC outlines a positive trajectory for incarceration in the North. Where the design struggles to fully sa
tisfy its promises however, is at the junction between symbolism and materiality. References to nature–through organic forms, daylighting and wood accents–supplant direct experiences with nature. Perhaps it’s a noble ambition that is extremely difficult to achieve in a high-security facility. It does not diminish from the facility’s sensitivity to both inmate support and traditional practices. The designs of the Healing Room and amenity spaces in particular point back towards First Nations’ traditional Healing Circles, which prioritize integrated forms of justice. Overall, in its updated programmatic design and special attention focused on the rehabilitative needs of First Nation peoples, the WCC encouragingly gestures toward a new healthier paradigm for correctional facilities across Canada.

Alan MacDiarmid is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. He has previously worked with architectural practices in New York, London, Barcelona and Whitehorse.

Client Yukon Territorial Government | Architect Team Greg Dowling, Jack Kobayashi, Ron Dies, Konhee Ho, Roger Green, Walter Dales, Hamish Boa, Kristin Schreiner, Justine Copestake, Frank Dalley | Structural Bush Bohlman and Partners | HVAC Douglas Spratt and Associates Ltd | Plumbing And Fire Protection Northern Climate Engineering | Electrical Genivar with Doward Engineering | Interiors DGBK Architects | Contractor Dominion Kwanlin Dün Joint Venture | Corrections Consultant Jug Island Consulting | BSCS Engineer REI Consulting Services Inc | Civil Quest Engineering | Leed Recollective | Area 7,350 m2 | Budget $58 M | Completion March 2012