School of Hard Knocks: Windsor CCHS

The new Windsor Catholic Central High School is a lesson in adroit project management, value engineering and space-saving design.

Among the dignitaries attending the official opening and blessing of the new Catholic Central High School (WCCHS) in Windsor, Ont., none could have been more relieved than its designer, Paul Sapounzi, president and managing principal at +VG Architects. “The story here is that we prevailed through inflation, COVID, supply-chain challenges and the Ministry of Education’s changing guidelines,” he says. “We delivered an architecturally ambitious school that met the ministry’s funding model.”

View of Windsor Central Catholic High School from the south. Because the long rectangular building is perpendicular to McDougall Street, the entrance canopy was cranked, and a large crucifix installed at its edge, to give the entry visibility and presence from the street. The concrete boots at the base of the central pillars protect their aluminum cladding from snow-shovel impacts.

“This is a success story because +VG Architects was able to source material,” said Matthew Rae, Member of Provincial Parliament for Perth-Wellington. “Supply chain is the biggest issue government-wide, as well as the challenges of inflation. Every quarter, the cost of raw materials goes up. Education is the second-biggest line item after health. Sure, the Ministry of Education is a mass purchaser, but we’re still affected by inflation. We’re going to have to figure out how to get schools built or upgraded in the current environment.”

+VG Architects “figured it out” by applying adroit project management, contract administration and value engineering to the 102,000 square foot, 900-student facility. Built on an 11-acre downtown property between Ouellette Avenue and McDougall Street, the new school site was fraught with challenges. “This is the poster child for building a school on a dirty brownfield site,” says Ed Bourdeau, +VG Architects principal and project manager. Although the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board had undertaken environmental testing prior to construction, the ministry’s regulations subsequently changed, requiring an unbudgeted $500,000 for retesting the soil and moving much of it off site.

View of the lobby. The entrance and vestibule align, when viewed from the centre of the lobby, to create a crucifix, albeit a Greek cross (with four arms of equal length). The space where the principal corridors intersect and the commons overlaps the lobby serves as a multifunctional room: lounge, impromptu collaboration space and cafeteria spillover.

An additional $700,000 was required to build a 13-ft. berm-topped concrete barrier along the site’s northern boundary to provide safety and acoustic separation from the adjacent railway tracks. “We advocated for our client and got extra funding from the ministry for these extraordinary costs,” Bourdeau says. The ministry’s original budget figure of $27 million eventually rose to $30 million. After the closing of tender, +VG negotiated with the low bidder for general contractor to reduce their fee by $1 million.

With careful value engineering, +VG found ways to further cut costs. Changing the roof specification from modified bitumen to TPO (thermoplastic olefin) single-ply roofing membrane shaved $150,000 from the final bill; concrete-block veneer was substituted for the originally intended brick, saving $200,000. Inside, the gleaming, polished-concrete corridor flooring, incorporating pebbles into the cement mix, closely resembles more-costly terrazzo.

Views of the commons and the flanking chapel and two-sided stage, which also opens to the gym. To animate the big double-height rectangular space, +VG Architects introduced asymmetrical elements such as the projecting wall of the second-storey collaboration room, wood-slat cladding that makes a change in texture from the prevailing drywall, twin dropped ceiling sectors that partially conceal HVAC ducts. Large LED pendant lights add vertical accents. During lunch, students can sit at the tables or at the long bars at stand-up height arrayed along the perimeter, where they can work on their laptops.

Shortly before construction, to compensate for COVID-induced inflation, the ministry changed its standards governing the size of classrooms and other spaces such as the gym and cafeteria. “Their revised marching orders called for a building with nine per cent less area,” Bourdeau recalls. “But with the inflation we were seeing, we told the client that we’d have to cut more deeply, to 20 per cent.”

During construction, the ministry changed typical classroom loading from 21 to 23 students, resulting in four surplus classrooms. “We didn’t put in ceilings and floors; we just shelled those classrooms, saving more money off the top,” Bourdeau recalls.

The library benefits from natural light from windows looking onto the commons. With most research now done online, the 2,200-square-foot library is half the size of a comparable space in the recent past. The harvested space was added to the commons.

+VG’s efficient multiuse design, such as the two-sided open stage sandwiched between the commons and gym, contributed to cost savings. “Rather than building another 1,500-square-foot music room, we triple-used the 1,500-square-foot stage as the media-arts, music and theatre-arts room; it has acoustically separated partitions.” Similarly, the cosmetology shop doubles as the health-sciences classroom.

Another +VG space-saving idea for public schools, eliminating corridors, was implemented here by treating the commons as a town square with the chapel centrally located adjacent to the commons, just as a church adjoins the main square in a town.

The breakout lounge in the science area where students can work collaboratively, in a more-relaxed setting than the classroom, features the school’s official maroon colour.

Another example of space saving is the ambiguous zone where the lobby intersects the transverse corridor in front of the commons. It functions as lounge, impromptu collaboration space and cafeteria spillover. “This is very area-efficient because what would have been a corridor now becomes a little-bigger cafeteria, giving space for another 30 or 40 kids in the lobby,” Bourdeau says. Indeed, he sees a trend. “School boards are asking for what they call ‘21st-century learning spaces,’ little breakout areas where they can put their best kids outside the classroom because they’ll work unsupervised. We’ve used that same idea of collaboration space stolen from the corridor on several of our recent school designs.”

With reduced need for bookshelves, now that students do most of their research online, the 2,200-sq.-ft library is half the size of a comparable library in the recent past. Instead, it acts as a collaborative space and resource room where students can work together on projects. Again, the saved space was harvested to enlarge the footprint of the commons.

“Ontario business confidence has dropped to a record low in 2023,” said Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, citing inflation and supply-chain issues as top sources of pessimism about the economy, in a recent BNN Bloomberg story. In such times, it’s reassuring to see educational projects not just get a passing grade but achieve top marks.

Photography by: David Lasker Photography