Tsawwassen First Nation Youth Centre: In Style with Coast Salish Tradition

Photo credit: Ema Peter

The Tsawwassen Youth Centre is located on the traditional lands of the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN), south of Vancouver, British Columbia, on the sparkling waters of the Salish Sea. The word Tsawwassen means ‘land facing the sea’ with Coast Salish traditions going back over 4000 years.

Principal architect Dr. Nancy Mackin designed the space to include the Coast Salish creation story, in which birds descended from the sky and shed their feathers as they transformed into humans. Avian insignia (barn swallows, Western sandpipers and hummingbirds) adorn walls, welcome poles, and fritted windows (to prevent bird collisions). Being at the epicentre of the Pacific Flyway, millions of migrating birds flock to the area year-round.

“Architecture isn’t just about tangible materials,” said Mackin. She’s referring to how natural light plays and ripples around the rooms, casting bird silhouettes on the walls and floor. These plays of light echo transformation themes found in Coast Salish stories. Lighting fixtures embody Coast Salish circular shapes of the trigon and arc.

Photo credit: Ema Peter

Mackin consulted and collaborated with local artists, notably carvers and cultural guides, Karl Morgan and Bryce Williams. Interactions took flight among children, teens, and community elders.

Through this collaboration, Mackin has displayed the dance of barn swallows, the foraging expertise of the Western sandpiper, and the precision of a hummingbird in her execution of the design. Hummingbirds are also harbingers of ecological well-being: for example, in a story shared among Indigenous peoples all along the Pacific coastline, the hummingbird extinguished a raging forest fire, dropping moisture from its bill, doing its bit. “I’m doing what I can” has become a message on the youth centre wall.

The teenagers played in mini-workshops with a model mock-up of the structure which Mackin had built for them, and onto which they could add cladding, canopies and roof, just as their ancestors had done. Their input produced drawings and ideas that helped in an appreciation of the project without having trained in architecture or engineering. They named each room according to an animal story—‘Wolf’ for the teen centre, ‘Bear’ for the weight room, ‘Orca’, and so on. Mackin said how the learned language and stories from the artwork became part of the signage for each room.

“That’s what we want,” Mackin recalled the youth saying, “two longhouses and this area in the middle where everyone shares food.”

Photo credit: Ema Peter

Former Chief Ken Baird thanked Mackin for bringing the planning process to completion over a three-year period—in which her “expertise and experience highlight Tsawwassen culture” to create “a place where you (the youth) can have fun, learn new skills and connect to our language and culture—a safe space…a place of healing…an opportunity to foster connections (and) build a sense of community.”

One elder relayed to Mackin how the building reflects the true nature of the First Nation with its history of art and storytelling. Another said how the children are already doing better in school because they have a place where their culture is celebrated. Their new space inspires them.

In the opening-ceremony, Mackin said: “This building is for the next generation (and will) look after the land and look after the culture.”

She stipulated that the reduced impacts of climate change ‘look after’ the land in the use of B.C. Western Red cedar in the assembly, and in the mass timber (hemlock-fir) Dowel-laminated Timber (DLT) (all 26,000 square feet of it in the wall panels, roof and flooring) that sequesters “three times as much CO2-equivalency in the building as was used in its creation.”

“The youth centre is a unique hybrid combination of poles, DLT, and steel that has not, to the best of my understanding, been done anywhere else in the world,” said Mackin who grew up in tiny northern communities alongside Indigenous people. Her father was a surveyor, all-the-while working on his engineering degree.

“It’s such a visual culture,” said Mackin. “The buildings tell the stories.”

Photo credit: Mitch Creek of Solos Productions

Mackin calls Western Red cedar a ‘dominant eco-cultural keystone species’ as Coast Salish culture wouldn’t have been the same without it in her opinion. It is a water-fungus-fire and earthquake-resistant building material that is lightweight and long-lasting while at the same time aesthetic in its aroma and golden colour. The exposed wood extends from walls to ceiling to the outside.

“Western Red cedar pulls carbon pollution from the atmosphere,” Mackin added.

First Nations employed all parts of the cedar for clothing, transportation, housing, and much more. The Coast Salish people were the first-documented in archeological records to build ‘curtain walls’ according to Mackin.

“We see downtown (Vancouver) curtain-wall buildings with glass independent of the steel or concrete structure inside.” As for the First Nations’ unique building technique—“The exterior skin is independent of the interior structure. On the outside they had vertical poles (to which) they tied the cladding with cedar withes (lashing and cordage). The brilliant thing about this is that the Indigenous peoples could take the planks off the outside…and take them to their summer or winter villages, and transport them in their canoes,” said Mackin.

Rendering of Tsawwassen First Nation Youth Centre

“The mass timber does another thing,” said Mackin. “DLT is 100% wood…no glues, no off-gassing. You can recycle it. It’s demountable. Take the cladding (the cedar planks) and the DLT off, also the poles. It hardly uses up any space…we had four-inch thick mass timber walls going up forty feet.”

Mackin noted in an American Institute of Architects (AIA) International presentation (one of many she gives worldwide) that they designed the youth centre with forty-foot roof panels and walls, mindful of the environmental responsibility to keep a low-carbon imprint. In fact, they achieved a net carbon benefit as modeled by the Canadian Wood Council, and came in well within budget. Most materials were sourced and manufactured from within a 100-kilometer radius.

Beneath the youth centre project is the river-mouth sediment of a delta where there is “no bedrock within fifty meters,” said Mackin, “so we did natural stone columns going all the way down” topped with a suspended at-grade slab. The area was built up a meter and a half to accommodate rising seawater levels resulting from climate change.

Mackin’s doctorate in architecture, Indigenous design, and landscape ecology couples well with First Nations community projects. That is evident in her buildings from Northern Canada to southwestern coastal towns and cities. In each design, there is a connection with natural spaces (biophilia).

On site at the TFN Youth Centre, those spaces take shape under two mono-sloped rooflines. Within, the gymnasium, the library, the weight room, the art room, the teen lounge and teaching kitchen, are areas for music, dance and media that allow for scheduled and drop-in classes. There is after-school care for young children.

“We listened to the building,” said Mackin. “And project-specific research led to a modification in noise reduction technology. This research was essential because there was little documentation on STC (Sound Transmission Class) ratings for DLT as an exposed ceiling finish.”

She outlined how the research led to portions of the second floor having a unique assembly with layers of sound absorptive flooring on concrete topping over a wave-shaped resilient layer and acoustic DLT, all making possible the sound absorption to the floor below.

Design: Mackin Architects Ltd.

“The DLT walls are made of two-by-fours dowelled together…we went to the factory and saw this happening, and then they transported…(and) tilted (them) into place. Pole structure, DLT, and steel were all prefabricated and crafted using computer numerical control (CNC) modeling based on the architectural Revit model. The whole thing came together like a LegoSet,” said Mackin.

She concluded, “As architects, the best stories are the ones to come…to see how the building is used once it’s finished…the most important thing is to listen to the community. That’s the keystone of ecological architecture: connecting people to their language, their culture and their homeland.”

Project: Tsawwassen First Nation Youth Centre
Completion: December 2021
Design: Mackin Architects Ltd.
Prizes: 2021 Architecture Foundation of BC Awards of Excellence: Equity Award, 2021 ‘Sustainable Architecture & Building’ Institutional Green Building Award, 2022 ‘Wood Design & Building’, Against the Grain Award, 2023 B.C. Wood Council, Western Red Cedar Award
Size: 1115 square meters
Mass Timber Installer: StructureCraft
Structural Engineer: Ennova Structural Engineers
Construction Manager: Converge Construction Ltd.
Pole & Beam Supplier: Durfeld Log & Timber
Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: MCW
Photo credit: Ema Peter