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Signature curved roofline made from pine-beetle-killed wood at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

Academic architecture isn't what it used to be.

For many years, stretching back to the 1950s, universities and colleges in this country and beyond were constrained by the notion that buildings of higher education could work only on three or fewer storeys. According to some experts, however, that concept is now as outdated as the abacus.

"I would say it's totally an academic planning prejudice that universities can only work in three floors," says Don Schmitt, principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc. in Toronto, a firm that has worked with 40 colleges and universities and has designed roughly 100 academic buildings over the past decade and a half.

"It's partly because that's been the tradition across many campuses. There's some vague idea that we have to accommodate the flows of people, that at the bell between this lecture and that lecture, there's 250 people flowing out and 250 people flowing in.

"Well, a typical office tower, say the TD Centre [in Toronto] that has 3,000-4,000 people working in one tower, how do they move them in and out?"

While some schools have adopted a high-rise philosophy, such as Chicago's Roosevelt University with its 32-storey all-inclusive "vertical campus" served by high-speed elevators, others start to feel a little uneasy when the idea of even a sixth storey is discussed.

Case in point was the work Diamond Schmitt recently completed at the University of Ottawa, where it designed a 15-storey faculty of social science building on a tiny footprint of land squeezed in between the existing five-storey Vanier Hall building and the Rideau Canal.

"Vanier Hall, everybody thought of it as fronting the canal, and we did a little work and said there is a … building site here that could be made to work and it could integrate with Vanier Hall," Mr. Schmitt says. "They said academic buildings don't make sense on 15 floors."

But the building opened two years ago to widespread acclaim, offering five storeys of undergraduate classroom and lecture space, with seminar, office and research space occupying the upper floors.

"It's a veritable social science laboratory," Allan Rock, the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ottawa, said when the building opened. "Students and researchers in our largest faculty will benefit from the synergies that come with being together."

But given the increasing complexities that come with operating in an urban environment, responding to growing student bodies and the demands for collaborative learning methods, utilizing the space most effectively is of the utmost importance.

"I think we are mindful of the footprint that we have because we are in an urban setting," says Alan Wildeman, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Windsor. "We don't have a lot of land around us and so we haven't gone much higher than three or four storeys but we are mindful of the fact that we need to create compact spaces that maximize the land that we've got."

That overriding principle was certainly at the forefront when Diamond Schmitt was asked to redesign an existing academic building at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops to accommodate a new law school. Though space wasn't necessarily a problem, there was a feeling among the faculty that the campus had started to sprawl, and that it needed to be refocused around a central core.

"When we did our campus master plan, one of the principles of that master plan is we wanted to create greater densification of the core of campus," says Matt Milovick, vice-president of finance and administration at TRU.

TRU had an existing circular piece of topography designed by famed Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, which Mr. Schmitt saw as a crossroads for students. Diamond Schmitt built the university library there a few years ago, and the firm decided to re-emphasize that area of campus when it came to the neighbouring law school, too.

The existing multi-use two-storey 1970s structure, known as Old Main, which Mr. Schmitt fairly describes as a "bit of a beast in the middle of campus," was short on style, but long on function. The university decided that rather than knocking it down, it would add to it. Instead of increasing the footprint horizontally, Diamond Schmitt went vertical instead, adding another two storeys.

"The old building being two storeys and fairly low, it didn't really take advantage of the views," Mr. Milovick says.

The extra height allows law students to capitalize on the breathtaking vista presented by the mountains that surround the campus, particularly Mount Peter and Mount Paul. They became the inspiration for the undulating wooden roof that echoes the landscape.

A painting of Mount Paul by Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson gave Mr. Schmitt what he calls the "aha moment" and it also helped him avoid putting a "flat pancake on a flat pancake."

In addition to the law library and reading rooms housed in the new space, which officially opened in June, the extra room also allowed for teaching areas to be reinterpreted. The lecture theatre, for instance, was designed following discussions with local First Nations people, who viewed it more as a gathering space as opposed to a more Western view of a talking head in front of a group of students.

"It's that whole issue of how is the lecture space changing to accommodate new ways of thinking about teaching and how is academic space overall changing to accommodate the collegiality," Mr. Schmitt says. "How are universities, particularly urban universities, taking advantage of diminishing campus space? They're going more compact and taller, partly a real estate circumstance of making more effective use of the site they have available."

For Thompson Rivers University, the result is one that takes maximum advantage of the landscape around it, and while it is hoped the new facility will enhance the learning experience, the increased height and stature of the building is one that the faculty hopes will offer greater exposure to the school across Canada.

"You think of universities that have iconic buildings," Mr. Milovick says. "OCAD's got the Sharp Centre of Design and anybody that knows that building [with its table-top structure] relates it to OCAD; Queen's has their clock tower, the University of Guelph has [historic] Johnston Hall.

"I think in the future when people see this building, as it becomes more well-known, people are going to immediately identify it as 'That's TRU.' That is the building that will define us in people's minds."

TRU facts

– The law school addition was designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects with associate Stantec Architecture Ltd.

– The additional two storeys provide 45,000 square feet of space, housing the law library, reading room, lecture theatre and offices.

– Roof panels were prefabricated and made of glued laminated timber beams, called glulam, wood joists and plywood sheathing.

– The 122-metre-long roof was installed in just seven weeks in the summer of 2012.

– $20.2-million – total cost of the addition to Old Main.

– Existing two-storey building was reclad in cement-board planks to form curving bands that reference First Nations basket-weaving traditions.

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