High Function: Williams Parkway Operations Centre, Brampton, Ontario

The periphery of Brampton, Ontario, a rapidly growing satellite city in Greater Toronto’s 905 belt, can feel like the land of the giants: the arterial roads are exceptionally wide, even by suburban standards, and they are lined with fortress-like distribution centre and vast car assembly plants. Amidst the overwhelming industrial scale of this landscape, the City of Brampton’s new Williams Parkway Operations Centre is a structure built not only to human scale, but with expressive design elements that literally stick out in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
A linear two-storey glass atrium forms the transparent spine of the administrative wing, connecting every major space and encouraging interaction between office staff, outdoor workers and tradespeople in a common transitional zone, easing both access and security. Photo by Bob Gundu.

The 190,000-sq.-ft complex—designed by RDHA and completed last fall after a two-phase construction period—declares its intent from a distance with a luminous, glass-walled boardroom cantilevered out over Williams Parkway. That space is the end of a 500-ft-long corridor—a light-filled, two-storey corridor that serves as the central spine linking the two elements of the centre.

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
Photo by Tom Arban.

At one end is a two-storey open-concept block for administrative offices. At the other are functional areas: a sign shop, a cavernous vehicle repair bay filled with soft natural light, and then facilities (change rooms, a cafeteria) for the plough and vehicle operators for whom the operations centre is a dispatch hub. A landscaped courtyard with tables and seating is nestled between the two.

The slab-on-grade structure features exposed steel beams, acoustically treated cherry-wood panels, frameless glass partitions and a suspended staircase near the entrance. The glazing has a frit pattern designed to filter afternoon sun and the spine structure is lined with vertical shade fins secured by cable bracing. Outside, a long scrim with the words Williams Parking Operations Centre extends along the edge of the parking lot: this structure is the outward facing wall of a covered walkway leading into the parking area where the heavy equipment is kept.

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
The Williams Parkway Operations Centre aims to increase civic pride, as well as improve interaction between administrative staff, outdoor workers and tradespeople. Photo by Bob Gundu.

Brampton officials decided to replace its 1970s operations complex—home to snow ploughs, salt sheds, municipal fleets, and capital works staff—after evaluating the long-term needs of a municipality projected to grow from 600,000 people to almost a million, says Mike Parks, Brampton’s director of road maintenance, operations and fleet, and the principal client for this project.

The complex was built to LEED Gold standards, with features such as geothermal heating, a green roof, FSE-certified wood and solar-powered lighting in the works yard; the certification process is underway.

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
The reception foyer, elegantly designed and filled with natural light, exemplifies the architecture’s attention to visitor and employee well being, advancing the industrial-building typology. Photo by Tom Arban.

RDHA design partner Geoff Miller says his firm has carved out a specialization in municipal operations centres—supremely functional buildings that particularly benefit from mindful design principles. The firm has com­pleted two others, in Newmarket, Ontario, and Surrey, British Columbia, and is working on several others, for the municipalities of Quinte West and Halton Hills, as well as a large centralized facility for province of Alberta.

The City of Brampton, he explains, had multiple goals for the $46-million project: inserting distinctive architecture in an otherwise industrial setting, and using distinctive design to break down subtle social barriers between the white and blue collar employees who work in the centre. “One of the big generating ideas was to expose all of those people to one another.” To that end, there’s a single main entrance, and shared common areas along the spine.

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
Sustainable features contributing to the building’s targeted LEED Gold status include geothermal heating and cooling, an extensive green roof and ground-level courtyard, operable windows, solar-powered site lighting, on-site stormwater retention pond, and plug-ins for electric vehicles. Photo by Tom Arban.

Transparency was another goal. The City, says Miller, wants to project the image of openness and accessibility; the curtainwall façade and the cantilevered meeting room figuratively communicate the idea that public business, even the prosaic work of planning capital works projects and plowing routes, is done in the open. In the boardroom, he adds, “you can see the meetings happening up and down the street.”

Lastly, the design process involved extensive consultation with the men and women who use such facilities. Over the course of a year, Miller and his team and City of Brampton officials conducted detailed interviews and workshops to understand precisely how the space would be used, especially the industrial parts. “It was quite a long and involved process,” he says.

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
Williams Parkway Operations Centre. Photo by Tom Arban.

But the result is that the spaces are not only optimized but organized with the needs of Brampton works crews or mechanics in mind. In the case of the latter, the repair technicians advocated for a garage with more natural light and less clutter in a space with lots of heavy and at times hazardous equipment, some of which is suspended from the ceiling. One consequence: the use of translucent retractable garage doors that fold accordion-style instead of rolling on tracks along the roof. The result is a space with better light and more safety.

“In other facilities that we’ve designed, we’ve had a lot less exposure to those people,” Miller points out. In the case of Williams Parkway, though, “it makes [for] a far better building.”

Williams Parkway Operations Centre, RDHA
Photo by Bob Gundu.

Although Parks says that this outreach process delayed the project by about a year, he nonetheless agrees that the result is a building that’s highly synchronized to the tasks performed there. “That adjacency exercise was really important.”

Given the substantial cost of the industrial portions of the complex, Miller says the high-concept architecture that unifies the different parts of the building didn’t drive up the price significantly. “This wasn’t a budget buster.” Parks, however, points out that phase two, the administrative office portion, did come in over budget because of engineering complexities associated with the suspended staircase, which is a showcase feature.

Yet Miller also notes that the business case for a non-utilitarian design has to do with the fact that the city needs to attract and retain employees as it grows, and the quality of the work environment has a role to play. “It projects an image of a forward-thinking city, and that what happens here is taken seriously.”

Williams Parkway Operations Centre | RDHA | Client City of brampton | Architect Team Bob Goyache, MRAIC; Geoff Miller, MRAIC; Dan Herljevic, Tony Lopes, Sanjoy Pal, Shelley Vanderwal, Soo-Jin Rim, Tyler Walker | Structural/Mechanical/Electrical/Civil EXP | Landscape NAK Design Group | Interiors RDHA | Contractor Elite Construction (Phase 1), Aquicon (Phase 2) | Sustainability Consultant Opresnik | area 17,650 m2 | Budget $46 M | 
Completion December 2017

John Lorinc is a Toronto-based writer on architecture and urban affairs.