Telling the Story

Killbear Provincial Park in Nobel, Ontario

By Shay Bapple


itting the picturesque setting of Killbear Provincial Park into a small building would seem like a tall order for anyone to achieve. The creation of the park's new visitor center has managed to bring to life the essence of the park's ecology and history, packed into a facility that leads by example with its sustainably and blending within its surroundings.

The goal behind building the visitor center was not only to educate those passing through park on its rich natural resources and its noteworthy historical achievements, but also to create a center that would not tax the land it was built on and give visitors an experience that made them feel part of land as they walked through. This was something that HOK lead project designer Gordon Stratford was aiming for when he created the design for the building.

"We brought building planning, landscaping and interior design members together to look at the story that the client was trying to tell," said Stratford. "That story and history is inside and outside the building."

According to Stratford, being inside the building gives the feeling of being in the park itself, with its wide open views over Georgian Bay and its surrounding areas. The parking lot was intentionally kept away from the center, and the way the building is situated gives visitors the most optimal vantage point, looking out over the water, trees and unique lichen-covered rock formations. The building was designed so that visitors could make a connection between the exhibits inside with what they see on the outside.

"The building is very linear as we tried to retain the rock formations and the landscape," Stratford said. "We wanted to tell a story about the landscape without destroying it."

The park's visitor center is also a perfect fit for sustainability. This aspect keeps in line with preserving the environment and not taxing it for more energy than it already provides. Bioswales were built to preserve run-off water from the building and parking lot. This allows for natural water recycling and bypasses the use of treatment facilities that normally have negative impact on the land.

The facility also takes advantage of a geothermal loop that controls all HVAC functions. Polyethylene coils were placed in Georgian Bay and then run through the ground then into the building to take advantage of temperature cycle changes in the water. Warm air from the water is transferred into the building from the coils through a heat pump during colder periods, and cool air extracted from cooler water temps can be introduced into the building during the summer.

To top the green aspect of the building off, the materials used in construction are not only eco-friendly, but also appealing to the eye. The decision was made to use zinc because of its renewability aspect.

"Using zinc to build the exterior works well because it is weather-tight and protects the interior," said Stratford. "It works well with fitting into the landscape, and it is colorful."

Inside the building, visitors will discover an educational experience with a view. The educational experience is designed to help visitors understand the natural and human changes that the park has gone through. Also, the exhibits inside the center help provide a deeper understand of the biology and geology that the park has to offer. Kenton Otterbein, chief naturalist at the park, said that the exhibits span three floors, and in between each floor are ramps that provide for an open view to the rest of the center and the outside.

On the first floor is an exhibit that depicts the rise and fall of the Great Lakes, giving visitors a bird's-eye view using opaque filters that resemble ice sheets, showing what the lakes looked like all the way up to 4,000 years ago. Plastic bird models are mounted on glass panels with a narrative describing each bird that is indigenous to the area. Other displays include backdrops of wetlands, spring hardwood forests and hemlock forests, which are natural habitats to the area, during three different seasons. This exhibit also includes an interactive computer screen that provides text and interpretive information about the habitats. The center also has pens that house live snakes and reptiles and vegetation.

"Georgian Bay is famous for its 30,000 islands and is one of the best places to go fishing, canoeing and sailing," said Otterbein. "Some of these islands are barren, covered in flat rock; others are home to full ecosystems."

The second floor is full of exhibits that reflect the cultural history of the land. The area's logging industry was instrumental in providing wood during the city building boom in the early 1920s. Georgian Bay was critical in the booming fishing industry from the 1800s until the 1930s. Fishing stations were set up on many of the islands to harvest whitefish that was sent to markets across the United States. The second floor also has a comprehensive marine history and shows how people in the area traded 100 years ago.

The third level of the center is focused toward children with different stations that include puppets of animals that can be played with, storybooks and information about animals. Throughout the building, interactive video footage can be viewed of log cutting and fishing of the area from the 1940s.

With its beautiful views, sustainable design and focus on education, the new visitor center provides a perfect stopping point for park patrons.


Killbear Provincial Park:

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