Uncommon Sense

W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind, Brantford, Ontario

G. Bruce Stratton Architects

Established in Brantford, Ontario in 1872, the expansive campus of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind comprises several buildings dedicated to the education and care of over 200 visually impaired students from Grades 1 through 12. Replacing two older buildings–an elementary school/residence and an infirmary/residence, the new 2,800-square-metre primary education building for Grades 1 to 5 includes the school, a six-person student residence and a health services centre.

The high degree of customization in the school’s design caters specifically to the unique needs of the students, enabling them to freely pursue educational objectives without having to waste valuable time coping with a less hospitable learning environment as they would in a generically designed school. The firm’s objective was to promote an enriched living and learning environment with as few barriers as possible.

The building is sited adjacent to the main classroom building for older students built in the 1980s while providing enclosed links to the existing main residence and cafeteria, and creates a pleasant courtyard enclosure defined by trees, walkways and a playground. Its placement within the sloping site creates a certain spatial dynamic and sense of embedding into the landscape while allowing various mechanical features to be located on the lower level.

Perceived in its entirety, the building’s form is relatively streamlined and horizontally oriented, but a dynamic assemblage of forms and polychromatic material juxtapositions result in a highly sculptural building with a surprising level of detail. Texturally distinct poured and precast concrete combine with weathered rusted steel, horizontally scaled zinc, concrete block, and dark iron-spot Norman brick. Even brightly coloured glass is featured at the school’s entrance; tinted glass panels in red, orange, yellow and blue form a low transparent screen wrapping around the conference room, casting geometric patterns of coloured light onto the ground plane. Scuppers for rainwater drainage are exquisitely detailed with an emphasis on the simple beauty of raw materials. Metal chains hang from the soffits, guiding water down into shallow oblong concrete trays lined with rusted steel and filled with small pebbles, lending a Zen-like quality to the project. When I toured the school on a blustery sub-zero winter day, stunning icicle formations accumulated on the hanging chains of the scuppers, forming sparkling crystalline columns of ice.

The school’s low elegant profile is enhanced by a distinctly linear plan which houses eight classrooms with adjoining shared workrooms in one wing, with the infirmary and residence in the other–along with a life skills room and an expansive high-ceilinged multi-purpose gathering space. In plan, the two wings resemble two slightly shifted train cars whose skewed juncture creates the focal point adjacent to the main entry foyer. This generous space is warm and inviting with its maple floors, exposed steel beams, cherry millwork, high ceilings and ample clerestory lighting.

Particular attention to interior materiality and finishes largely drives the project, as the architects realized that what the students lack in visual acuity they compensate for by a heightened sense of hearing and touch. Thus, materials were selected for contrasting qualities of tactility, texture and colour to enable students to differentiate between zones in the process of wayfinding. Additionally, the qualities of sound as an orientation signal informed material choices. Large dark porcelain tiles laid in a brick pattern constitute most of the flooring in the classroom corridors, but critical junctures are differentiated by blonde maple hardwood flooring, which not only contrasts with the tile in colour but in tonal quality underfoot.

Doors and corridors are designed considerably wider than average to accommodate the increased circulation requirements of the students, many of whom navigate with the aid of a walking stick. One-inch ceramic mosaic tiles along with rough and smooth finished concrete blocks line the corridor walls, and act as tactile markers guiding the children as they move through the space. To reinforce this sense of wayfinding, wide black plastic trail rails are placed intermittently along the corridor walls. Large expanses of sandblasted and clear glass allow controlled visual access into the classrooms, permitting natural light from the exterior classroom windows to reach the internal corridors and conveying a sense of transparency and lightness throughout.

The generous presence of cherry millwork throughout the school’s interior appears in the form of doors, screens, storage cabinets and open lockers in the corridors for the children to store their belongings. The lockers are designed extra-wide to incorporate a bench seat with boot storage underneath. Braille nameplates help students locate their individual lockers.

Both natural and artificial lighting was an important consideration in the project. Direct sunlight was minimized as most of these students are highly sensitive to glare. Fenestration was designed to achieve diffuse daylighting conditions, with shading devices to be utilized when necessary. Artificial light sources are varied and layered, and are equipped with dimmers which can be adjusted to meet individual student needs and comfort.

There is a certain irony present in that the students inhabiting this building will never fully appreciate its striking visual beauty as those of us fortunate to possess the full faculty of sight. Nonetheless, the sensory richness present in the level of considered detail and material palette transforms this institution into an engaging place of learning for these children, and a home away from home.

Client: Ministry of Education/Ontario Realty Corporation

Architect Team: Bruce Stratton, Mirko Zupancic, Scott Bailey, Jenny Hung, James Burkitt, Pearl Cheung

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Mechanical: MCW Consultants Ltd.

Electrical: MCW Consultants Ltd.

Landscape: Nak Design Group

Contractor: Aquicon Construction

Area: 2,800 m2

Budget: $9.9 million

Completion: May 2003

Photography: Steven Evans