Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design Opens to Students

The architecture of the new building compliments the nature of the Design program

KPU’s new Wilson School of Design building located on the Richmond Campus. (Tristan Johnston)

After years of planning, construction, and some delays, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s new design school building is open to students. While some finishing touches are still being made to the Richmond campus location, many Design students are already taking classes in the new space.

“With the B.C. apparel sector poised for strong growth over the next 10 years, KPU’s expansion of Design education by an additional 140 seats is extremely timely,” said Melanie Mark, B.C. Minister of Advanced Education, Skills, and Training in a statement to The Runner. “Apparel is a thriving industry within British Columbia’s strong economy, making $3.8 billion in sales revenue and employing over 7,600 people in the province.”

Carolyn Robertson, Dean of the Wilson School of Design, considers the building to be a massive upgrade for both the Design program and the university at large.

“What we wanted to do was create a light and transparent environment that was really student-centered, and give them a chance to witness Design as a whole.”

While the building and classrooms are primarily for Design students, there will be opportunities for other faculties such as business, arts, or sciences to take advantage of the space. Previously, Design students took their classes in the upper floors of the Richmond campus, which was darker and more difficult to navigate than the new building.

“We’ve provided much more of an environment where students can interact from all different programs,” says Robertson, gesturing towards a large space with a massive whiteboard and interactive projectors. The projectors have touch screens, and students can connect to them to collaborate with others in the area.

The architecture of the space is what one might expect of a building meant for Design students. It was built with an open concept in mind, its centre a large space in the middle of the ground floor for lounging or, potentially, exhibitions. Every floor is designed to facilitate collaboration, including large white boards, couches, and plenty of wide glass windows which offer an impressive view of the mountains. Another unusual aspect of the building is its full-sized lockers, which Robertson says are for students to leave materials such as clothes, product design drafts, and posters in.

One of the other impressive elements of the building is the key card system. Students will have access to various parts of the building using personal key cards.

“They’re nesting. They’re finding their spots … [and] it’s really cool to watch,” says Robertson. “I’ve been checking in, asking them how they like it. The feedback’s been really positive.”

Also in the building are sinks and fridges for students to use, which may be welcome, given the relentless hours fourth-year students in the Design program are known to work. Robertson notes that students in that program don’t go to the library to get work done; instead, they use tools like laser cutters, printers, and sewing machines in the work spaces where they’re available.

Before the construction of the Wilson building, Robertson says that Design students were mostly confined to the few classrooms in Richmond Main that they were required to go to, and didn’t have much chance to meet with each other or think creatively in the space around them. Now, she hopes that the new, open concept building will help inspire collaboration.

Open space is possibly the defining visual feature of the interior of the building. (Tristan Johnston)

“[The building] is pretty inspiring—light, transparency provides inspiration, collaboration,” she says. “It’s what my faculty calls ‘collision space’ … where people come together and collide with their ideas. It’s a huge shift for us.”

At the top of the building is one of its only locked rooms, labelled “Design Research Network”, where private projects are worked on.

“We have been doing research within the School of Design for quite some time,” explains Robertson. “We’ve worked with the City of Surrey, different companies, different non-profits, and they bring their challenges to us, and that may or may not turn into a full-fledged research project. Students are coming to a stage where they want to commercialize and get patents and move them on.”

The construction of a new building such as the design school has been a compelling idea for KPU ever since 2012.

“We have this hub of technical apparel in B.C., so there’s Lulu, Arc’teryx, MEC, Mustang, SUGOi. There’s some really, really high end, successful companies in B.C.,” says Robertson. “Chip [Wilson, founder of Lululemon]’s goal was … to keep the industry strong here, and make this, because of our environment, the hub of technical apparel in the world.”

Wilson and his wife Shannon contributed $8 million of the total $36 million budgeted for the building, while their company, Lululemon, donated another $4 million. KPU and the B.C. government provided the remaining funds by contributing $12 million apiece.

“The funding for the Wilson School of Design building is part of a larger capital investment of $1 billion towards B.C.’s public post-secondary institutions and is motivated by our government’s commitment to provide accessible and affordable post-secondary education,” wrote Mark, in her statement.

The new building links to the rest of Richmond campus via a sky bridge. This doorway can be found near the Student Enrollment Services area in the main building. (Tristan Johnston)

While the project stayed within budget, it was beset by several delays, often concerning financial constraints and completing the building’s desired features. The Runner interviewed university president Alan Davis in July of 2016 as ground was breaking on the project. Then, Davis indicated that initial tender for the project was going over the $36 million that was allocated, but that KPU worked towards ensuring that the project would stay within budget.

Despite this, Davis assures that the intended functionality and sustainability features of the school were still part of the final design.

When walking into the Wilson building, to the left and through the doors of the sky bridge, is the Dean’s office. In the window of this office is a display of clothing, what appears to be a 3D printer and, perhaps unusually, a motorcycle.

“I wanted to put this motorcycle here because what people think most of design is fashion and pretty stuff,” says Robertson. “What they don’t get is that students are working from everything that I call ‘research to rack.’ It’s the idea, the market, the business plan, the branding plan, the construction, the textiles research—the whole scope of what they do is really involved and it has a business aspect as well.”

“We want the community, inside and outside, to understand what design is,” Robertson continues. “It’s not about making pretty stuff. It’s sustainable, ethical design—user-centered, human-centered design.”

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