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Timber is top of the class

David Wylie
Timber is top of the class
AARON MILLER/CHP ARCHITECTS — Abbotsford Senior Secondary School’s rotunda roof consists of exposed glulam beams and wood decking with a central steel compression ring.

Located 70 kilometres east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford Senior Secondary School features wood as part of a major rehabilitation and replacement project.

Central to its design, and crowning the school’s three-storey structure, is an intricate and  impressive timber rotunda roof built of exposed  glue-laminated timber and wood decking. School  principal and educator Rob Comeau shares how  wood is making the school a place where students  feel at home, whether they’re enjoying a piano  concert in the rotunda or getting hands-on  experience building a tiny wood house as part  of their green technology program.


Q: Why did you pursue a career in education? 

A: I was born and raised in Alberta on a farm. I  did my undergrad in agriculture and came out  at the wrong time to be a farmer and rancher in  the early 1980s. I went to my second love, which  was teaching. 


Q: Describe your connection to wood as a  building material.

 A: When working on the farm, wood was a  tool. It was a fence post, it was a crossbeam, it  was the outside of a grain bin. It was simply  functional. On the farm, it wasn’t meant to  create an emotion, but here in B.C. you see the  craftsmanship that people can put into the  design of a building and how beautiful wood  can look.


The striking entrance rotunda made of wood connects the old and new portions of the building and creates a detailed, focal element for the space.
AARON MILLER/CHP ARCHITECTS — The striking entrance rotunda made of wood connects the old and new portions of the building and creates a detailed, focal element for the space.

Q: What makes a school well designed? 

A: Open spaces and light are some of the best  design qualities in a school. If you’re in a dark,  dingy cubicle, you’re not feeling very good about  where you are. When you can see light and  the natural craftsmanship of wood that exists  here, those are good design features. That’s B.C.  architecture—light, wood, and space.


Q: Abbotsford Senior Secondary School  underwent a major rehabilitation and  replacement project. Can you elaborate on  how wood was used in the structural and  finishing components? 

A: It’s a blend of old meets new and it’s done  in a classy way. When you walk in, you’re  immediately drawn to the grandeur of the  rotunda. There are some very interesting design  pieces that catch your eye when you come in.  Aesthetically, wood is beautiful, and it speaks to  who we are as British Columbians.


Q: How did the new design of the school  reuse some of the existing wood from the  original structure? 

A: When they took the ceiling out, they found  beautiful rafters. They looked at them and  they said, “We can’t destroy this.” We’ve  exposed those rafters, stained them, and it is  the most gorgeous, inviting gym that you’d  ever want to walk into. And some of the older  parents still recognize the wood from beams  we’ve repurposed as seats in our rotunda. It’s  a conversation starter of their memories and  time in the school. Now our international  baccalaureate business class is going to open  up a coffee shop and we’re going to take those  remaining reclaimed beams and make them  into the countertops and high-top tables—  refashioning that wood one more time to  create another wonderful part of the building.  Wood has a way of speaking to you, years, even  decades later.


 Q: Research is demonstrating that the visual  presence of wood indoors can significantly  reduce stress levels. Do you experience this in  your school? 

A: I think you definitely feel better once you’ve been in a space that incorporates wood. It  clears your head. We often have students that  just come to the rotunda to be there, enjoy the  space, and hang out. It’s open and the wood  beams are beautiful and inviting. I think it helps  with anxiety.


Q: What other benefits do you think the wood  and architecture provide? 

A: The acoustics in the rotunda are pretty  amazing. We recently had an assembly with a  baby grand piano in the middle of the rotunda  and it was a rich, concert-hall kind of sound in  there. I don’t think it was necessarily designed  to be an acoustic hall but it’s certainly a richer  sound than you would ever get in a gymnasium.  Also, any time you can get quality product right  in your backyard, why not use it? It creates jobs  in B.C. all throughout the forest industry.


Q: How is wood contributing to sustainability  and environmental stewardship at your school? 

A: Each of us needs to adjust our carbon  footprint and as a naturally renewable material,  wood has a role to play. We also have a green  technology program for students, along with  our own wood program, and this year we’re  going to be building a tiny house, constructed  of local wood. 


Q: How is wood part of our cultural identity as  British Columbians? 

A: There’s nothing more majestic than a cedar  tree and witnessing what an artist can make  out of that. We have First Nations carvers come  in every couple of years and do a piece for us.  The carvers speak about the cultural aspects of  the piece they’re working on and what it means.  The students get an opportunity to watch them carve and also be able to learn how to carve.  We have a totem pole right at the front of the  heritage room and a few other commissioned  pieces. They all tell a story, and I believe there  is great value in sharing that with students,  passing it on from generation to generation.

This article and others are featured in a newly released book, Naturally Wood, which showcases British Columbia’s cutting‐edge wood architecture and design. The beautifully illustrated, 160-page publication contains more than 65 innovative wood buildings and projects, including how wood is being used in education and school. Download a digital copy of Naturally Wood here.

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