Ben Rahn/A-Frame

If using Cor-Ten steel seems antithetical to a community dedicated to preserving nature, consider this: The First Nations Community of Toronto, in conversation with designers Levitt Goodman Architects, thought that community residents would enjoy watching the steel exterior of the new Native Child and Family Life Center in Scarborough, Ontario, change over time through its oxidation. On the inside, the natural connection seems more literal, where an emphasis on indigenous materials highlights the interior of the 11,000-square-foot facility, which serves both child-care and community-gathering needs. Its exposed glulam post-and-beam construction—with prefabricated trusses to support the roof—references traditional building methods, with the locally harvested eastern white cedar providing a warmth not conveyed by drywall.

The firm’s approach, according to partner Dean Goodman, was to serve the community’s desire for culturally sensitive buildings. “They talked about wanting natural materials, but that doesn’t translate into form,” Goodman says. “On the form side, it’s about looking at how longhouses and sweat lodges were made—they’re not direct linkages, but they are interpretations of things that have cultural importance still.” The center’s construction, with exposed stud walls and joists, and structural decking, pays homage to these forms. To keep the facility natural, Levitt Goodman Architects used remnant pieces of wood for the flooring for most of the center, with nonvinyl linoleum in the kitchen areas.

The community’s interest in nature extends to the outdoor areas. Thanks to newly tightened local stormwater regulations, minimizing runoff is now standard practice in the region. Rather than simply collecting rainwater in storage tanks, the architects chose to filter it through a 2-foot-deep bioswale—a trench filled with filtering stones, which runs the length of the center’s playground. “All of the water that hits the roof collects in downspouts and gets directed into the bioswale,” Goodman says. “Our goal was to use the water as a design feature, making a design element out of something that is a requirement.”

The playground itself, meanwhile, bypassed conventional, brightly colored plastic for features such as berms, boulders, and tree-trunks to enhance the community’s connection to nature. Chalkboard walls on the storage shed’s exterior, which faces the playground, allow the space to become an outdoor classroom.

The center receives all of its heating and cooling from 325-foot-deep geothermal wells bored beneath the parking lot, with conventional heat pumps powering the closed-loop system. Windows punched through the Cor-Ten façade provide extra ventilation during the warmer months, and the second floor’s open kitchen radiates warmth during winter gatherings. In its new home, the First Nations Community will impart values of environmental stewardship on future generations. And though the winters in the Toronto area can be harsh, the Cor-Ten exterior should weather them nicely.