A couple of years ago, Niagara College in Ontario, Canada invested tens of millions of dollars in renovating and redesigning its two campuses — Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) and Welland (WC) — to make the college experience more appealing for students with state-of-the-art facilities and amenities.

Toronto-based architecture and interior design firm, Gow Hastings Architects, was enlisted to complete both projects, which included new additions and renovations to existing structures. In Welland, a new student center was constructed, while older structures were renovated and repurposed at the NOTL campus to create a completely new student commons.

“The Students Commons located on the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus [NOTL] is enveloped in an ecological band of wetlands and offers environmental, culinary and horticulture programs,” said Philip Hastings, co-founder of Gow Hastings Architects in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “In keeping with this use and setting, and with this project’s modest budget, the college wanted us to minimize the cost and environmental impact of the project with sustainable materials, efficient building systems and maximum reuse strategies.

“Within these constraints, they wanted a project that would provide the sprawling, decentralized campus with a ‘heart:’ a welcoming, flexible and collaborative gathering place where students could meet and socialize,” the architect explained. “In response to these challenges, we shaped the Student Commons out of a nondescript gymnasium, half of which was partitioned off with an unsightly divider to be used as an eating area. We created a sleek, contemporary new Student Commons and enhanced cafeteria
on the ground floor, with administration space and student services on the second floor.”

The design of the NOTL Student Commons was achieved by merging two side-by-side gymnasiums, one of which was used for athletics and another that was used as an informal student space. The gymnasiums were transformed into a new cafeteria and formal student space with a seated lounge area and enclosed student activity room that features full-height glass doors to create a dramatic threshold and block noise, while retaining a visual connection to the main space. “Connection points are everywhere — walls, floors and furnishings — to facilitate events and allow students to charge their devices,” said Hastings.

“The college wanted a purpose-built, student-focused amenity space so they could have a central student area,” added Jim Burkitt, designer director at Gow Hastings Architects. “Ultimately, what we did was finish the existing space with a linear metal wall system that was integrated with a customized lighting system. We also hung lights from the existing gym ceiling to reduce scale within the commons and added fresh white ceramic tiles on the wall, which provided durability that the college wanted.”

Through the use of carefully considered material choices, along with customized lighting and acoustic solutions, the design team was able to create smaller focal points within the larger space, according to Burkitt. “Specifically, we lowered the double-height ceiling over the cafeteria using the Hunter Douglas BXD — Linear Open Multi Panel Ceiling System on the upper portions of the wall to dampen sound and create a more human-scaled setting,” he said. “Within the acoustic aluminum slat system, we used strip LED lighting from Sistemalux in Toronto to add texture and depth, and further break up the overall mass. The BXD system allowed for different widths and depths. Rather than surface mounting the vertical light fixtures, we fit them in between the extrusions. The lighting is approximately 3/4-inch square by 4-inch lengths, which worked well with the Hunter Douglas product.

“You won’t see this just anywhere because we prototyped it for this project,” Burkitt went on to say. “We felt that this wall solution allowed us to retain the existing ceiling, permitting us to preserve the existing HVAC, which both reduced environmental impact and helped keep the project within budget.”

To complement the visually appealing metal wall system, the design team lined the adjacent walls with glossy white, 4- x 12-inch ceramic tiles from Lea Ceramiche’s Progetto L14 collection, which has since been discontinued.

“We like the fact that the tile was formatted the way it is,” said Burkitt. “The long and thin tile proportion contributed to the more human scale of the newly purposed space. We were extremely pleased that these innovations all came together nicely.”

The tile, which was used exclusively on the walls, was locally supplied by Stone Tile International in Toronto. “One of the objectives in the selection of wall tile was to elongate the width of the space by installing the rectangular tile in a horizontal format,” said Hastings. “What was previously an underutilized, dark and dingy gymnasium was transformed into a lively collaborative space, and has become the most popular student venue on campus.”

The NOTL Student Commons, which can now be reconfigured to host large events or rearranged to entertain smaller-scale activities, has received great praise since its completion in September 2017. “The college was really astounded,” said Burkitt. “We’re super happy about it as well. We love it and they love it.”

“Our enhancements have made this a dynamic place for students to gather, providing an incentive for students to stay on campus rather than leaving to socialize elsewhere,” added Hastings.

Niagara College’s NOTL Student Commons

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

Architect: Gow Hastings Architects, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Contractor: G.S. Wark Ltd, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tile Supplier: Stone Tile International, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Lea Ceramiche’s Progetto L14 collection in “XWhite,” which has since been discontinued)