Revealing Canada’s first zero-carbon, mass timber college building

Canada’s first zero-carbon, mass timber college building coming to Toronto at Centennial College. Rendering courtesy Dialog
Canada’s first zero-carbon, mass timber college building coming to Toronto at Centennial College.
Rendering courtesy Dialog

Dialog, EllisDon, and Smoke Architecture have won a competition to design Centennial College’s A Block Expansion Building in Toronto. The structure could be the first net-zero carbon, mass timber, higher-education facility in Canada when complete in 2023. It also seeks to embody the college’s commitment to truth and reconciliation.

Dialog and Smoke approached the project using the Mi’kmaq concept of ‘Two-eyed Seeing’—viewing the world through both an Indigenous and a Western lens—and were inspired by the Anishinabek ‘Seven Fires’ prophecy that says we need to pick up things ‘left by the trail.’

This process started with a response to the existing topography. Listening to the land, the team chose to align the structure to the cardinal directions. The main entry is at the east, the traditional location for the entrance in Indigenous structures. A grand stair ascends to the west, as part of the wisdom hall, a three-level, high-active, multi-storey convergence space for students, staff, and visitors that connects people to indigenous stories. The narrative of the design is a story of seed, growth, culmination, and balance.

An Indigenous commons forms the heart of the building—the structure flows around this circular room opening out into a central courtyard.

At the building’s corner, seven posts anchored in a centrestone represent the Seven Mishomis (grandfather) teachings. The building envelope aspires to biomimicry: the aluminum shingles of the façade are formed like the scales of a fish or snake. For the animal, the skin allows for fluid movement, for the building the skin completes a high-performance envelope adjusting to changing temperature conditions.

The design team embraced Indigenous approaches to living in harmony with nature. This approach augmented Western notions and methodologies of sustainability and pushed them to explore ideas beyond Zero-carbon Building certification and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

The design integrates Western ideas of innovation inspired by author Steven Johnson. Walls acting as barriers to communication are removed. Opportunities for people to share ideas are expanded. Spaces are created with ‘spare parts’ (from both Indigenous and Western ways of knowledge) that can be recombined into new ideas.

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