Surrounded by the natural beauty of Ontario’s escarpment, Niagara College is a rural community college focused on applied arts and technology. Our firm was asked to augment the college’s 1970s-era Welland Campus by creating a Student Commons — a 35,000 square foot two-storey hub with enhanced amenities that establishes a welcoming heart for the student community.
Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO
Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects
Photographer: Scott Norsworthy
Since its inception in 1967, there have been many iterations in the evolution of the Welland Campus, creating an unnavigable building cluster, connected by dark corridors. The creation of the Student Commons provided an opportunity to create a social hub that rationalizes the building layout, establishes a new, north-facing entrance to campus, enhances branding and wayfinding, and enables natural light and external views to uplift the daily student experience.
We developed numerous iterations of the building addition to offer users the most meaningful connection to other campus facilities (including the Student Services Administration Centre and Library and Learning Commons), transit, and the surrounding landscape.
Retail and lounge space accommodate the majority of the first floor, and have the greatest connection to transit and landscape as the most occupied program components of the Student Commons. The multi-functional event space is connected to the student lounge area, complementing the “buzz” of activity that takes place in the lounge. More focused learning and meeting space is located on the second floor of the Commons, offering users a quieter space for concentrated work.
The double-height addition breathes life into the campus with a new welcome centre, a food court and retail space, new classrooms, a student activity room, and spaces for learning, study, and collaboration. As the Student Commons is only one of two dedicated student spaces on campus, we designed numerous amenities and program areas to encourage varied experiences and social interaction.
The lantern-like addition is carefully sited to provide easy links to transit and student services, while providing the college with an alternative entrance and clear drop-off zone. A tall soffit canopy clad in cedar spills into the building, acting as passive wayfinding – drawing visitors to the main entry. Iron spot brick adds warmth and anchors the entry corridor to the main student space. Curved, perforated metal panels are a welcoming gesture that also hide the campus’ main shipping and receiving zone. The panels read ‘Niagara College Canada’ and provide a bold backdrop for the new exterior plaza, giving all students and visitors a sense of place and point of pride.
The Student Commons brings order and cohesion to a campus that has evolved slowly over time, making connection to three different buildings built over 50 years. The addition branches off the existing campus building, seamlessly connecting to the existing corridor system and coherently linking all adjacent buildings. This was achieved by demolishing some existing corridors, responding to differences in floor elevations, and adding environmental graphics to direct users from nearby spaces. As a centrally located social hub, the Student Commons provides a larger area where students and faculty can dine, socialize and study, creating a sense of hierarchy and order within a formerly fractured building.
Playful details reinvigorate the campus’ visual identity, including custom-designed pendant lights shaped like X’s and O’s, whimsical circular LED lights that break up the ceiling, and large-scale supergraphics that are visible from inside and outside the building. The oversized lettering, chevrons, and dots applied to the Commons’ fully glazed expanse give the college an instantly recognizable brand.
The addition of extensive glazing and a mirrored clerestory opens the Student Commons to natural light and external views of the surrounding Niagara Escarpment. Floor-to-ceiling curtainwall glazing draws daylight inside and creates views to the outdoors, while also giving passerby glimpses of student activity within. High above the food hall, a stream of clerestory mirrors reflect additional daylight into the soaring, spacious corridor, ensuring the space is bright and airy all year round.
One of the most successful and dynamic aspects of the project is the connection of the addition to the existing building. We forged links to the existing building by creating a central corridor that connects to campus amenities, including lecture theatres, student services, and a grab-and-go coffee counter. The corridor extends from the depths of the building, and through the addition to the new, north facing entrance. The creation of this main thoroughfare brings in natural light and unites formerly separate spaces within the existing building cluster.
We incorporated the existing clerestory windows above the food hall into the new design, but optimized the design to generate additional light. We installed mirrors surrounding the clerestory, which reflect the natural light and further brighten the interior space. The mirrors also reflect the strong horizontal banding of the windows for an interesting visual effect. Surrounding the clerestory, we introduced a cedar lined ceiling for additional warmth.
We fashioned perforated screening to hide the existing shipping and receiving dock from view. The screen is used as an opportunity to give additional presence to the new, north-facing entrance to campus. To further mark the entrance and inject the college brand, the perforated screen is engraved with the words “Niagara College Canada.” The branded screen is so successful that students often take photos in front of it to capture their time at the college.
The Student Commons also provides vital links to key services that support an inclusive college community, including the Indigenous Student Centre, Multi-Faith Prayer Room, and Segal International Centre. The Indigenous Student Centre is dedicated to enhancing Indigenous student success by offering space for activities including smudging, cooking traditional meals, water blessing, and drum circles. The Segal International Centre is designed to accommodate Niagara College’s growing international enrolment, with services for admissions, housing, financial aid, and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. We also designed a Multi-Faith Prayer Room for Niagara College to accommodate the religious practices of its staff and students, with a quiet, dedicated space to practice faith on campus.
The renovation and addition supports the Government of Ontario’s commitment to improve the accessibility of buildings and facilities, and work diligently to ensure that our designs meet current standards for barrier free design. We designed barrier-free washrooms to serve people with mobility issues, and gender-neutral washrooms to create an inclusive environment for all genders.
The Student Commons fills a critical need for an accessible and inclusive space to cultivate community and create memorable on-campus experiences.
Project Location: Welland, ON
Project Completion Date: October 2018
Project Square Footage: 35,000 square feet