Good Governance Embodied: Grey County Administration Building

+VG Architects updates Grey County’s administration building, gathering previously dispersed services into an accessible, community-friendly hub.

In Owen Sound (population 21,612), the county seat of Grey County (96,000) on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, two hours north of Toronto, the main attractions are the waterfalls within a short drive of the town, and downtown, the Grey County Administration Building, newly renovated and expanded by +VG Architects Ltd. (+VG).

The County had long outgrown its existing home, built in 1960. Many programs could only be housed in remote facilities, hampering operations and service delivery. The new addition and renovation gathers most of the county’s services, including the Provincial Offences Court (where citizens pay their parking and speeding tickets), under one roof, making it easier for citizens to receive services in a centrally located, fully accessible community hub. The project added 50,000 square feet of new space.

“The colours and design of the new addition complement the existing building,” says Paul Sapounzi, managing principal and Project Architect at +VG. “I conceived the exterior as a visual metaphor for good governance and the embodiment of Vitruvian virtues,” he says, alluding to the Roman architect Vitruvius’s famous assertion that a structure should exhibit firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis (stability, utility, beauty).

The playful rhythm of the new façade creates a focal point in the centre of the elevation that connects the new atrium to the landscape. The addition’s massing and colour palette pays homage to the existing building. (Photo credit: Mario Madau)

“To leaven that sobriety, I enhanced the interior and exterior with fun and exciting elements that boost the creativity and performance of the civil servants and help visiting members of the public feel welcome,” says Sapounzi.

In 2012, County Council asked +VG to provide a space-needs and programming analysis of the existing building and a master plan and architectural design for a new and better one. Criteria included sustainability, low operating and maintenance costs, and the flexibility to allow for expansion without disturbing existing operations. +VG concluded that while the existing facility was in good condition, it fell short of current standards for communication and technology requirements, privacy, confidentiality and barrier-free accessibility.

The renovation accommodates the parts of government that had been parceled out in separate buildings and introduces a clear visual hierarchy, with the new council chambers given pride of place with its adjacent meeting room highlighted by a giant-order picture frame befitting the room’s status as the seat of power.

In the new council chamber, nature can be viewed literally through the windows and poetically at the framed birch logs on the opposite wall. (Photo credit: Mario Madau)

Like the other meeting rooms, the council chamber’s atrium-facing wall is of clear glass (with roller shades concealed in ceiling pockets). “Our government buildings share a theme of openness, with nothing to hide,” Sapounzi says. “Being able to see people working in town offices reinforces the idea for ratepayers that ‘These people work for me.’”

+VG maintained the existing main entrance at the uphill side of the building and introduced side entrances where the new and old buildings meet. Visitors entering through the main entrance walk through a corridor—previously a dark tunnel—and soon see the big open, skylit atrium, which encourages them to go farther and explore the building.

Upon reaching the atrium, the dramatic vista of the town and the blue waters of Georgian Bay one kilometer away, combined with the open layout, help people orient themselves intuitively within the building. “We didn’t have to do a lot of wayfinding because it’s built in. If people need to go downstairs, they can see the lower-level service desk from the atrium’s upper level.

Blue plastic laminate frames the central meeting room. The new atrium lobby created a space for collaboration, outlines the vista of the exterior through the interior of the building and acts as a wayfinding device for interior circulation. (Photo credit: Mario Madau)

“The addition completes and complements the existing building,” he adds, which exemplifies the classicizing Modernist style of the Sixties, when the façades at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts launched a trend for abstracted arcades. The addition retains and highlights two of the original building’s arches, formerly on the exterior and now at the atrium’s rear. The rounded vault of the atrium skylight complements the arches, creating a pleasing continuity of forms between the old and new building campaigns.

The terrific view wasn’t the only reason to locate the addition in front of the original building. The difficulty of site grading and servicing down the steeply sloping hill was outweighed by the opportunity to exploit the topography and offer natural light to most of the offices and public spaces. With daylight from the building’s perimeter supplemented by the skylit atrium, every office harvests natural light. “There are no dark spots, neither in the lower level, nor in the upper level,” Sapounzi says. Mechanical rooms and other spaces that don’t benefit from natural light are located at the back of the original building’s lower level.

The addition has more windows than the existing building. To help balance interior light levels in the atrium area, floor tiles in the addition progressively darken toward the exterior. (Photo credit: Mario Madau)

Placing the addition at the back, on the other hand, would have required burying half of it underground or adding two storeys above the existing roof, which would in turn have necessitated a major structural retrofit to bear the additional load. Another advantage of the new configuration is parking, confined now mostly to the rear. “We didn’t want to showcase a sea of cars, we wanted to showcase the beauty of the building,” he adds.

The rounded vault of the atrium skylight evokes the curves of the two arches retained from the arcade that originally wrapped the existing building’s rear elevation, ensuring a pleasing continuity of forms between the old and new building campaigns. (Photo credit: Mario Madau)