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Nanaimo Cruise Ship Terminal berths commercial design award

David Poiron of Checkwitch Poiron Architects gazes across Nanaimo Harbour from the grounds of the Nanaimo Cruise Ship Terminal Tuesday. The terminal building, designed by Poiron and Ben Checkwitch, won an award for best Commercial Wood Design at the 2012 Wood Design Awards.  - CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin
David Poiron of Checkwitch Poiron Architects gazes across Nanaimo Harbour from the grounds of the Nanaimo Cruise Ship Terminal Tuesday. The terminal building, designed by Poiron and Ben Checkwitch, won an award for best Commercial Wood Design at the 2012 Wood Design Awards.
— image credit: CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

One of Nanaimo's signature buildings caught the eye of the judges at this year's Wood Works B.C. wood design awards.

The Nanaimo Cruise Ship Terminal, designed by Ben Checkwitch and David Poiron, of Checkwitch Poiron Architects, won the commercial wood design category award in early March.

The building was described by the awards jury as attractive, airy and honest and a project that made a connection between Nanaimo's present and past.

The impression was precisely what Poiron and Checkwitch were after.

"We wanted to give that sense of lightness for people experiencing the building," Poiron said.

Cruise ship terminals aren't built every day and when they are they're usually built form a converted warehouses. Nanaimo's is one of the first purpose-built cruise ship terminals created for a small city. Nanaimo Port Authority wanted a building, designed and built by Nanaimo companies, that would make a statement to the cruise industry, but meet operational needs of the port authority and Canada Customs.

Wood is the heart of the structure.

The main welcome centre is formed by large curved laminated columns and beams, which suspend the roof, steel framework for the glass exterior walls and the floating office box, which is home to Nanaimo Port Authority administration operations. The support structure combines with interior wood screens to give the impression of standing inside a ship's hull, while the exterior glazing gives a virtually unbroken panorama of Nanaimo Harbour and Georgia Strait. The effect is open, light, unconstrained.

"There's a history of building with wood here, because obviously there's lots of wood around us, so there's a familiarity with the material, which is important when you're trying to get things done," Poiron said.

But the building's materials - wood, glass and steel - were combined in new ways structurally and aesthetically as well.

The glass exterior walls appear supported by a light metal framework, but a substantial steel structure was needed to handle the mass and weight of the glass panels. By matching the colour of the steel support framework with that of the exterior glazing frame and aligning it with the frame members, the steel is camouflaged so effectively that it goes virtually unnoticed. When the terminal was built, it was the first time such a support system had been used in B.C. Poiron admitted creating the support system presented numerous engineering challenges.

Glass is also used to form the walls and provide structural support to office entrances in the building's upper floor.

The building is a passive solar design. Sunlight entering through exterior glazing warms the stone floor, which stores heat that is slowly released and circulated through the structure. Louvers at the top of the building can be opened to vent excess heat and promote circulation.

The terminal incorporates several "floating" design features, such as the office box that extends through the exterior glass walls, enhancing the impression the offices are floating in space.

Poiron got the inspiration for the design while observing how light refraction changes a material's appearance as it passes from air into water.

"You get this very distinct visual when you look through the water to see the hull of a boat and how it changes it when it's above the water and below the water," Poiron said. "So that idea sort of stuck - and at first we didn't think about it too much - but what happened is this is sort of a vessel here, this box, and the glass that envelops this welcome centre changes the way you look at it whether it's inside or outside. So we take our inspiration from different things and it's not a literal interpretation, but when you design you're looking at things that resonate with you."

Overall costs were kept in check – the terminal building cost $4.2 million – by designing around standard material dimensions, such the building's four foot by eight foot laminated interior wood panels, which cut down on time and material waste from trimming.

The entire structure from design through construction was completed in one year.

Bernie Dumas, Nanaimo Port Authority president and CEO, said his favourite feature of the building is the panorama it provides of the harbour and port operations.

"It really gives us a 180 degree view of what we do as a company," Dumas said. "It's almost hard to describe the feeling for us. It's an emotional thing because of the fact that we lived in a shoebox for so long, but this building seems to give us a lot of breathing room and light and the staff's demeanor has changed in that we all have a little more energy attached to us now because of the views and seeing what we do."

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