It’s a phrase used several times by Claudio Brun del Re, University of Ottawa (uOttawa)’s chief architect in an interview with RENX.
That idea can likely be applied to most things, but in this context, Brun del Re is talking about the development happening on Canadian university campuses.
“Our thinking about buildings and architecture and sustainability and urban design — and all of those things — evolve on parallel streams,” he said. “There is always new thinking.”
Thirty to 40 years ago the grim, utilitarian blandness of brutalist architecture was taking hold all across North America, including institutions of higher learning.
“If you put yourself into the mindset of those (who designed those buildings) . . . they were thinking about people in a different way,” he said.
New concepts at uOttawa STEM Complex
Times, and design and education concepts, have changed. Now, technology, sustainability and interdisciplinary learning are values that direct school building design. uOttawa’s recently-completed Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Complex is central to the movement.
The roughly $115-million-dollar STEM Complex consolidates several faculties into one highly-integrated building. It has open-concept teaching labs, 3D-printing Makerspaces, uOttawa’s Entrepreneurship Hub and other multidisciplinary spaces.
The building is also part of the university’s revamped master plan to become more integrated with the city around it. About $51.5 million of the funding for the building came from the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF). The program, launched in 2017, is directing nearly $1.26-billion into innovation projects, including new research facilities on campuses around the country.
He said Canada’s universities are becoming increasingly global in their reach. In a climate easily recognizable to any commercial real estate owner or manager these days, they are also becoming more competitive in their pursuit of top students, faculty and researchers.
“Increasingly, the focus has been on (recruiting) foreign students for a set of evolving reasons,” he said. “There seems to be a justification and a kind of strategic investment by various levels of government to build what they call the knowledge economy and make Canada a place where people come to get educated.
“The architectural character of the campus and its buildings become calling cards to both prospective students but also researchers and faculty,” he said. “What is the best facility? What is the most state-of-the-art facility?”
Strategic approach to university development
A more strategic approach to university development really took off around 2006. Universities started to build innovative and integrated buildings, jump-starting campus revitalization by redeveloping the empty, sprawling, worn-down buildings from decades past.
“It’s a grow-or-die model that they seem to have,” Frontini said. “You can’t stand still.”
He said uOttawa seems to have gotten it right with the STEM Complex.
“They took faculties of math, engineering and science that were spread in different buildings around the campus and buildings that had a lot of deferred maintenance,” he said. “They were older buildings from the ’60s, ’70s, in bad shape. In some cases, under par.”
Their goal was to bring larger and more diverse groups of students and faculty under one roof.
Frontini also worked on a new Bata Library project at Trent University, which received about $9 million from the SIF.
“They reinvented the library and created spaces that welcomed private-sector entrepreneurs into the building,” he said. “(It also included) incubator space and high-tech space to develop research projects in collaboration with the private sector.”
Federal grants central to new buildings
Buildings like those wouldn’t have been completed without the SIF money. The funds were targeted at projects which were already in the planning stage, but the developments had to include elements of innovation and research.
“There was a real focus on technology, on entrepreneurship, on spaces for innovation and (indigenous purposes),” Frontini said. “Those were the four big themes.”
He said the SIF grant money had to be invested within two years, creating an urgency to the STEM Complex project, which would have taken up to five years under normal circumstances.
“It was done in under two years,” he said, adding the SIF created a sense of competition and urgency among universities to up their development strategies to get a piece of the pie. “You saw a surge of investment and realization of new buildings and new ideas for building over a two- to three-year period.”
“There was no (STEM Complex) project without the funding,” Brun del Re said. “That is clear.”
Brun del Re said when he started at uOttawa 25 years ago, most development and design concepts focused on providing enough office space for instructors and class space for students.
“(Now), students are doing more collaborative work and so those spaces needed to evolve,” he said. “How can we make these people work better together? That is kind of our thinking now.”