The recently completed York University Student Centre was created to address the doubling of the Toronto university’s size since the original student center was built, providing a new gateway to the campus, along with 150,000 square feet of student-centered spaces for recreation, meetings, individual and group study, club offices, assembly, and multi-faith prayer. The student body was very involved in the building’s programming and its final expression; the very transparent façade, for example, was a response to their desire that the facility be welcoming and open to all.

So, where to focus our attention on this beautiful building, with its many interesting elements and features? Let’s take a look at the two-story Alaskan Yellow Cedar fins that provide a bold elevational feature and an interesting textual element to the primary glass and metal building enclosure. While the Student Centre has many sustainable design features and is pursuing LEED Silver, the fins aren’t primarily for shading — the fins do provide shading on the south elevation, but their shading effect on the north is minimal. The primary role of the fins is to significantly soften the large expanse of “welcoming” glass and introduce wood to the exterior, which is a large part of the interior material palette.

Two-story wood fins, however, are not so easy to do: The fins are very slender and tall, requiring lateral wind resistance; they’re big and heavy and their attachment points, with differential deflection and wood shrinkage, present a structural challenge; they are stiffened by both building them up with laminated sections and by running a tensioned cable through the center of the span connected back to cantilevered structure (the cable is so proportionally slender, it’s virtually unnoticeable), and the dead load of the fins is carried off the roof structure at the top attachment, making the bottom connection simply a lateral connection — this is where both deflection and any thermal/moisture length changes are accommodated.

The other textual aspect of the fins, providing another layer of interest, is that, they kink: The outside face of each fin has an inflection point that shifts its vertical position with each fin, providing a static suggestion of movement. These are appealing building elements that would be sorely missed if not a part of the final design.

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