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A Recreation Facility Designed with the Trees in Mind

A community center in Surrey, British Columbia integrates four public departments in a new, sustainability-forward building that takes design notes from the surrounding forest.

By Rachel Gallaher

A rectangular building with a steep gray roof full of geometric cutouts. The sky is gray and cloudy in the background.
Designed by architecture firm HCMA, the Clayton Community Centre in Surrey, British Columbia, takes inspiration from the forested park surrounding its build site. Image by Doublespace Photography.

A few years back, the city of Surrey, British Columbia, was looking to relocate four of its public departments—the library, parks, recreation, and the arts. The initial plan was to develop a place where all of them could reside, with each department retaining its own space, independent of the others, as it was accustomed to. The city had enlisted architecture firm HCMA to help design the new facility, and as meetings progressed, the team realized that pivoting to another approach might benefit all parties involved.

“This thinking was limiting,” says Melissa Higgs, a principal at HCMA. “It resulted in some duplication of spaces, and more importantly, prevented some incredible synergies and innovations in the range of programs they wanted to offer the community. Rather than working in silos, we developed a consensus around a broader vision: to move beyond simply co-locating these services and instead, to truly integrate them into a single community building that maximized the potential for synergies and shared programming.”

The new approach would help keep the project within budget and eliminate duplicate spaces, such as multiple staff rooms and reception desks. The design team also hoped that shared spaces across the departments would lead to increased and ongoing collaboration between the teams, resulting in a more unified and supportive center for the community.

The corner of a building with a dark roof. Cutout windows are seen in geometric shapes.
Cutouts were made in the facade of the building to allow natural light in. Image by Doublespace Photography.

One of the goals presented by the city was the wish to achieve Passive House certification [the building received Passive House certification for ultra-low energy use in December 2021, making it the largest non-residential project of its kind to be certified in North America.] “As a relatively new standard in North America, most existing Passive House projects are residential,” Higgs says, “so designing a 76,000-square-foot community center to rigorous energy consumption criteria was charting new territory, especially without compromising on design excellence or operational efficiency.”

The Clayton Community Centre, which officially opened in October 2021, sits on a site surrounded by a forested park—a favorite spot for locals to spend time with families, walk pets, or take a jog. The HCMA team used community engagement throughout its design process, inviting citizens, and especially neighbors, to actively shape the center’s development. (Over the past few years, HCMA has worked with academic researchers to create its own social impact framework based on principles of equity, social inclusion, sustainability, and adaptability. Clayton Community Centre was the first building to have been completed using this framework from start to finish.)

A large steel spiral staircase.
The central staircase is made from three distinct steel sections, each weighing approximately 10,000 pounds. The pieces were craned into the site and welded together. Image by Ema Peter.

According to Higgs, the insight of the importance of the surrounding forest played a big role in determining the aesthetics of the building.

“The design emulates the experience of being in a forest,” she says. “We designed the building to feel like an extension of it at various scales. We identified a number of natural pathways within the surrounding forest and brought them into the building through the careful placement of program spaces. The large, open, unprogrammed area on the ground floor, known as ‘The Clearing,’ creates a conceptual clearing in the forest, and a gathering place for the community. Because a forest ecosystem is defined by the collective inhabitants that coexist to create a unique ecology, there was an obvious synergy with what we were trying to achieve with the four civic departments.”

The unique mix of spaces combines arts and culture programming including music studios, recording studios, a community rehearsal hall, a gymnasium and fitness center, and a branch library. The Clearing is the central hub of the building—the place where everyone passes through. A large, steel spiral staircase (designed in collaboration with structural engineering team at RJC and crafted locally by LanTec Fabricating) is an artful centerpiece. Made from three distinct steel pieces, (each weighing approximately 10,000 pounds and craned into the site to be welded together), the feature was inspired by the idea of the tree fort. “It is designed to be inhabited,” Higgs notes, “with seating below and an oversized landing above to sit and socialize.”

A room in a library. A geometric wooden structure covers the ceiling and wall. A window at the end of the room looks out onto trees. Rows of bookshelves appear to the right.
A corner of the library at Clayton Community Centre. Here, the timber roof structure extends down the wall Image by Doublespace Photography..

Throughout the building a heavy timber roof structure (appearing as a series of angular shapes) mimics the delicate but uniform structural patterns of leaves. Designed in collaboration with RJC, it brings warmth and texture, strengthening the idea of a connection with nature through natural material. “The pinwheel components are a unique two-way structural system,” Higgs says. “They create a tree canopy over the upper level that envelopes all the programmatic spaces of the building under one singular system—metaphorically and structurally gaining its strength through interconnected components and providing a space for visitors to explore and inhabit.”

In the library, small nooks provide seating space amongst the bookshelves, and a series of triangular ‘pop-ups’ with clerestory glazing allow for natural light to filter through the structure—visitors experience dappled light and organic movement similar to the light patterns experienced through a canopy’s branches and leaves.

From outside, the center blends well with surrounding forest, visually reinforcing the ideas of connection, community, and respect for nature.

“People need to feel connected,” Higgs says. “Welcome. Safe. Included. That they belong. This is a space for them, for their community. By feeling a part of something, we create a foundation for so much more. It fuels inspiration and curiosity, empathy and compassion, and a sense of pride. There is an ownership that occurs in these spaces, and that is really special. As a designer, this is what inspires me—creating buildings where people can have meaningful experiences, every time they walk into the space.”


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