Winning Streak: Churchill Meadows Community Centre and Sports Park, Mississauga, Ontario

MJMA's newest recreation centre crowns a history of continuous innovation.

The swimming area enjoys generous natural light from skylights above, and two fully glazed exterior walls. The ceilings are shaped to diffuse light and frame the pool basins below.

PROJECT Churchill Meadows Community Centre and Sports Park, Mississauga, Ontario

ARCHITECT MJMA Architecture & Design

TEXT Elsa Lam

Photos Scott Norsworthy, unless otherwise noted

Toronto-based MJMA has steadily evolved the typology of the aquatic centre since its competition win for the Grand River Aquatic Centre in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1988. In the 36 years since, the firm has been awarded three Governor General’s Medals in Architecture for pool buildings. And this spring, one of its recent projects cinched Ontario’s top architecture prize: the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Architecture went to Churchill Meadows Community Centre, located at the suburban western edge of Mississauga, Ontario.

The new facility shows how MJMA is not content to rest on its laurels, but rather, has been continuing to innovate from the basis of its successes. Churchill Meadows Recreation Centre shares a similar planning approach to MJMA’s Pam McConnell Aquatic Centre in Toronto’s Regent Park, which was acclaimed for its generous natural light and new-to-Canada introduction of universal change rooms. Both facilities have window-ringed pools, flanked by a block of universal change rooms, and edged with an access corridor set alongside a glazed façade; to this parti, Churchill Meadows adds a triple gymnasium and partial second floor. 

But here the similarities end. Churchill Meadows has decisively raised the bar for design excellence. This was in part enabled by MJMA’s wide scope on the project: the firm was responsible not only for the building, but for its surrounding landscape and for the masterplan of the 50-acre park in which it sits. Instead of sinking the rec centre to the back of the site, behind a sea of parking, the designers decided to rotate it 45 degrees relative to the urban grid, so that the building faces the cardinal directions. As a result, parking is pushed to two corners of the site, and the building becomes a focal point for the surrounding park.

The site’s masterplan orients the building and sports fields on the cardinal axes, putting them at a 45-degree angle to the road and making the building a central landmark for the park. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

Led by MJMA principal Chris Burbidge and design architect Tyler Walker, the team next opted to design the rec centre as a long, skinny rectangle, ringed by covered walkways. The most spectacular of these is a 130-metre-long promenade that stretches alongside the building’s western edge, facing the park. The two-storey outdoor space is topped by a sculptural parade of V-shaped glulam rafters edged with expanded metal mesh, providing a snow-free promenade in the winter, and a shady respite in the summer. Many recreation centres boast an outdoor public promenade of some type—a kind of enlarged version of a home’s front porch—but few achieve the combined sense of both intimacy and grandeur that is present at Churchill Meadows.

The creation of this promenade, explains Walker, stems from the core idea of the project: “pulling the façade apart and making it do as much as possible,” in order to blur the boundary between inside and outside. “The hope was that it would wrap the building in this kind of ‘sticky’ space where people gather, pause, and socialize—the idea of social infrastructure—while simultaneously shading the building and interiors.”

V-shaped rafters and expanded metal mesh panels create dappled shade along the park-facing promenade. Photo by Doublespace

A highly efficient building section was developed with Blackwell Structural Engineers’ Ian Mountfort to work within the project’s tight budget, while maximizing visual impact. A series of glulam columns supports the building’s roof, and is the main support for the façade panels. To avoid diagonal members detracting from the rhythm of the columns, lateral bracing was moved into the core of the building, which was possible because of the volume’s thin proportions. 

The glulam columns are remarkably slender—just 136mm wide and 450mm deep. This is because they work in triads, with each steel roof truss supported by three columns tied together at their top, middle, and bottom points for stability. 

The steel angle tying the columns together at their bottom point supports a bench that extends the length of the building’s interior and exterior. Air supply vents and radiators are tucked under this bench, out of sight and safe from kicking feet chasing stray balls. In the gym and pool areas, the generous ledge is a convenient place for depositing backpacks, water bottles, and swim towels. Outside, it welcomes lingering—a sheltered place to sit, chat with friends, or watch playing kids.

The community centre is ringed by a sheltered concrete bench—part of the architects’ strategy of creating a ‘sticky’ social space around the building. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

On the east façade, the second floor volume cantilevers out to create extra-deep window alcoves on the upper floor—favourite activity nooks for children attending programs in the community kitchen and multi-purpose studios. On the lower floor, the projecting volume forms a canopy that creates a sheltered approach to the centre. The long bench makes an appearance here, too, providing indoor and outdoor amenity. 

If the short section of the project is an essay in maximizing the function and efficiency of a structure and its façades, the long section tells a story about inviting in light. Seven north-facing skylights, arrayed along the length, mark out the functions of the building: three skylights illuminate the three sections of the gymnasium, one crowns a central atrium, and three mark the pool. 

While the ceiling is shaped over each program space to support lighting, acoustics, and ventilation, the most dramatic sculpting happens over the warm water leisure pool, where the ceiling dips down to create a more intimate interior space. This continues an exploration of shaped roofs from the firm’s aquatic centre at the University of British Columbia, completed with Acton Ostry Architects, where a lowered ceiling caps and frames the leisure pool. “Pools are grand rooms and they want ceilings to define the space,” says Burbidge.

Both views and light are carefully considered in the natatorium. Swimmers enjoy park vistas to the west and to the north of the pool; a strategically located hill brings extra green into the view and conceals sports fields and a distant highway. 

Thin glulam columns are the key component in a structural system that optimizes the use of material. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

“The quality of light that’s captured in this building is one of the most successful parts of the project,” says MJMA partner Ted Watson. Daylight is carefully filtered and balanced to cut glare, minimizing the need for the City operators to lower sun-blocking blinds. From the west, the expanded metal mesh and glulam struts provide shade without impeding the sense of openness between indoors and out, while the 450-millimetre-deep glulam columns act like giant venetian blinds, lowering heat gain. The use of a universal change room, equipped with individual and family-sized privacy cubicles, allows for daylight to enter through glazing to both sides of the change area.

A mass timber feature stair is supported from glulam hangers integrated in the west wall. Its upper portion lands on a delicate V-shaped support to maintain views from the main doors through to the park. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

The inclusion of a mass timber feature stair in the main atrium is audacious for a project that aims to be as open and transparent as possible. But it works, in part because it’s treated like a freestanding sculptural element. The upper portion of the stair is supported by 20-metre-long CLT beams—the longest self-supporting mass timber members available from Nordic Structures at the time of manufacturing. These eight-foot-wide, one-foot-thick beams land on delicate V-shaped steel supports, while the rest of the stair is supported by glulam hangers that integrate with the west wall. Beyond its impressive structural gymnastics, this serves to maintain a clear view corridor from the main entrance through to the park beyond. The only point of visual friction is the rough quality of the mass timber—because of the way that large CLT members are manufactured, it can have visible cracks and inconsistencies, unlike the more polished look one has become accustomed to with glulam.

The project began in 2016, before embodied carbon was a widespread topic of discussion, but the building has also proven progressive in this aspect. The optimized structure means that there is no secondary steel, reducing a major contributor to a building’s embodied carbon footprint. MJMA recently undertook a carbon analysis of 14 projects in its portfolio, and found that Churchill Meadows’ embodied carbon intensity of 435 CO2e/m2 put it at the lower end of its buildings with concrete pool basins. 

The learnings from this internal embodied carbon study, as well as from the design of Churchill Meadows, are already informing MJMA’s next set of buildings, particularly several mass timber buildings on its drawing boards. But while all recreation centres are similar in program, the buildings are also distinct—reflecting the diversity of individual communities. The unique identity of Churchill Meadows is perhaps most evident on Friday evenings, when the gymnasium hosts Muslim prayers, a function facilitated by foot baths built to the sides of the gym’s twin access corridors. “It’s amazing when you see it—they come up and set up all of the prayer mats straight to Mecca,” says Burbidge. Basket hoops pulled up and pickleball nets tucked away, with sunset colours framed by the wood structure to the west, the architecture gracefully transforms from a sports facility to a place of worship—a building truly at the heart of its community.

CLIENT City of Mississauga | ARCHITECT TEAM David Miller (FRAIC), Chris Burbidge (MRAIC), Tyler Walker (MRAIC), Ted Watson (FRAIC), Tarisha Dolyniuk (FRAIC), Tim Belanger, Andrew Filarski (FRAIC), Robert Allen (FRAIC), Obinna Ogunedo, Leland Dadson, Kris Vassilev, Darlene Montgomery, Jasper Flores, Caleb Tsui, Natalia Ultremari, Jeremy Campbell, Caileigh MacKellar, Kyung-Sun Hur | STRUCTURAL Blackwell | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE MJMA Architecture & Design | INTERIORS MJMA Architecture & Design | CONTRACTOR Aquicon Construction | EXPERIENTIAL GRAPHIC DESIGN/SIGNAGE & WAYFINDING MJMA Architecture & Design | AREA 7,000 m2 | BUDGET $48  (Community Centre & district park) / $61.8 M (2023 escalated) | COMPLETION October 2021

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 570.2  kWh/m2/year

As appeared in the June 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine

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