A set of watercolour sketches including a dramatic swirl were first steps in distilling the design inspiration for the Nicol Building, a unique new home of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, architect Siamak Hariri says.
“Our intention was to create a building that had enough presence to make it stand out in the landscape of business schools, but to balance it with a sense of intimacy – a place where students feel supported and embraced by their community,” says Mr. Hariri, a founding partner of Hariri Pontarini Architects in Toronto.
The university’s architectural competition for the Nicol Building called for it to be a landmark at a convergence of pedestrian routes and an arc in the road that features views of the Rideau River. The initial sketches and scale models, as well as research visits to several other business schools, resulted in a plan for a curving, six-storey structure, with an interior that has all its classrooms and meeting spaces visible around a series of winding stairs that were inspired by DNA, he says.
“It was very deliberate to have a stair that doesn’t just wind up like a corkscrew. There are landings and places for pausing for reflection. You can encounter a classmate or professor on the stair and stop and have a discussion or see a team working and get curious about what they’re up to,” Mr. Hariri says.
That emphasizes that Sprott is a creative place.
“I think that’s important in business. This isn’t just humdrum, read your textbooks and leave. You are going to be asked to come in and be imaginative. There is an energy at this school,” he explains.
The building’s ground level, known as the Forum, sets the scene and includes a research centre, resource centre and “business incubator.” It’s designed for flexibility in configuration, with tables that can turn and face each other and a set of floor-to-ceiling windows that can be covered to become a presentation screen. Around its sky-lit three-storey atrium, glass-walled classrooms and a large lecture theatre are visible on the second and third storeys.
The glass-walled classrooms come in a variety of sizes that lend themselves to different configurations, with movable furniture for flexible teaching styles, allowing for virtual and in-person teaching formats.
That’s unique among business schools, Mr. Hariri and a group from the Sprott School found out as they toured several Canadian and American business schools during the design research phase in 2018.
The buildings of many well-known schools lacked flexibility and visual interest, Mr. Hariri says. The curving walls of the six-storey Nicol Building also allow every classroom and every office to have views of the surrounding landscape and campus.
The main entrance features a plaza and a cantilevered overhang for protection against the elements and there is a café just inside to the left, making the building approachable to the whole student body, not just business school students. A new LRT line is also being built across the street that will have prominent views of the building.
“You can’t help but walk in the front door and say this is interesting. In the Forum and the innovation hub behind it, you can watch people in a really dynamic environment and the big lecture space provides flexibility,” says Dana Brown, dean of the Sprott School of Business.
“It allows more experiential and collaborative work. Our professors have different methodologies, and we don’t have to be restricted to case studies. Each can teach in a variety of ways, such as problem-solving and mock negotiations, and whatever they’re doing they have a beautiful view outside,” she says.
“We find the building really reflects the culture of the school. It’s not just the size of the school but about the diverse and accepting community. When we ask students why they’ve chosen Sprott rather than another business school, they often tell us it’s because they can sense this is a place where they are able to be themselves and feel safe and that people look after one another. Coming out of COVID it’s more important than ever to have that sense of community and support.”
The curved exterior walls of the Nicol Building are designed to contrast with the rectangular geometry of the neighbouring buildings on the campus while conforming to their heights. The glazing is accented by striking vertical fins that emphasize the building’s curves, adding visual interest.
The project budget was fixed at $65-million.
“We had to come in on budget and I’m happy to say we not only did that, but we were also under our total contingency amount. We were able to do what a business school should do, innovate based on sound project management,” Mr. Hariri says.
In-person classes are resuming on campus for the 2,700 students in Carleton’s business program. While the design was finalized prepandemic, nothing needed to be changed in the building or its mechanical systems to be ready for the postlockdown era, Ms. Brown says.
“There is a wide variety of areas for moving around and working in different parts of the building,” she adds. “That’s the way things are going to be in new collaborative workplaces.”
The Nicol Building is not Hariri Pontarini’s first business school project. Other examples of the firm’s work include the Richard Ivey Building at Western University and the Schulich School of Business at York University.
“For any business school project, we want to do something enduring and not today’s hot style. It has to respect the nobility of the aspiration and has to represent a school that’s in it for the long haul,” Mr. Hariri says.
“Architecture can be very dramatic and self-indulgent, and a great university can’t afford to have people asking: ‘What were they thinking?’ ”