Walker Environmental awarded NCA Project of the Year for innovative and cost efficient Niagara outdoor educational centre

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STAFF WRITER
The GTA Construction Report Special Feature

The Niagara Construction Association (NCA) has presented Walker Environmental Group Inc. with its Project of the Year Award for the DSBN (District School Board of Niagara) Walker Living Campus at Woodend.

The association granted the award at its Winter Awards Luncheon and Charity Food Drive in December 2015.

The $2.5 million 5,500 sq. ft. project, constructed through community funding, included donations from the Walker Family, TD Friends of the Environment Foundation (TD FEF), Cogeco Cable and the Ontario Thorold Paper Foundation.

The initiative would “completely reinvigorate the outdoor education centre currently sitting atop the Niagara escarpment” by adding a 522 sq. m. school house with two classrooms, and a third outdoor 121 sq. m. classroom, creating an innovative, environmental and outdoor education experience.

Walker Environmental Group commenced work in December 2013 in conjunction with MacDonald Zuberec Ensslen Architects Inc. and Mountainview Construction and was completed in January 2015. Key project partners also included two groups of DSBN students in the High Skills Major Program who provided a total of 1,728 student hours for construction and another 160 hours for landscaping.

The students, led by their site supervisor, Ken Willms, assisted with construction which encompassed as many construction trades as possible while the DSBN Horticultural Program “Dig It” completed all the landscaping work with the help of select contractors. Students specifically assisted with building foundations and backfill, masonry, and erecting a wall, roof and structural insulated panels. The students also independently completed the demolition of an existing building, wood stud wall framing, structural sheathing and installed the Tyvek air barrier.

Walker Environmental project manager John Koeman says his company has an interest in working on projects where it can provide value. In this case, the goal of creating a unique environment for student learning and engaging the industry’s future workers through student involvement created an added opportunity to implement one of Walker’s core values – giving back to the community.

“The opportunity to provide meaningful work for students, to really show them what the job is and how they can be involved, was an opportunity to invest in the future of our industry,” he said. “We then had to find contractors who understood that vision and were willing to work alongside the students. In the end, we saw some continuing to work together even after the project was completed.”

Koeman says the first challenge was maintaining the school board’s fixed budget. From the outset this required a value engineering effort to achieve a 25 per cent reduction without compromising the building size, function, or the client’s primary objectives.

Additionally, the site location, on land belonging to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) and part of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Biosphere Reserve, has tight restrictions and unique challenges.

“There were specific boundaries restricting construction activities to predefined limits, all with the intention of preventing environmental impact to the surrounding protected escarpment area, which included rare plant species and migratory paths,” Koeman said.

He says the site’s sensitivity required advanced planning on how to deliver materials and the scheduling of people due to the limited space that was available beyond the building’s footprint.

The project’s sustainability efforts included timber framing and high insulation values for walls and roof systems using Structural Insulated Panel System (SIPS). The interior required limited interior finishing because timbers and SIPS were exposed and painted, as was the exposed concrete floor. Energy efficient plumbing fixtures, lighting and heating systems were also installed, and rather than installing air conditioning, the building relies on cooling from breezes and the extensive available tree canopy.

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The building also features a green roof, few of which exist in the Niagara region, and uses sloped white roofs to eliminate the heat island effect, locally sourced cementitious materials, and landscaping with native species. To reduce site disturbance, the new building was also constructed specifically on the footprint of the previous structure.

Koeman says the most unique feature is the outdoor classroom which provides a covered area with a fireplace, trees for benches and chairs, a gravel floor and a continuation of the sustainable construction materials. “Sitting at the edge of the construction limit, this space is open to the environment and will give students a chance to connect with all of their senses and what is around them.”1

On a project such as this, Koeman says a strong team is critical. “Strong construction teams are developed and supported by experience, knowledge and a high degree of trust. Trust is essential to a team that needs to deliver a complex project with a tight space with defined resources and high client expectations. Each team member needs to rely on others to do their part, at the right time, to achieve the end goal.”

He says the NCA award validates the work completed by all the team members, including the client, and confirms that this project is exceptional in its delivery method, construction and delivering on client expectation. “The awards offer an opportunity to be proud of the work NCA members deliver to the community.”

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