Winning With Wood

Posted on

by Ian Ross, Northern Ontario Business, July 2012

Wherever architect David Nelson goes in Kenora, he sees the visible and tangible signs of his talents.

“My kids go to a school that we designed, I go to city hall and there’s the council chambers. I go to the public works buildings and we did that. We find ourselves in an odd position because we’ve designed so many buildings in Kenora.”

Fifteen years ago, when Nelson moved back from Toronto, he harboured some misgivings about whether he could make his mark and if there was enough work to keep him busy. “I was a little bit fearful,” said Nelson, not knowing if he had taken a backward career step. But he knew Kenora was a great place to raise a family and practise.

“There’s the notion that if somehow you’ve ended up in Kenora, or any small town, you must not have made it in the big city. I remember my mother saying, “You can’t be a prophet in your own town. It’s a more difficult task to be respected.”

Trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nelson followed in the footsteps of his father, Earl, a retired and respected local architect.

After 10 years working for two firms in southern Ontario, he declined a partnership offer to move back to familiar surroundings with his wife, Laurie Shaw, and two kids.

He set up space in his grandparents’ 1905 home overlooking Lake of the Woods, where he grew up as an avid sailor. “The whole landscape around here is pretty inspiring. We’re probably living on one of the most beautiful freshwater lakes in all of the world,” said Nelson. “I consider myself lucky to be able to come back and practise.”

As one of two architectural firms between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, his worries dissipated over time as the scale of assigned projects and commissions began to grow.

The four-employee firm handles residential, commercial and industrial work, but its bread and butter is institutional projects.

Last fall, the Canada Wood Council bestowed Nelson Architecture with a provincial wood advocate award for a portfolio of projects including the new Lake of the Woods Discovery Centre, the St. Thomas Aquinas high school, and the Northern Ontario Sport Fishing Centre in Sioux Narrows.

The City of Kenora took home an award for best institutional wood design in a building under $10 million for the Discovery Centre.

Receiving the award was an affirmation to Nelson that top-notch professional work can come from small-town Ontario. “The award was great. It did more good here than anywhere else.”

The Discovery Centre, a new 6,500-square-foot tourist information centre is framed with glulam beams and exposed white pine columns. It’s an homage to Kenora’s storied wood industry history. “We’ve done steel buildings and used concrete, but wood has so many good qualities, and those are both about socio-cultural acknowledgements as well as the technics of wood.”

A common thread in all his design elements is the pursuit of energy efficiency that mirror LEED silver principles through solar walls, photovoltaic arrays, shading and natural lighting.

Nelson would like to see the firm’s building designs move in the direction of becoming “climate machines” that interact with the property they’re placed on.

The decline of the forestry industry has rebranded Kenora into a recreational and cottage mecca for Manitobans. Nelson has witnessed an attitudinal shift from a community that had no interest in historical preservation to a realization that there’s “cultural capital” in its vintage buildings. He had a hand in writing the guidelines for the downtown storefront improvement program based on historical photos.

But that exposure has led to some ostentatious summer retreats of 6,000 and 7,000 square feet. It’s something that Nelson finds unsettling. “When you see these monstrous homes, you really wonder what is the motivation besides a display of wealth? I think it’s completely inappropriate for this environment.”

Buildings should be respectful of their natural surroundings, not stylistic exercises that become scars on the landscape. “The Sioux Narrows Centre and Discovery Centre were on beautiful sites with wonderful views of the water, and we took advantage of that. These buildings are really designed to be experienced from the inside.”