Shaping Society


By Anna Guy

Leading Canadian architecture firm Parkin Architects Limited, is an award-winning firm with a legacy of innovative and practical design for some of the country’s most notable buildings.

ParkinWhen John B. Parkin founded John B. Parkin Architects in the late 1930s, the firm quickly established a reputation for preeminent modernist architecture, and was the go-to firm for institutional design. As more and more projects came in, John B. sought out a partner to help manage and support the growth, and found one in the serendipitously named John C. Parkin (of no family relationship). Eventually, John B. Parkin moved his talents to Los Angeles, leaving John C. Parkin to continue the history of developing large institutional buildings in Canada.

Work of successor firm Parkin Architects Limited, (founded in 1986), spans Canada, influencing design in eight of the 10 provinces and in Nunavut. Parkin clients include some of the foremost institutions in Canada, many of which have enjoyed ongoing relationships with Parkin for over 20 years. Specializing in social infrastructure across the country, including healthcare, justice (prisons and courts), and educational projects, Parkin is especially well-known as the most healthcare-specialized architect in Canada. The firm also has a strong record of working with indigenous communities, and has established a niche in arctic architecture.

From offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, Parkin works closely with clients to address a full suite of a facility’s operational requirements, from addressing technology to space needs. In recent years, Parkin has integrated an industry-leading focus on the optimization of everyday activities, as well as employee health, well-being and productivity.

Influencing Society

Parkin believes that the experience of working or residing in a facility directly affects the quality of life and health for the individual and, subsequently, for society at large. This is taken as a responsibility of the highest priority for Parkin, and is the foundation of the firm’s guiding principle: to create buildings that enhance the experiences of the users and the societies they serve.

“We are spending more of our time thinking about how the building environments we create influence the health of the people who are in them,” says Cameron Shantz, Director. “In healthcare design, we focus not only on the patients who are convalescing there, but on the staff members and families who visit, as well. It’s a huge area that we spend more time focusing on than we did as an industry some years ago, when the predominant focus was strictly on functionality or efficiency.”

Specifically, Shantz points to the new Providence Care Hospital facility recently completed in Kingston, Ontario, as an example of this line of architectural design in action. This 625,000 SF facility has 270 beds, of which 180 are for rehabilitation, 30 are for forensic mental health, and 60 are for specialized mental health. The hospital was designed to balance all of an individual’s needs from private patient spaces, to quiet activity rooms, lounges, kitchenettes as well as communal program spaces. Each inpatient unit includes direct access to an outdoor roof terrace or courtyard.

Parkin introduced natural light into the building through the inclusion of atria and outdoor courtyards within the footprint of the building. Traditionally, the lower floors in hospitals tend to have very large floor plates, where it is difficult to have natural daylight or to understand the diurnal patterns of the day. “We work very actively in trying to introduce outdoor courtyards or top-lit atria spaces into these large floor plates, to bring daylight down to lower levels,” says Shantz.
Natural light “is a huge benefit to anyone occupying the building,” says Shantz. “Not only does natural light come into the building, but views to the outside are especially important to individuals who, by nature of their health condition, spend a great deal of time in these facilities.”

Evidence-based research in design

Parkin amalgamates learning on psychology into its designs as well, a key element to the success of its facilities and wellbeing of their denizens. Shantz cites a study by Roger S. Ulrich on the restorative effect of natural views on surgical patients. The study found that patient views and surroundings actually influence patient recovery, and that views to nature elicit positive feelings, reduce recovery time and reduce the use of pain medications post operatively. With this in mind, Parkin takes the natural surroundings of a building into consideration. In the case of Providence Care Hospital, windows that look out on the shores of nearby Lake Ontario draw the natural landscape into the facility.

Parkin brings forward-thinking elements to the interior of the building to enhance the wellbeing of the building occupants. “We are thinking of the character and quality of the space,” says Shantz. Parkin provides amenities like seating alcoves along corridors, areas where people who have ambulation issues can walk a few feet and then sit down. The quality of the materials, environmental graphics, and space all work in harmony to create a positive experience for the building occupants. “It has a positive effect on the healthcare professionals who work in a hospital, which enhances their ability to perform the jobs that they do, and to care for patients,” says Shantz. “A better environment means people are in a better place mentally.”

Societal health

Societal health is a major focus of Parkin’s work. Robert Boraks is Director for Justice Architecture. “We have found, based on research and practice, that normalcy is one of the greatest tools for security,” says Boraks. “Every building we design, be it a hospital or a prison, should reflect the values that define our society. We are a compassionate country that believes in human dignity and in supporting those in need of help, be they victims of crime, corrections officers, or incarcerated individuals. ”

The same individual that is incarcerated one day, is standing beside us at the check-out counter a couple of days later,” continues Boraks. “We have to ask ourselves as a society, and as architects, whether it make a lot of sense to build expensive maximum-security facilities for every charged individual, many of whom are found not guilty or are not judged to be maximum security risks.”

“The average length of stay in a provincial correctional institution is less than 30 days. Many correction officers work for over 30 years. When one thinks about it, one realizes that the officers are the actual ‘lifers’. The correctional facility is the actual workplace for the officers. Why should it be a substandard work environment?”

Environmental psychology confirms that designing spaces that provide natural light and views that are acoustically comfortable, and where officers and the incarcerated are provided choices, all help to create a more normalised environment for both officers and inmates. “It is not normal for adults to sleep in bunk beds or share an open toilet.” All of these design initiatives help to reduce stress and increase safety. Many of these design initiatives were highlighted in the recently opened, award-winning Rankin Inlet Healing Centre, a medium security prison located in Nunavut. “It is remarkable how incidences of violence and abuse were greatly reduced, and how safety was increased within the new facility, when compared to more traditional jail designs,” observed Boraks.

A Northern Consciousness

Parkin also has a very strong pedigree in Arctic architecture, having participated in the design of a number of arctic buildings, including a jail, hospital, police station and 4 schools. “It quickly became apparent that we could not apply “southern rules” to our northern designs,” says Boraks. Local populations are still struggling with the transformation from a nomadic existence to a sedentary existence. The change has not been easy and has contributed to a per capita suicide rate that is 10 times higher than in the south. Parkin quickly realized that suburban and urban design principals, based on cars, roads and matchbox houses really have little relevance in the north. “We found out that we had to listen, learn, and experience the wisdom of the north before applying those lessons to our buildings, a number of which have won international awards,” says Boraks. “What is even more interesting is that we are now applying the northern lessons to our southern work”.

Whether designing schools, hospitals or prisons, Parkin is considered to be a leader in creating effective and beautiful infrastructure in Canada. “It’s important for all of us,” says Boraks.