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The centre integrates an Olympic-sized pool, a leisure pool, therapeutic waters, and a chil­dren’s area with an inviting water slide.

The luminous aquatic centre in Surrey, B.C., is swimming with light and ingenuity.

A giant shoebox may be the logical form for a natatorium, but the Guild­ford aquatic centre in Surrey, British Columbia, relays an imaginative approach that imbues it with a complexity worthy of its program. The 10,400-square-metre expansion of the existing recreational centre harmoniously knits together an Olympic-sized pool and a leisure pool with a water slide. Along with universal change rooms and a fitness centre, there is a sauna, a steam room and spectator seating for up to 300. Bing Thom Architects worked with Shape Architecture, both based in Vancouver, to meld these diverse elements into “a meditative space, like a library,” says lead architect Bing Thom. “We are playing with this mystery of the box.”

Left: Visitors enter the centre via a concrete bridge that spans above both pools. Right: A calm environment prevails in both the main pools and the ancillary spaces.

The public welcome begins outside, where the landscape has been transformed into a raised green buffer zone that separates the aquatic centre from a ferociously busy thoroughfare outside. Before reaching the main lobby at the nexus of the building, you are first invited – indeed, compelled – to stroll across a five-metre-wide concrete bridge overlooking the pools, a dramatic element that serves as a viewing gallery, a corridor and a means of breaking up the massive interior.

The ceiling support system, aside from structural practicalities, is groundbreaking in its multi-­tasking. Each of the 22 trusses has a series of mechanical elements concealed in its vertex, and the beam itself enables technical staff to walk on it to repair mechanicals or lighting. At most aquatic centres, the public has to live through maintenance shutdowns, when the pool is drained and scissor-leg ladders are placed in the empty pool to reach the ceiling. “It’s ridiculously great,” attests the centre’s co­ordin­ator, Jennifer Farrell.

Change rooms have clear sight­lines, to reduce the incidence of theft.

The approach also resolves a perennial pool design conundrum: diffu­sion of light. Glass ceilings provoke jarring flares of sunlight for back­strokers, and glazed walls tend to make a space like this seem under lit. At Guildford, the skylights are instead positioned along the perimeter, supplemented by naturalistic, upward-facing track lighting concealed along the beams. The surfaces of the four-metre-wide trusses help to capture, diffuse and gently reflect the light. “The trusses act as giant light fixtures,” notes Shape Architecture principal Nick Sully. And as a dramatic aesthetic bonus, the afternoon light throws diagonal stripes onto the east wall, what Thom calls “painting the walls with daylight.”

Engineered-wood trusses, each 29 metres long, direct natural light in what architect Bing Thom calls “painting the walls with daylight.”

For mostly practical reasons, laminated strand lumber was used for the trusses, rather than the usual steel, as it stands up much better to chlorine-­saturated air. On the aesthetic front, the white-stained and painted wood reads as warm and friendly – artisanal, even. You can see the texture and chip pattern of the wood underneath. That’s part of the plan: to make swimmers feel a sense of warmth, even amid chlorine and chaos. “I’m hanging on to that, creating calm spaces for people,” says Thom, “so even if it’s noisy, it’s calm spiritually.”

Project Specs
Architects: Bing Thom Architects (architect of record and design), Shape Architecture (associate architect, aquatic features)
Client: The City of Surrey
Cost: $39 million
Engineers: Fast + Epp (structural), AME Consulting Group (mechanical), Applied Engineering Solutions (electrical), CoreGroup Consultants (civil)
Size: 10,400 square metres
Pool features and waterslide: Acapulco
Tile: Jensen Tile + Stone
Trusses: StructureCraft Builders
Glazing: Glastech Glazing Contractors
Completion: February 2015

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