On a lighter note

It helps to start with generous, south-facing windows. When Dalhousie University commissioned Halifax’s Abbott Brown Architects to redo one wing’s interior in its central Henry Hicks admin building, partner Alec Brown knew natural lighting wouldn’t be a problem. What would be of concern, aside from mitigating extreme solar gain at certain times of the year, was drawing this light into the centre of the 3,800-square-foot area. As well, Brown says, the space’s very high ceilings presented “a challenge to provide the right lighting design. We tried to stay away from a big, monotonous field of evenly spaced office lighting, to make the lighting varied and sensitive to the architectural constructs.”

These constructs, with the small proviso that the firm employ maplewood  finishes, were left up to Abbott Brown. The wing, which houses the university’s HR department, had been initially configured sometime back in the 1940s. Dozens of small offices branched off a wide central corridor, evincing a closed, institutional feel. The client wanted to lighten things up through illumination and a sense of openness, balanced, however, against mandated privacy and security concerns. Stripped back to its bare-bones subfloor and exterior walls, the wing was a tabula rasa, save for an existing warren of load-bearing columns where the old public corridor used to be, and an old accounts-payable vault, also structural, awkwardly located in the middle of the plan. 

“We allocated the vault to the HR file system and covered it on three sides with masonry, so you don’t really notice it,” says Brown of the revamped wing, completed in 2013. “We were able to work all the freestanding elements in. They now form a series of gentle, maple-clad thresholds along an axis, travelling a path from public in the front to private areas in the back.”

Ephemeral glass doors and partitions, clerestory openings and transoms allow natural light to travel throughout the space, augmented strategically with dropped linear boxes and vertical pendants that give the high ceilings more human dimension. Midway along the path, a decorative panel of translucent acrylic over natural dried grass softly signals the separation between public and private spaces. The back office area has its own sense of place reinforced by undulating overhead acoustical panels and dropped rectangular lights that minimize both the ceiling’s height and the necessary mechanical bulkheads.

The wing’s main material palette – greyed glass, beige “concrete” linoleum tile, and polished steel rollers and handles on doors offers up a distinctly modernist industrial sensibility. This is considerably warmed, however,
by the visual predominance of bleached maplewood in the
multiple room partitions and an airy, dropped ceiling of naturally shaded maple slats.     

Dalhousie’s new HR wing now presents itself as a cohesive communal space, just as the client ordered. The grandeur of the original windows echoes within through volumes of glass that provide “membranes of privacy in an overall sense of lightness and welcome,” according to Brown. In other words, staff and visitors can enjoy seclusion when warranted without ever feeling isolated or overshadowed.  cI