Perspectives April 5, 2023

The Transcendent Detail in the York University School of Continuing Studies

Structural maquette demonstrating the geometry of the twist.
Structural maquette demonstrating the geometry of the twist.

Each year, Perkins&Will studios across the globe compete to identify and celebrate the best in technical design. The Transcendent Detail Competition challenges project teams firmwide to put forth their most technically compelling built work to be judged on four criteria: creativity, elegance, technical difficulty, and adherence to design intent. The 2023 champion, the York University School of Continuing Studies, a project we were awarded through an international design competition, achieved excellence across all criteria. A highly integrated set of design principles, building envelope, structure, and interior design work together to deliver a simple, elegant, and striking new home for the School of Continuing Studies. 

York University’s School of Continuing Studies was dispersed across a series of temporary accommodations—a critical shortcoming for the School’s students and faculty. In response, the University articulated the need for a dedicated building to assert the School’s identity and culture, define a campus gateway, and meet ambitious sustainability targets. 

Targeting LEED Gold certification, the project prioritizes energy efficiencies and occupant comfort while exploring the potential for net zero energy and carbon. In response to these goals, the building’s dynamic form is generated through a simple geometric logic, with rectangular floor plates rotated around a common centroid. The rotation of the overall form introduces a two-way curve into the north and south facades. As the building rotates about its centroid, a triangulated panel pattern takes advantage of regular and biaxial symmetry to create zones of repeat panel shapes. Budgetary premiums were balanced by deploying a rigorous geometry of repeated, off-the-shelf components, transforming them into something exceptional and unexpected. 

Looking West on Pond Road, the project creates a dramatic gateway structure the south edge of the campus.
One Total System – Program, Frame, and Skin

The building is a rational and highly adaptable container, albeit with a twist. The interior architecture is reduced to three key elements with clearly defined roles: programmatic containers, the building skin, and the structural frame.

1. Building Skin ― A high-performance unitized curtain wall creates a continuous, taut, and efficient building skin that maximizes views while reducing energy use to approximately 100kWh/m2a. Triangular openings allow seamless panelization and expansive eye-level transparency.

2. Steel Frame ― The building twists to create two new plazas on a tight campus site. Perimeter columns change angle along the length of the building, while inboard columns are plumb, reducing steel weight.

3. Interior Planning ― Program blocks are treated as interior pavilions, while student study and lounge space occupy the perimeter of the plan. These dynamic spaces offer a range of bright and distinctive environments for study and socialization.

4. Cores ― Low-carbon concrete cores efficiently brace the building’s twisted form.

5. Campus Room ― At grade and below, the building is an extension of the campus, with openings that bring daylight to all levels.

6. Gateway Plaza ― The building’s twisting form creates a new gateway plaza that connects to the campus’s evolving transit network.

7. Systems ― Direct outdoor air ventilation and active chilled beams throughout the building reduce energy use while maximizing fresh air, supporting occupant health and learning outcomes. A future PV array will support 100% of the building’s energy needs.

Diagram of exploded compositional elements
The Frame

Working closely with our structural engineers, Entuitive, the project team devised a structural steel system that allowed the overall massing to be realized simply and efficiently. Originally conceived as a loft through plan, this way of creating the geometry resulted in a series of geometric deformations that added sectional complexity. The result is a series of racked frames inclined 13 degrees at either end due to the physical limitations of structural silicon and plumb in the center. This strategy, fully coordinated in Revit, dramatically simplified the structural framing, allowing for columns to be defined by a straight line from the ground floor to the roof. 

York School of Continuing Studies under construction
York School of Continuing Studies steel frame under construction.
Building Section at Gridline L&F
The Skin
The Skin

The rotation of the overall form introduces a two-way curve into the north and south facades. A triangulated panel grid allows these curved surfaces to be achieved with a repetitive family of flat panels. By working with the glazing trade throughout the design and construction process, the team was able to develop a system using off-the-shelf unitized curtain wall components that created total systems from a thermal, water and vapour management, and aesthetic perspective, and which allowed for the expression of the skin on the interior of the building.  

The Skin

1. Site ― Unitized curtain wall panel

2. Geometric Deformation ― The panel’s curve is derived by displacing 3 corners of a planar surface to create 2 planar triangles with a shared hypotenuse.

3. Framing ― Standard unitized curtain wall mullions are utilized to create the folded panel. At spandrel conditions, the backpan is clad with gypsum board on the interior.

4. Finishes ― Double glazed IGU with Low-e coating on the #2 surface and bird-friendly frit on #3 and Clear anodized aluminum plate.

Putting It Together

The bold twisting form creates a new home for the School, defines the south edge of the campus, and shapes a new pedestrian plaza. The building accommodates highly flexible learning environments, social and collaboration spaces, and offices for students and faculty in a space that is lofty and bright, promoting community, culture, and identity for the School of Continuing Studies. 

View looking east along The Pond Road at the new gateway plaza.
View looking east along The Pond Road at the new gateway plaza.
Ground floor 30-seat classroom at the east end of the building, overlooking the Eastern woodlot.
Circulation along the south façade is animated by lounge seating areas and a feature stair between learning levels.