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Like many architects, Charles Simon has been concerned about building sustainably for many years, but until now has only been able to introduce one or two environmental features into his buildings. Now, with the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA Environmental Learning Centre project, the architect has pursued a much more holistic approach, where every detail—from the buildings’ siting to their built form, materials and systems—is determined by environmental factors.

The two buildings in the program face each other across a natural wetland, in the rolling hills of a 70-acre site near Paradise Lake. The semi-circular Earth Residence is buried into a bank at the north edge of the wetland. It contains sleeping space for about 40 people around a south-facing living room. To the south, the Day Centre stands on raised ground, prominently placed as the camp’s main arrivals building and orientation centre. It contains a resource centre, assembly room, and a large greenhouse where a biological water purification plant will be on display for the education of the students (funds were raised to install it).

The Day Centre’s soaring 115-metre green-house also has an important role in heating and cooling. Air inside is warmed by the sun and pumped through vents in the floor slabs. Callum McKee, the centre’s director, estimates that 70 per cent of the heating for the building is provided by this means. A boiler provides back-up hot water heating through fin tubes. This water system cools the building in summer through a system of night sky evaporative cooling: collected rain water is passed over the glass roof and cooled in the night air. The cold water is then recollected and stored in an underground cistern, ready to be pumped through the floor pipes during the day. [1]

Among the many other environmentally innovative technologies is a large custom-designed masonry fireplace in the Earth Residence. It burns wood at such high temperatures it gives off scarcely no emissions and needs only to be fired twice a day. This building is totally off the electricity grid; its power comes from a combination of wind turbine, photovoltaic solar panels, and exercise bicycles. Students are shocked to find how much effort it takes to earn power to run their radios, or the television; they scarcely ever have the strength to push the heavy pedals for more than one-and-a-half minutes of viewing time.

Building forms are orchestrated to work in harmony with the forces of nature. The profiles of both structures are angled to take advantage of natural air currents and sunlight. Low operable windows and vents let in cool summer breezes, and high vents create ventilating stack effects. South-facing glazed walls create passive solar heating and clerestory windows allow the sun to penetrate north walls. Both buildings are sheltered from extreme temperatures by being partially buried in the earth, and are covered with earth roofs which provide greenery as well as thermal insulation. The roofs are planted with natural grasses in 8" of earth.

The Burrows Building is part of the YMCA Environmental Learning Center. Considered the soul of the Learning camp, it was designed as a team effort where the site and the available materials exercised as much influence as the clients and the architect. The Burrows Building provides overnight accommodations for up to forty guests attending the YMCS Environmental Learning Centre educational camp sessions.

“The Burrows Building was constructed as a part of a participatory learning environment designed to teach people about environmentally responsible living through example. The building successfully displays many different environmentally sustainable techniques and strategies for manipulating the quality of architectural space”. [2]


[1]       “Green Buildings 1: Natural Harmony”, Canadian Architect, July 1996.

[2]         Vamberger, Helena. “Advanced Studies in Canadian Sustainable Design: Burrows Building.” Terri Meyer Boake, 2003. http://www.tboake.com/sustain_casestudies/edited/Burrows-Bldg-YMCA.pdf.

Project Title: YMCA Environmental Learning Centre
Charles Simon Architect
Place: Wellesley, Ontario

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