The first mass-timber academic building in Ontario is rapidly taking shape at Toronto’s Centennial College. The A-Block Expansion Project will have the potential to be the province’s first net-zero carbon, mass-timber, LEED Gold-certified higher education facility when completed in 2023. The $105-million addition to Centennial’s A-Block building forms the gateway to its Progress Campus in Scarborough, in the eastern suburbs of Toronto. We spoke with Dr. Craig Stephenson, President and CEO of Centennial College, about the bold new addition gracing its flagship campus.

“We are serious about environmental sustainability as an organization, and are excited about the benefits of using wood,” says Dr. Stephenson. “Mass timber, which is composed of a mix of wood strips laminated together to form strong structural components, can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector. It reduces wastage, pollution and costs associated with construction, and creates a more aesthetically pleasing and healthy built environment. There are other colleges and universities in Ontario with predominantly mass timber structures in various stages of planning, design and construction but, to our knowledge, Centennial College was the first to actually start building with mass timber on campus.”

“Two-eyed Seeing”

In collaboration with EllisDon, DIALOG and Smoke Architecture, Centennial selected a design based on the Indigenous concept of “Two-eyed Seeing.” The building will embody the college’s view on sustainability, inclusivity and Indigeneity as wholly interconnected, says Dr. Stephenson. “We wanted to create a learning space that demonstrates the importance of that tripartite relationship.”

“The Indigenous concept of Two-eyed Seeing empowered our architectural team to explore the ideas of zero carbon and mass timber through both an Indigenous lens and a Western lens,” says Dr. Stephenson. “The two perspectives amplify each other. For example, the aluminum cladding on the building was detailed with contemporary parametric software to replicate the way a fish’s scales move over its body, shifting independently yet forming a single skin. It’s incredibly functional, yet also quite magical.”

Indigenous perspectives inspired the core design narratives. “Built on the shared territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples, we reintroduce teachings from this territory, reinforcing relationships with the land and all our relations,” says Dr. Stephenson. Centennial College Indigenous staff and faculty worked together with the architects to imbed these perspectives throughout, going beyond surface motifs to reach a deeper shared understanding that manifests in architectural space.

Eladia Smoke, principal of Smoke Architecture, was one of the leads on the project. As she explains, “It’s a teaching lodge, and the way you teach is you refer to inspirations from the natural world. So, this is a space that is reminiscent of that because there’s lots of glass and then you have this wood framework breaking it up into bays.”
A College of Firsts

Centennial College was the very first college to open its doors to students under William Davis’s plan to establish a public network of community colleges across Ontario. As Education Minister, Davis recognized the need for an innovative form of higher education to prepare the demographic wave of “baby boomers” to participate in the economy in new ways: as technologists, business people, social workers and early childhood educators, among many other burgeoning career fields.

“When Centennial opened in the fall of 1966, students marched to the Ontario Legislature not to protest, but to thank Bill Davis for creating a new and dynamic learning destination, one closely aligned with industry needs,” says Dr. Stephenson. “In the pioneering spirit of that time, we wanted to invest in new construction technology that demonstrates how far we have come—some might say full circle by embracing wood—after six decades in existence.” The college’s A-Block Expansion Project will serve as a showcase for its own students.

“Centennial teaches programs in Architectural Technology and Construction Project Management, as well as skilled trades such as heating/air conditioning and electrical construction,” says Dr. Stephenson. “We wanted to situate cutting-edge projects right on our campuses so the next generation of technicians and technologists can see and touch the innovations that they will be working with in their own careers. This strategy can be seen in our other newer campus buildings, which have earned LEED certification. Our Progress Campus Library, for example, features a 16-metre-tall “green wall” of lush plants that filter and clean the interior air to make our study space fresher and healthier. This is the kind of inspired thinking we want to imbue in our students.”

Once constructed, the six-storey A-Block addition will provide 150,000 square feet of academic space for programs in the School of Engineering Technology and Applied Science, including flexible classrooms that accommodate Indigenous ways of teaching and being, as well as support areas such as an engaging “student touchdown” area, along with collaborative spaces, administrative offices and food services. It’s important to note that the project is categorized as an expansion of the college’s existing A-Block campus building that dates back to 1990. Rather than raze a perfectly sound building—and creating thousands of tonnes of waste—the decision was made to add to the building and give it a second life as the showpiece of the main campus.

Benefits of Timber

Using mass timber for construction above the foundation displaces the use of concrete, a material which causes a detrimental amount of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere. Concrete production is the leading industrial cause of carbon pollution, responsible for eight per cent of global emissions. The key raw material for Portland cement is limestone, which releases carbon dioxide as it is heated in a kiln to almost 1,500 degrees Celsius. That searing heat is generated by burning coal or other fossil fuels that create additional greenhouse gases. Steel-beam components also have a heavy carbon footprint.

“In fact, by its very nature, wood has the capacity to store thousands of tonnes of carbon in its sustainably harvested mass-timber form. It reduces wastage, air pollution and costs associated with construction, and contributes to a healthier indoor environment,” says Dr. Stephenson. “Another distinct advantage is the rate of construction, which is quicker than conventional methods. Our contractor, EllisDon, was able to erect and top off our six-storey building in just 100 days because the 1,057 wooden structural components were manufactured offsite and hoisted into place. The components are predominantly “Glulam” columns and beams made of wood strips laminated lengthwise, and floor slabs are made of cross-laminated timber for strength. The timber is FSC-certified black spruce from northern Quebec, which was cross-laminated and glue-laminated in a plant in Chibougamau, Quebec.”

Environmental Stewardship

Centennial College’s commitment to environmental stewardship is ongoing and stronger than ever, according to Dr. Stephenson. “We are very much a part of the ‘Decade of Action’ and will continue to build upon our strengths—including water and waste management, clean power, biodiversity and LEED construction—and identify where we can leverage new opportunities for growth and meaningful learning experiences. Already, our efforts have borne fruit.” In April, Dr. Stephenson was honoured to accept, on behalf of Centennial, the CICan Gold Award for Excellence in Sustainable Development. The Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) Awards of Excellence recognize the best practices of institutions across the country.

“At Centennial, we are deeply invested in advancing sustainability, environmental stewardship and green innovations,” he says. “Centennial has made major steps towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” Among the milestones the college has set and achieved are:
l the launch of multiple curricular and co-curricular activities, such as community gardens and pollinator gardens, and as a founding partner of the World Wildlife Fund Living Planet @ Campus program;

l implementation of sustainable infrastructure and operations – which not only includes the Progress Campus A-Block Expansion, but other LEED campus buildings and spaces, waste diversion programs, green roofs and electric vehicle charging stations;

l Centennial’s SDG Innovation Lab engages students to become changemakers and develop solutions to address the SDGs and participate in global events, led by the college’s Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Services (AIRES);

l serving as a founding member of the collaborative EaRTH District with several learning institutions in the east GTA in support of clean, green and sustainable innovations; and,

l offering one of the largest number of college courses focused on environmental sustainability and clean technology in Ontario, readying our graduates to be leaders in the green economy.

“All of these efforts, and more, lend credence to our deep commitment to the environment and our desire to nurture a culture of environmental stewardship,” says Dr. Stephenson. “Indeed, this is quite a moment in the history of Centennial College and one that adds wind in our sails around our transformational objectives, which is very much about embracing clean, green and sustainable goals and differentiating ourselves in this space.”

Dr. Craig Stephenson is the President and CEO of Centennial College in Toronto.