The Nk’Mip Desert Culture Centre is located in the most endangered landscape in Canada. Its design is a specific and sustainable response to the building’s unique context - the spectacular Canadian desert found south of the Okanagan Valley in Osoyoos, British Columbia. This 1,600-acre parcel of land, belonging to the Osoyoos Indian Band is the largest intact remnant of this unique habitat in Canada.
The building features indoor and outdoor exhibits that honour the cultural history of the Band and are designed to be an extension of the remarkable site. The desert landscape flows over the building’s green roof and is held back by the largest rammed-earth wall in North America. The partially underground building is sited specifically to focus the visitor’s eye away from the encroaching development of Osoyoos, with the height of the wall set to create a layered view of the desert, receding to the riparian landscape and the mountains in the distance. The building is also intended to challenge the fake adobe building stylization that is becoming more common in the South Okanagan.
The extreme climate made sustainable design a particular challenge, however, this challenge posed great opportunity for true innovation. Hot, dry summers and cool, dry winters see average temperatures ranging from -18° to +33° and often reaching +40° in the summer season. The building’s siting and orientation are the initial strategic undertakings toward sustainability; the partially buried structure mitigates the extremes in temperature and its orientation optimizes passive solar performance, with glazing minimized on the south and west sides. The project’s ambitious approach towards sustainable design also includes the following features:
North America’s largest rammed-earth wall gives the building exterior a unique material and poetic sensibility. At 80m long, 5.5m high, and 600mm thick, this insulated wall (R33) stabilizes temperature variations. Its graduated layers of earth evoke geological sedimentation within a distinctly contemporary architectural language. Constructed from local soils mixed with concrete, the wall retains warmth in the winter and allows for substantial thermal mass cooling in the building during the summer.
Blue-stain pine is used throughout the project. Harvested from local forests devastated by the infestation of the pine-beetle, the wood is cast with a tint as though a blue wash has been applied. While its inherent structural qualities are equivalent to white pine, blue-stain pine is not normally specified for finished building use. In this way, Nk’Mip is something of a demonstration project, showing how the pine can be utilized and its unique visual qualities celebrated.
A habitable green roof reduces the building’s visual imprint on the landscape, and allows a greater percentage of the desert landscape habitat to be re-established on the site (replanting uses indigenous species). The roof also provides further temperature stabilization and insulation.
In-slab radiant cooling and heating in both ceiling and floor slabs create an even, comfortable environment that avoids blasts of air, noise and dust. Coupled with 100% outdoor air displacement ventilation, the system will result in savings of 30 to 50% over a forced air system.
Endangered species research is housed on site and includes facilities for the Band’s award-winning rattlesnake research project. Included are public viewing areas where visitors can see endangered rattlesnakes captured, tagged and micro-chipped for further study and protection.
Careful water use management. Water is precious in the desert, and a spare channel of water at the entrance along the rammed earth wall introduces this theme. Less visibly, demand on the site-fed well is reduced by 40% by incorporating low-flow faucets, waterless urinals, and dual flush toilets.
The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is the first of a number of new British Columbian aboriginal centres, and part of a growing trend to explore the expressive potential of architecture to convey the rich past and the transforming future of aboriginal culture.