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The new student union building at Sheridan College’s Hazel McCallion Campus in Mississauga, Ont.Doublespace Photography

When it comes to postsecondary student union buildings, they’re usually crummy, ill-fitting hand-me-downs: “Hey, SU, it’s the Faculty of X here, we just built ourselves a sexy new building, so you can have the one we deemed unfit for human habitation, okay?”

Not so at Sheridan College’s Hazel McCallion Campus in Mississauga, where a big, white, non-elephant of a building has sprung up where a parking lot used to be.

“We bring all the student unions here to tour,” says Jamie King, Sheridan Student Union director, “and they can’t believe what we’ve got, because some student union buildings are a little more, uh, rustic I’ll say.”

The five-storey, metal-clad building is anything but a cabin-in-the-woods: An almost fully glazed two-storey atrium filled with food services, a pub and other hang-out areas tucks into a small, grassy knoll while, above, three more storeys containing club meeting spaces, quiet rooms, a massive fitness facility with an indoor running track, and a large, tech-filled space suitable for lectures, seems to float effortlessly above. Materials are robust yet still elegant, and there is so much porosity students feel interconnected no matter how they use the building.

“You can see it’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle,” says architect Daniel Ling, a principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects Inc. “It’s not like one level is all lounges, one level it’s all the study spaces; We wanted to mix-and-match them in a way to find complementary uses so that certain spaces can have an overlap. … The idea is to create opportunity for accidental interaction.”

It’s not unlike urbanist Jane Jacobs theory that dense, colourful, pokey high streets cause pedestrians to linger and, in so doing, promote chance interactions between locals that eventually turn into friendships. And the more people know one another, the safer a community will be. Except, at Sheridan, all of this Jacobification is happening indoors. That may have something to do with Mississauga’s incredibly rapid growth from Toronto bedroom community to vibrant, standalone city: wide, suburban roads and windswept parking lots still dominate in certain areas.

That, however, influenced the design of the building, says Mr. Ling: “This is a suburban context; there’s Cineplex across the way, Square One [shopping centre] over there, all kinds of [big box] retail, we’ve got condos – so a lot of visual noise. When we looked at this building … we thought that it needed some quiet restraint, kind of an understated look; from the outside, you get glimpses of the programming inside, but not everything is visible, so to draw you in.”

He’s right. The building is especially magnetic at night, when the base glows, lantern-like, and light spills onto the lawn and zig-zagging pathways. Even a look upward to the fourth floor rewards the eye with a peek of attractive high ceilings and a ‘floating’ running track trimmed with LED lighting.

It’s hard not to be a moth drawn to this flame.

A flame that began, in 2016, as kindling in the form of little yellow pieces of paper, jokes Mr. King: “We started out with about a thousand sticky notes on walls, and ideas about slides from the fifth floor to the third floor and rock walls and all of this, and then we pared it back a little bit.”

  • The new student union building at Sheridan College’s Hazel McCallion Campus in Mississauga, Ont. Design by Montgomery Sisam Architects Inc. and Moriyama Teshima Architects.Doublespace Photography

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“And that got to a document that became, ultimately, the program,” finishes Mr. Ling. A 2010 Sheridan architectural technology graduate, Lucas Laurenssen, became project manager to ensure the student’s wishes came to fruition.

Why? Because the entire building was paid for by students – final construction cost was a very reasonable $31-million – through fees paid to the incorporated student union organization (the SSU has about 300 paid positions and is assisted by a full-time staff of 20). And while silly things such as slides didn’t make the cut, the students held strong on certain premium items, such as the wood strip ceilings when it was suggested that aluminum would save them considerable money.

On a walk-through with Mr. King, Mr. Ling, and Will Klassen, an associate at Moriyama Teshima Architects, it’s clear the extra money was worth it. The fir ceiling not only adds warmth, it helps absorb sound, and, because it slides past the glass walls to become the soffit, it performs the classic Modernist trick of dissolving the boundaries between inside and outside.

And because the space was so incredibly busy, our little group had to make use of one the building’s quiet spaces – the club meeting space on the second floor – to get some serious architectural conversation going (Sheridan has 120 clubs, which range from a tea drinking club to the Muslim Students Association).

It’s difficult to take a building as large and multipurpose as this and find ways to make it warm and homey; it’s also no mean feat to create isolation spaces that don’t feel like prison cells, or big communal areas that don’t feel like a cacophonous shopping mall. And because of the way the mechanical system was preplanned, the building also had to join with an existing building – also by Montgomery Sisam/Moriyama Teshima – filled with a completely different set of requirements (classrooms) yet still look to be ‘of a piece.’ This was achieved by the use of similar white cladding, whether that be in the form of raised mullions, shading fins, or the ribbed panels between windows.

“When you get it at the right light, the shadows work with the different angles,” says Mr. Klassen. “And that’s exactly what we were hoping would happen.”

And Sheridan’s Mississauga students, who knew exactly what they needed in a big new building, got what they were hoping for as well.

“The college knows that we’ve set a standard here that they can’t ignore,” finishes Mr. King with a smile.

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