Mohawk construction turns the college around
November 18th, 2010
The Hamilton Spectator
It’s easy to find proof that Mohawk College’s major campus overhaul is succeeding: students are sticking around after class, sipping coffee, eating lunch, working on projects and talking about their studies.
Everywhere in the newly refreshed halls of the Fennell Avenue campus, emptied of lockers and filled with meeting spaces and sunlight, there are students — just as there are in the food court, where there are cool new menu options and more spaces to meet, hang out and study.
Compare these to the halls as yet untouched by renewal, where dark brick walls, clanging lockers and students sitting on the floor still scream “high school.”
This is a college in transition, where at an informal open house Thursday, students and staff get their first official look at the Centre for Learning, Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s new spaces designed to make learning pleasant, modern and effective.
“It’s completely different,” says Jeremy Dowling, assistant construction manager for the project and a member of Mohawk’s class of 2003 in architectural technology. “I walked some students through it the other day and they didn’t think they were in Mohawk College anymore.”
It’s the first and most dramatic stage of a $30-million expansion and upgrade, designed to make the entire campus more welcoming as a place to live and learn, while generating space for thousands more students.
It’s also meant to turn the college around in a more literal sense, moving the perceived front entrance by 180 degrees — from the back parking lot to Fennell Avenue, where coloured glass walls and the school’s name in five-foot letters make it clear to the broader community that this is Mohawk College.
A long glass corridor leading from Fennell and smelling of Starbucks coffee connects the new school to the old school, where walls have been moved in some places, removed in others to bring in light and make it easier to navigate between the awkward wings of the old campus.
The preview is Thursday, and the learning spaces are to be fully equipped and furnished for the beginning of the second term in January when the new wing officially opens, on time and on budget, all having started with a funding announcement just 17 months ago.
A central staircase flanked by a dramatic living wall of 2,000 plants is the spine of the new Learning Exchange.
Five active learning classrooms with flexible layouts populate the surprisingly sunny basement level.
At ground level, a new library faces Fennell Avenue through floor-to-ceiling windows.
There, traditional book stacks will take up only a small fraction of the floor space, because three-quarters of the library’s collection is already available electronically.
The library itself at first appears to be on the small side, but as Joanne Westerby explains, the library in a way is everywhere now, since students are studying in new niches and other spaces across the “learning landscape” that offer comfortable midpoints between classroom and living room.
“Formal learning and informal learning is starting to blend,” said Westerby, Mohawk’s college librarian and dean of teaching, learning and quality. “Students need caffeine, they need sugar and they need to be able to sit down together if they’re going to be successful in their studies.”
The jewel of the remodelled Fennell campus, bathed in coloured light from the windows along Fennell, is the “Collaboratory” above the library. As the name suggests, it’s a space where students are expected to meet for group work and study, pushing together flexible, funky furniture to talk, work on their laptops and link them to common monitors.
The Collaboratory continues outdoors with a balcony that overlooks a new interior courtyard and amphitheatre, all part of a design that was influenced by student feedback.
“There’s a sense of ownership now,” said development manager Ron Taylor. “The students feel like ‘they listened to us and they delivered something.’”
The new facilities are made to meet the LEED gold standard for environmental design, and the space itself is designed to teach students how buildings go together and how they work.
The polished concrete floors, for example, deliver radiant heat from pipes buried underfoot, with the workings exposed in hallway cabinets. The mechanical room has been built with walkways for touring students.
The second stage of the $30-million makeover, to be complete in the summer of 2011, will centralize all student services in one location and complete the airy interior “Main Street” of the college by taking it all the way to the south entrance.
The old lettered wings of the campus will be changed, too, when they become clusters of similar programs that centralize resources and make it easier for students to get from class to class.