Native Child and Family Services Toronto
Sensitive design supports native culture in the heart of the city
The new Native Child and Family Services of Toronto [NCFST] consolidates social and culture-based services for aboriginal children and families within an existing 2,800m2 office building in the heart of downtown Toronto.
By Dean Goodman
Beyond the programmatic and functional issues, the challenge for this project was to create a place that would reconnect urban aboriginals with nature in the heart of the city, and project a bold visual presence for the First Nations community. This was made more difficult because Toronto’s Native community is a disparate one, comprising many bands each with its own identity and customs.
Opened in June 2010, the former 1980s office building now houses a drop-in childcare centre, an aboriginal artist studio, family, mental health, social services and administrative offices, a meeting room and a rooftop garden.
The freestanding meeting room, located within the entrance lobby of the building, is a contemporary interpretation of a traditional longhouse, while the roof garden contains a healing lodge and fire pit, surrounded by traditional native plants including sweet grass, sage, tobacco, corn, beans and squash. These special spaces are used both formally and informally for public assemblies and ceremonies, drumming and circle sessions, and for counseling, meetings and playtime.
The architects collaborated with aboriginal artists, a graphic designer and a landscape architect to define the centre with art, environmental graphics, natural materials and plantings that are native to the Great Lakes region. These features give the building its cultural identity and also soften its institutional nature.
Large-scale graphics line the interior using images that are culturally broad, dignified and contemporary. For example, regional aboriginal textiles inspired the stylized “woven” motif pattern on the ground floor that functions as a giant welcome mat, linking the building’s north and south entrances. The building’s material palette is comprised of unusual local materials including yellow birch heartwood, eastern white cedar, Eramosa limestone, river rock and red slate.
A skylight illuminates all levels of the building around the central stair, edged on the north side by a vertical wall landing in a pool on the ground floor. This symbolizes the aboriginal creation myth of the pregnant Sky Woman and her husband falling down to earth from a hole in the spirit world, bringing with them seeds and plants. The wall is a low-maintenance green wall incorporating planter pockets cascading greenery and bringing oxygen to every floor.
Sunlight, living plants, and the sound of water are a constant reminder of the relationship to the natural world.
The offices were designed with aboriginal customs and sensitivities in mind. For example, in the child welfare area, meeting rooms that would conventionally have two-way mirrors and cameras are instead in the style of living rooms with diaphanous curtains that give privacy while also permitting casual observation.The project’s greatest contribution to environmental sustainability is undoubtedly the upgrading and reuse of an energy inefficient existing structure that might otherwise have been destined for demolition - the most sustainable building being the one that exists already. As part of the energy strategy, the concrete structure was exposed to maximize available thermal mass, and some floors were polished rather than re-carpeted.
The strategy of maximum reuse of the existing building, together with the selection of non-toxic, low impact local materials is very much in keeping with the Native ethos of environmental stewardship.
The green roof extends the useable area of the building, providing a respite from the intensity of city life. Rooftop landscaping is shaped by considerations of sustainability: longevity, ease of maintenance and an informed selection of native species that will withstand harsh urban conditions with minimal water. Landscaping materials are locally sourced and the plants are watered with collected rainwater. The soil and vegetation reduce peak water flows to the municipal storm system and add to the insulation value of the roof.
After just a year in operation, the project has had a profound impact on Toronto’s Native community. NCFST’s Executive Director, Ken Richard has stated “I believe that the building will over time just get better in its role as an authentic Native experience in an otherwise non-Native environment. This speaks of survival and this might be its greatest legacy.”
- CLIENT Native Child and Family Services Toronto
- ARCHITECT Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd.
- STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.
- MECHANICAL ENGINEER Jain & Associates
- ELECTRICAL ENGINEER Jain & Associates
- ENVIRONMENTAL GRAPHICS Adams + Associates Design Consultants Inc.
- LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE Scott Torrance Landscape Architecture Inc.
- CONSTRUCTION MANAGER Boszko & Verity Inc.
- PHOTOS Ben Rahn / A-Frame Inc.
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Dean Goodman B.Arch., OAA is a partner with Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd in Toronto