Dedicated to sustainable,
high performance building

UBC Okanagan, Skeena Residence

Multi-unit residential building design takes care in detailing

By Brian Wakelin

The new UBCO Skeena Residence at the Okanagan Campus of the University of British Columbia comprises approximately 72,600 gross square feet over six storeys and has been designed to Passive House standards. The ground floor includes common housing amenities and building service spaces while the upper five storeys include accommodation for 220 students together with associated social spaces. Skeena completes an ensemble of residence buildings encircling the central green space on campus – known as Commons Field. The project focuses on student life and support services while meshing seamlessly with the existing campus. 

The five identical residential floors include shared bathrooms flanked by two bedrooms. This layout allows space for quiet study when required. Additionally, each floor contains both a study lounge and a house lounge with views of the surrounding mountains, the lounge being equipped with a kitchenette, dining table and couches. Locating these spaces at opposite ends of the floor ensures that quiet study is not interrupted by noise from the social home lounge.

On the first level, the Skeena Residence has a large laundry room located adjacent to the student lounge. Separated by a glass wall, the relationship between the two spaces encourages chance meetings and spontaneous gatherings. Moreover, the transparency offers passive surveillance, or visibility that promotes a sense of security. In short, the design of the building supports community life. 

The design of the Skeena residence was driven largely by the requirements of the building program and by the successful layout of the neighbouring student residence. The two bedrooms with shared bathroom module uses an optimal length and width, which also optimizes the number of floors required to accommodate the building requirements – the objective being to minimize the amount of energy required to heat and cool the building. 

This Passive House goal of minimal energy use for heating and cooling also informed other design choices. Given that irregular building forms with multiple indentations and corners, or projections such as steps, overhangs, or canopies create challenges for insulation, airtightness and the elimination of thermal bridging, a simple and efficient planar volume performs most optimally. Mechanical systems also work best within a narrow, contiguous box. This limits aesthetic parameters to material, colour, pattern, and texture. Thus, the simpler the building, the more important material choices and detailing become.

The exterior is clad in a combination of brightly coloured fibre cement panels and darker metal panels. A feeling of depth is created by bringing the fibre cement panels forward of the metal, emphasizing the depth of the window reveals.  This gives articulation to the simple form, without introducing complexity that would compromise energy performance.

Design decisions are also swayed by other practicalities such as standard and locally-available materials and techniques. The building is a wood frame with some concrete on the ground floor. A wood structure was chosen for its inherent insulative properties as well as its ready availability and ease of construction.