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Architectural excellence awarded

Design for North Van Outdoor School Environmental Learning Centre wins national acclaim
TREE HOUSE McFarland Marceau Architects Ltd., a Vancouver-based firm, has been presented with an award of merit for its innovative design of the Environmental Learning Centre at the North Vancouver Outdoor School. PHOTO BY DAWN GREEN

The new North Shore Credit Union Environmental Learning Centre, currently under construction at the North Vancouver Outdoor School (NVOS) in Paradise Valley, has won a prestigious award of merit for sustainable design.

McFarland Marceau Architects Ltd., a Vancouver-based firm that specializes in sustainable design, won the award last month during the 2011 Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence. The Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence have been running since 1968. In making their award selection, the jurors considered geographical and social context, and evaluated physical organization, materials and environmental features of the short-listed projects.

Slated to be completed by April this year, the $5.8 million Environmental Learning Centre reflects the environmental principles adopted by NVOS. The 840-square-metre building, with its raised floor and forest setting, follows a "tree house" concept and is situated above the floodplain, elevating visitors to the forest canopy. The facility, which will replace existing infrastructure at the school, features an exhibition space, dining hall, commercial kitchen, learning spaces and administrative offices.

According to architect John Hemsworth, the Environmental Learning Centre will use 65 per cent less energy and 30 per cent less water than a comparable-sized building. Employing strategies such as geothermal water heating, a stormwater harvesting system, and the recycling of heat generated by the kitchen, Hemsworth said the centre is a thoughtful addition to the delicate ecosystem of the area. Few trees were removed for the project, he noted, adding that a priority is to reduce the impact from construction activities and to recycle construction waste.

The centre is seeking to attain LEED Platinum status (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), explained Hemsworth, adding that the architectural award of merit is recognition of the amount of creativity and work that goes into these types of projects.

"We are inspired by [NVOS] in general — for projects like this we like to embrace what's happening here and hopefully enhance it," he said. "We didn't have to look far for inspiration and we hope to bring the Outdoor School into the future with a sustainable nature and design."

Victor Elderton, principal of NVOS, says that one of the best elements of the Environmental Learning Centre will lie in the manner in which it operates.

Most of the environmentally-sustainable systems will be working in the background and people won't necessarily recognize how effective they are, Elderton said.

"For example, every time my heart beats or my lungs work, I don't think about how marvellous they are and in some ways I think that is how the building will work.

"But I tell you when you are up over 14 feet in the air and you are looking out at waterfowl on the canoe pond, or looking into 200-year-old cedars from the learning classroom... and you are surrounded by reclaimed wood that is the ceiling... the whole building is going to speak to you about what its major purpose is."

That purpose, he continued, "is in becoming a physical icon of not only a local, but a regional, national and international centre of environmental leadership and learning."

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