Ask most Canadians to describe the architecture of the North, and images of squat, non-descript buildings built more for function than form likely come to mind.
But infrastructure projects in two communities – a new airport terminal in Fort McMurray, Alta., and a town centre rejuvenation for Gillam, Man., located more than 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg – are challenging the traditional approach to commercial property architecture and development across northern communities.
"The North as we know it is still in its settlement phase, but a lot of its towns are emerging out of settlement and into a phase of identity," explains Peter Sampson, principal at Winnipeg's Peter Sampson Architecture Studio and a co-architect on the Gillam project.
Both the Fort McMurray and Gillam projects were recognized by Canadian Architect magazine this year for their design excellence and unique fit with the local landscape.
"[These] are excellent and thoughtful projects that are very strategic in anticipating future growth and expansion in their respective regions," Canadian Architect associate editor Leslie Jen says of their acknowledgement.
"The two projects reflect the realities of the all-important natural resource industries in Canada: Oil has been the defining industry of Fort McMurray for decades, and Manitoba's developing hydroelectric economy looks to be shaping the future growth of Gillam."
To understand the new emphasis on smart design in northern infrastructure projects, consider the shifting geopolitics of the region.
With resource extraction activity skyrocketing across the North, and climate change increasingly thawing tundra and potentially opening commercial sea routes across the Arctic Ocean, northern communities offer greater strategic, economic and political value than ever before.
As such, it's no surprise their development is becoming a top federal and provincial priority. Case in point: the Harper government's recent high-profile ground-breaking of a new $300-million all-season highway linking Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.
That new focus also translates into opportunity for commercial property developers, not only to participate in the construction of major infrastructure projects, but to erect buildings that will help define a strategically important region for generations. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Fort McMurray, a northern Alberta boom town of more than 73,000 which, according to a 2012 census conducted by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (which encompasses Fort McMurray), has experienced staggering average annual population growth of 11.5 per cent since 2007. (The national average is slightly more than 1 per cent.)
The city's new $258-million international airport terminal, built to replace an outdated and drastically undersized facility constructed in 1985, is due to open in June. As Canada's 16th busiest airport, it's an infrastructure project that was long overdue.
The existing facility, which served 958,000 passengers in 2012, was built to accommodate just 250,000.
The new terminal features a range of amenities familiar to travellers used to passing through big-city airports, including improved food and beverage options, spacious and comfortable departure and business lounges, as well as the capacity to accommodate more than 1.5 million passengers each year.
"There are a lot of buildings in the North, but there isn't a lot of architecture, particularly with infrastructure projects," says the terminal's lead designer Steve McFarlane, principal at Vancouver-based Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects and Designers Inc.
"Airports have a unique role because they're the new gateways to their communities."
For his design, Mr. McFarlane drew inspiration from what he calls the region's "pioneering spirit," ruggedness and strong industrial base to produce plans for a terminal that largely blends with the local landscape. Nowhere is that more evident than in the innovative use of cross-laminated timber for the interior ceiling, as well as the dark-coloured metal cladding and unfinished concrete that wrap its exterior.
Although nearby oil sands projects are often criticized in environmental circles for their carbon intensiveness and exploitation of natural resources, Mr. McFarlane and his team were committed to producing a sustainable design that defied preconceptions.
They incorporated a range of environmentally friendly features into the building including triple-glazed windows, in-floor radiant heating and – perhaps most importantly – structural flexibility that allows for the building's easy expansion as Fort McMurray continues to grow, thus mitigating the need to tear down the terminal and rebuild over the short term.
For locals, the project is more than just an airport upgrade.
"The new building will be a testament to the fact that this growth is here to stay," says Jesse Meyer, marketing and communications manager with the Fort McMurray Airport Authority. "It will be a testament to a forward-thinking, modern community."
A forward-thinking approach was very much on the minds of Mr. Sampson and Winnipeg architect Ed Calnitsky of Calnitsky Associates Architects, his partner on the new Gillam town centre, when they started work on the project in 2009.
Originally commissioned to design a replacement for the town's shopping mall, the duo saw an opportunity to give the community of about 1,500 people, many of whom work in or support the local hydroelectric industry, something more.
Mr. Calnitsky recalls the conversation with local officials after spending time meeting townspeople, and taking in the local culture and landscape: "We said, 'You guys don't need a new shopping centre, you need a new town [centre].' "
The two proposed a mixed-use development including housing, adult education components and retail that will create an important new social hub for residents.
The new town centre, slated for completion in 2018 and budgeted at between $25- and $30-million, is designed to be pedestrian-friendly and help revitalize Gillam's tired downtown, which could serve as many as 5,000 residents by 2034, if current growth predictions prove accurate.
"It's going to completely change the lives of these 1,500 people," according to Mr. Sampson.
And as he notes, projects such as Gillam's are likely just a forerunner for similar development initiatives to come across the North.
"The North is still emerging and we're still trying to figure out how to live in it in new ways because energy demands, business and community structure are all changing," Mr. Sampson explains. "What we'll leave behind is a belief in place."