Designing a landscape for learning

A natural amphitheatre was created at York University (Toronto), extending the indoor realm into the environment with grass slopes, natural stone seating, and an escarpment wall. Images courtesy FORREC
A natural amphitheatre was created at York University (Toronto), extending the indoor realm into the environment with grass slopes, natural stone seating, and an escarpment wall.
Images courtesy FORREC

by Scott Torrance, OALA, CSLA, GRP

York University, Toronto, has a history of supporting innovative and ambitious buildings throughout its campus. Following a referendum in 2013, the decision was taken to build a second centre devoted entirely to the needs of the large, diverse, and active student body. As a sign of how engaged the students were in the process from day one, approximately 90 per cent of them voted in favour of the investment.

This high level of engagement made the design and construction process especially important. The landscape architecture studio at FORREC was tasked with creating an exterior for the new student centre (designed by CannonDesign) to match the forward-thinking approach of the project and client.

Amphitheatre

The landscape architecture team began designing with the goal of encouraging students to use the outdoor spaces in spite of the extreme climate one experiences during an academic year.

The overall flow of the landscaping was a natural consequence of the design values and programming of the building. Transparent surfaces, large, open-plan spaces, and a preference for natural materials in CannonDesign’s proposals allowed this author’s team team to play with the same design motifs in the landscape.

A sloped amphitheatre-like space was created on the sunny, southern, wind-protected side of the building. Other areas around the centre provide students with options for seating with further protection from wind, rain, and sun, and create a park-like setting.

Large slabs of natural Ontario limestone caprock interplanted with birch trees, sumac, and juniper evoke an escarpment-like setting on one side of the amphitheatre. Highly visible from within the building, this stone wall provides a striking visual feature while functionally supporting a change in grade. Further, the wall creates a wind-protected microclimate, absorbing rainwater and promoting biodiversity with native plants.

It was crucial for the design team to support the pedestrian-focused campus York University provides for its student body. The new student centre and its outdoor spaces fit seamlessly within the campus. Multiple seating opportunities along the north side of the building are adjacent to a major east-west pedestrian spine. Along the south side of the building, the new landscape architectural features complement the existing Roy McMurtry Green youth centre.

Today’s students primarily work with laptops and screens, so it was also important to create a landscape allowing them to use this everyday technology, regardless of the weather. The student centre is surrounded by recognizable urban and indoor features, such as bar-style seating—reminiscent of a breakfast bar or cafe—with sheltered spaces to create a laptop-friendly working environment outside.

Sustainability

Cafe-style bar seating was introduced in the east entrance plaza of the new student centre with shaded areas for laptop users to take shelter from the sun’s glare.
Cafe-style bar seating was introduced in the east entrance plaza of the new student centre with shaded areas for laptop users to take shelter from the sun’s glare.

The team aimed for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold standard and let this goal guide the design. In this process, they were guided by the Low Impact Development Treatment Train Approach tool (LID). Developed by Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA), Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), the tool helps developers, consultants, municipalities, and landowners understand and implement more sustainable stormwater management planning and design practices in their watersheds.

As a stormwater management strategy, LID seeks to “mitigate the impacts of increased runoff and stormwater pollution by managing runoff as close to its source as possible.”

Since Toronto is a ravine-landscape prone to floods, the design team believed it is best to work with the landscape and climate rather than against it. Small landscape interventions, such as bioswales (i.e. rain gardens to capture and absorb stormwater) and green roofs, make a huge difference by converting unused spaces into natural water management systems.

Continuous soil trench was employed to provide a minimum of 20 m3 (706 cf) of soil per tree for healthy root establishment, which also provides a stormwater treatment function. Rainwater runoff can enter the system through pervious paving, drains, and the opening around the tree trunk.

Of course, coupled with flood risk, is the possibility of drought during the long, hot summer months. The decision was made to not rely on an automated irrigation system for the landscape. Instead, specific native and drought-tolerant plants, such as fragrant sumac, snowberry, and switchgrass, were utilized.

The built landscape features function as a support network for LID elements. Considerate design coupled with the latest technology, such as permeable pavers and green roofs, and native plant materials help to retain and reuse rainwater onsite, and to absorb and manage more extreme rainfall events. The natural stone wall running along the west side of the amphitheatre blends with the overall design concept, while also creating a permeable boundary to allow rainwater to irrigate the plants.

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