Hunkered Down

­By integrating with the landscape, a Toronto ecology center becomes a living lesson in sustainable design.

Many features of green architecture are hard to see. But the educational center for the Humber Col­lege Arboretum, in Toronto, uses its form to send a message about sustainability: even for the small children who visit, it’s easy to understand how hunkering down into a hill helps protect you from the elements.

That symbolism is part of the building’s mission. Located on a campus near the city’s edge, the 5,000-square-foot center—which houses educational programs for schoolkids and college students—is meant to welcome visitors into the arboretum and to showcase ideas about conservation. Not surprisingly, architects Jill Taylor and Pat Hanson were faced with “a typical shopping list” from the clients: they wanted “every possible gizmo you can have to make a building green,” says Hanson, a principal of GH3 Archi­tects. And the finished building, which achieved LEED Gold, covers the field. A biofilter system treats all wastewater and sewage, storm water is recycled, a green roof adds insulation, and a tall thermal chimney anchors the passive-cooling and high-efficiency heating systems.

But Hanson and Taylor wanted to prove something else: “that you could make an architecture out of [all] that,” Hanson says, “and cre­ate a landscape with an obvious green agenda.” The lesson begins in a parking lot a hundred yards away. From there the center looks like a simple pavilion perched above a wetland, with a bright-red door providing an inviting shot of color. “We felt you should be engaged from the very point that you left your car,” says Taylor, a principal of Taylor Hazell Architects.

After students walk up the path into the triple-glazed box, they can see that the main classroom area is really just the upstairs; a lower level nestles below, where the landscape drops away into a large ravine. “That’s the moment that really gets most kids,” nature interpreter Jimmy Vincent says. “There’s nature all around you, and nothing in your way. It feels like you’re sitting right in the garden.”

Downstairs, a second glazed classroom is hidden in the hillside, and two walls of the concrete foundation stretch out to knit themselves into green berms of stabilized earth. Views of the landscape flood the interiors, while the architecture literally embraces the outdoors. That move serves a practical purpose: the outer walls define a space that works as an exterior classroom, and, of course, the earth mass helps insulate the building’s lower level. The same goes for the thermal chimney that stretches up above the central stair, “figuratively reaching right up to the sky,” as Taylor says.

The two architects agree that such symbolic gestures—links to both earth and sky—are especially important because of the community that the center serves. Most of the students who come here live nearby, in 1960s high-rise neighborhoods that are among the city’s poorest and most isolated. “It’s very difficult for urban kids—and we know about that particular group of kids, who come from apartment buildings—to engage with the outdoors,” Taylor says. When they come inside, “they want to spill out into the landscape.”

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