PROJECT East Three Schools, Inuvik, Northwest Territories
ARCHITECT Pin/Taylor Architects
TEXT Piper Bernbaum
PHOTOS Ihor Pona
“It’s an important project for us,” says former mayor Peter Clarkson as we walk up to Pin/Taylor Architects’ new East Three Schools in Inuvik, an arc-shaped building comfortably nestled into the terrain. He smiles, “Everyone’s excited for it.” The openness of the building and the warm sunlight entering the main foyer makes me agree. Inuvik needs this.
Inuvik, just two degrees north of the Arctic Circle, is situated in a stunning location with rich natural resources, but with significant social needs and not nearly enough support. Scattered throughout town are decaying homes, poorly insulated trailers, unfinished suburban-style houses, and utility pipelines running amok. The community has a relatively large population of 3,500 and an important location beside the Mackenzie River Delta at the end of the Dempster Highway. It’s a regional centre to the Beaufort Delta Region in the Northwest Territories. As a territorial hub, it’s the ideal place for a major new building that brings together people and landscape.
The Northwest Territories has been replacing and upgrading its schools since the 1990s. Accessible civic spaces are limited in many of its communities, so as a result, buildings often do double duty: arenas and school gymnasiums serve as indoor areas for social gatherings. East Three Schools’ mandate was thus to provide much more than simply a daytime school, but also to act as a recreational centre and to offer town hall-style meeting spaces. “We need more diversification of programs and facilities to help the economy and the region,” says Clarkson.
East Three Schools is a 128,000-square-foot two-storey facility that sits on 16 acres, half of which is dedicated to parkland. Nicknamed the “Super-School,” it replaces Inuvik’s two existing public schools that not only had high heating loads but were supported on timber-pile foundations reaching the end of their lifespan. The project evolved through roundtable discussions with the community, including local Gwich’in and Inuvialuit First Nations. “The community was a big force throughout,” says Simon Taylor of Pin/Taylor Architects, who led the design with partner Gino Pin. “We focused on the common aspirations of these groups, seeking to give the project a conscious cultural identity inside and out that all groups could identify with.”
The school is welcoming and personable, providing large perimeter classrooms interspersed with a central band of common learning and leisure spaces for its 1,050 students. It’s laid out as a faceted south-facing crescent, with one wing dedicated to kindergarten and elementary students, and the other given over to high school students. A massive double gymnasium and a library form shared spaces in the centre. Glass panels adjoin the multiple entrance foyers as well as the administrative offices and gymnasiums, creating visual links to the heart of the school. Open spaces and generous stairwells connect common areas on different levels, offering students a wealth of opportunities to socialize, mingle, and to see and be seen. Glazing between hallways and various classrooms creates openness in the plan to encourage shared methods of learning. The animated light-filled environment is drastically different than the dark double-loaded corridors of Inuvik’s previous schools.
Roof-integrated skylights, light wells and extensive glazing throughout the building ensure natural light throughout the year. Even nearing the winter solstice, when the sun goes below the horizon, twilight enters through clerestory windows. In contrast to many Northern buildings that form bunkers against the harsh outdoors, East Three Schools constantly links indoors and out. “The windows frame the landscape around the building,” says Gino Pin. “The Aboriginal relationship to the ground is very sacred, and we worked to emphasize the environment throughout.” Colourful pastel murals of the Northern Lights, Arctic animals and scenery enliven the hallways, while depictions of Aboriginal Arctic games in the gymnasium tie back to the region and its traditions.
The design of the new school exceeds the Model National Energy Code by 56.1 percent. One key energy-efficiency measure is a modern ventilation system. Operable windows offer cross ventilation and central two-storey open spaces create a stack effect that naturally circulates air. At the top of the central light wells, temperature-sensitive louvres open to release warm air. Computerized energy management, clean burning boilers, a heat-recovery system and a daylight-harvesting light-control system reduce energy waste while optimizing the way the building captures natural light and fresh air from the outdoors.
Outside, intricate sunshades on the façades leave winter light unimpeded to filter into the school, while protecting against the harsh 24-hour high-angle summer sunlight. “The sunscreens are a safeguard fabric too,” remarks Taylor, explaining that they deter vandalism. Many of Inuvik’s facilities are boarded up during the off-season and become targets for damage by weather or idle teens. Says Taylor, “The community didn’t want the building to look shut down or inaccessible after hours or during the summer–it needed to feel open and inviting all year round.”
Underneath the school, Pin/Taylor used a steel adfreeze pile system–a common approach to foundations in the Northwest Territories. Contractors drilled holes up to 60 feet deep in the frozen ground, then dropped piles into the holes, surrounding them with a silica cement slurry which freezes over the span of several months, adhering the steel to the permafrost. The school is lifted off the ground, allowing cold winter air to move freely under the building to ensure that the ground remains frozen.
To create accessible and welcoming grade-level entrances, a series of rock-filled gabion baskets slope the terrain up to the entrance level, ending in a retaining wall 10 feet from the face of the building. Bridges span over the moat between the top of the gabion walls and the entrances. The gently sloped, landscaped walkways leading to the school doors are a welcome change from the steps and ramps at the front of many Arctic buildings.
Despite its overall size, East Three Schools is not an imposing structure. This is in part due to the thoughtful integration of the structure with its landscape. “For us, any landscape intervention had to be sensitive,” says Pin. “If you compete with nature, you generally lose. We wanted to maintain an outdoor play area and incorporate the building into the natural environment of the North.”
That’s where landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander came in, with a design that makes the grounds just as educational as the school itself. “Everything used on the grounds is sourced locally from the region,” she explains, adding that she chose plants that are key in traditional native food and medicine. “Nowhere is climate change more noticed than in the Arctic. This impact on food security changes traditional hunting, food-gathering and storing. Above all, it points to the importance of youth learning to understand local foods.”
To successfully establish vegetation in the North, Oberlander directed the collection of seeds native to the Inuvik region and had them grown at a state-of-the-art facility in Langley, British Columbia. The mature plants were brought back to the site in 2012. Spruce, birch and larch trees were relocated from forests surrounding the town to create a shelterbelt that protects the school grounds from wind, weather and snowdrifts. A lack of maintenance has kept the site from fully thriving, but the hardy native plant material has sustained itself regardless.
Such a big building with big expectations comes with big adjustments. To date, East Three Schools has been active as a school, but has yet to grow into its full potential as a community hub. In part, that’s due to a lack of money–funding for civic initiatives such as after-school programs and park maintenance is hard to come by–but it’s also waiting for community members to take charge of the space. “It’ll take time,” says Pin. “The project offers flexibility: all the potential for imaginative space is there, and we just hope for more buy-in from the community over the years to come.”
“There was a big feast in the gymnasium the night the school opened. It was beautiful,” recalls Taylor. “We want that life to be present as often as possible in the building. A school in the Northwest Territories is an important and major facility. Hopefully the government and the people will see the need for it to be more available.”
Piper Bernbaum is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, currently pursuing her Masters of Architecture.
Client Government of the Northwest Territories–Department Of Education, Culture and Employment | Architect Team Gino Pin, Simon Taylor, Becca Denley, Svetlana Kaznacheeva, Jennifer Espisito, Seth Lippert | Structural Nelson Engineering Inc | Mechanical/Electrical Stantec Architecture (formerly FSC Architects & Engineers) | Landscape Cornelia Hahn Oberlander | Interiors Ihor Pona and Pin/Taylor Architects | Contractor Dowland Contracting Ltd | Wind And Snow Consultant Theakston Environmental | Cost Consultant Highland Economics | Acoustics HHP Acoustical | Energy Assessment Enersys Analytics Inc | Hazmat Arctic Environmental Solutions | Area 12,167 m2 | Budget $92 M | Completion July 2012