B+H Architects creates archival facility with double-concrete skin in Quebec

Toronto-based studio B+H Architects has created an archival storage facility in Gatineau, Quebec, with a massive double-layer concrete envelope and automated retrieval systems.

Officially called Library and Archives Canada Gatineau 2, the facility is located next to an older building on the site and was constructed to preserve historic and cultural items “relevant to Canadians”.

The building consists of three floors: a basement, a facility for staff and a massive 35-metre-tall vault at the top of the structure.

Daytime shot of large concrete cube in the snow
B+H Architecture has designed a monolithic archive in Quebec

The vault structure was made from precast concrete panels layered into a double envelope so that a two-metre cavity exists between the layers.

This shell serves to provide insulation from potential external disruptions such as weather and stable humidity and temperature within the structure, which holds six vaults.

“It is a like a rain screen but on steroids,” B+H principal Mark Berest told Dezeen. “The principle is that the outer skin is the first line of defence against hard weather.”

Textured concrete facade
Gatineau 2 holds items of cultural significance to Canada

According to Berest, this high level of insulation allows for the building to meet sustainability goals in-line with Canada’s Green Governing Strategy, LACG2 – the first federal building to do so.

“It is an extremely low-energy use building because in order to maintain the environmental setpoints, we effectively used the massive double skin,” he said.

Gatineau 2 at night with lights
The top of the structure consists of an archive sealed with a double-concrete envelope

He also noted that the facility takes advantage of the high level of hydroelectric energy available in Quebec.

For the exterior facade, the concrete has been textured to look like geological strata, which came as a byproduct of the studio’s study of the local water systems while developing the project.

Pink sky with Gatineau 2
The studio said it has achieved net zero in the operational energy of the structure

The facade detailing came from the extensive site studies done to create a safe environment for the documents.

“It was a nod to the natural heritage while we were mostly concerned with cultural heritage,” said Berest.

White interior with archival faculty
The bottom floors are for staff use

Because of the need to keep the delicate products dry in an area with a high water table, the studio chose to have the vault up high and virtually no water enters it – even the fire suppressant system uses a dry agent.

Most of the human interaction building comes at the two lower levels. From the exterior, these are notated by a thin layer of glazed facilities that almost appeared crushed down by the monumental concrete mass above.

HVAC systems
It has achieved a low level of energy use due to hydroelectric energy supply and the insulation of the vault structure

A glass-covered walkway facilitates entrance between Gatineau 2 and the pre-existing building on the site, the Preservation Centre, which was built in 1997.

Berest said that maintaining the human experience of the original building was essential, and Gatineau 2 is rotated 45 degrees to minimize blockage of the lines of sight from the original buildings to the surroundings.

Humans will rarely enter the vault – only a few maintenance latters lead inside, meaning that the interior of the vault is often shrouded in complete darkness, adding to the protection of the documents and the reduced energy requirements of the building.

Instead, a sophisticated automated retrieval system has been installed. Called Automated Storage and Retrieval System, the system uses robotic arms and lifts to ferry materials down tubes to the staff facilities below.

There are similar facilities in the US but this is by far the largest in the world,” said Berest. 

Automatic Retrieval System in the archive
It utilises an automatic retrieval system

B+H Architects was founded in 1953. Other projects by the studio include a planned children’s hospital with a rooftop garden in Shenzen.

The photography is by Ema Peter.

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