YWCA Higher Ground Wellness Hub

Canmore, Alberta

Collaborators: John Dunham, Kendel Vreeling, Shahab Ramezani, Katherine Kerr
Client: YWCA Banff : Stephen Crotty, Chief Operations Officer / Higher Ground Project Manager

Bow Valley Higher Ground Project is an innovative, future-focused approach to addressing the needs of women, children, and other Bow Valley residents experiencing domestic or sexual violence and associated vulnerabilities.  Design is influenced by research, creating spaces that support trauma and violence informed practices, connection and healing, as well as privacy and security for individuals and families.   

Overall Goal: The project scope examines two potential sites in Canmore, Alberta, develops the integrated facility program for the Higher Ground building with options for program stacking, and creates a design and architectural palette and vocabulary that would inform the development of buildings within each Campus option. The proposals support the creation of a Wellness Campus creating an integrated wholistic living community.

Higher Ground Building: For the YWCA Higher Ground building, a circular entry courtyard and welcome garden introduce the reception experience for visitors, followed by a gentle, safe entry, flanked by a multi-storied interior open longitudinal space activated by natural light cascading in from large windows.  The Welcome Hall supports an interior landscape and colonnade of small scale specimen trees with intimate lounging spaces beneath their canopies creating a sense of sanctuary.  It is the ‘living room’ of the Higher Ground and a meeting, greeting, gathering and living space for short and long stay residents and staff alike.

Security, visibility and oversight in the building is paramount. The upper story levels of the building are visible from the open Hall below. From the Entry one is visually connected to the secure exterior courtyard and gardens at the opposite end to the entry, and to the park like Green Commons space detailed in the Masterplan Concept beyond.

The intent of the building concept is to have an organic ‘feeling’ within an ‘organized whole’. Primary ground floor Entry, Reception and Intake offices with attendant Administration components are integrated into the central entry experience. Offices and boardroom flanking each side of the Entry have visible connection and oversight to adjacent spaces, promoting security sight lines and visibility.

The program organization on the Second and Third floors is such that on one side of the Welcoming Hall the additional therapy, counselling and play rooms are located over the ground floor office program spaces.  The opposite side of each floor supports the self-contained, private residential units which in turn overlook the Campus Green and Park. The Communal Dining Room and Kitchen on the third floor is perched like a tree house also overlooking the Campus Green, creating a space for gatherings.

The overall architectural experience is one of warm materials and articulated structure creating a residential feel and connection to the environmental experience. The design aesthetic is seen as being a contemporary reflection of its time and context but enduring over time also reflecting current best design and operational practices in performance and innovation.

Integral to the buildings concept is how it is positioned within the overall concept of the Social Wellness Campus that will bring together and leverage the unique expertise of social wellness practitioners and agencies to optimize resources and access, promoting the well-being of Bow Valley residents. Higher Ground is the Early Adopter, setting a precedent in approach for all the subsequent Affordable Housing and Service development phases. The Higher Ground Project becomes the foundational palette and pillar and guiding light for the Campus concept and its qualitative outcome over time as a Social Wellness Campus.


General Concept Summary for Masterplan Sites: The Higher Ground Project is integrated within a greater Community Hub.  The plan has three distinct precincts: Bow Valley Higher Ground Project and Social Agency, central Affordable Housing, and in the case of the Moustache Lands site-an enclave for Townhouse PAH Ownership models. Holistically, these are a campus.  

An axis through the site in the N/S direction organizes the precincts with green spaces and community gardens in an organic yet formalized order (Green Commons); a treed perimeter road buffers the site, creating what feels like an intimate rural townscape.  The majority of the program parking is located here.  

In the Moustache Lands site two main entrances and streets structure the plan; one main entry point in the Hospital Lands site. For the Moustache Lands a SE entrance marks the entry to the Bow Valley Higher Ground complex, including Shelter and Transitional Housing and other Community Service Agencies (the Hub).  The NE entrance organizes enclaves of PAH Ownership Housing on one side and Social Enterprise / Education & Training on the other.

In both plans a Day Care with secure play area and multi-purpose Community Space form the North boundary to Green Commons. The central axis ends at the Higher Ground and anchors the South End.

Green Commons is a unifying natural element that evokes protection and wholeness, and connects Higher Ground, the “wellness” Hub, Transition Housing wings at either end of the Higher Ground facility, and Affordable Housing.  The latter has a variety of unit types and tenant designations.

This campus form visually and experientially connects all program facilities as a complete environment.  The buildings in the middle precinct face each other across the oval and are both inward and outward looking. An overall structure of ‘visibility and oversight’ provides a sense of inclusiveness and safety.

Idea of Growth Phasing: The campus plans are based on sustainable planned growth. Components that come after the initial build of Higher Ground and the Transitional Housing wings will be delivered in phases to complete a campus focused on social support, opportunity and integrated community services. Perimeter access for each phase of build will ensure existing facilities are not impacted.

Architecture & Environment: The scale and massing of the buildings is functional but proportional. The architecture evokes a rural town scale harmonious with the character of Canmore.  

Planning for responsive design that supports passive solar and thermal energy models will aspire the project toward Net-Zero.  With solar hot water and electricity, rain water capture and harvesting, and opportunity for small scale wind energy, the campus could become an innovative model of sustainability and livability.

Living & Recreation: The plans are grounded in significant landscape, with new treed areas combined with additional scaled indigenous plant species.  Significant treed buffer zones around the perimeter of the site mitigate highway noise.

Green Commons is scaled to provide for a myriad of activities.  It’s edges function like additional park space.

Common Program Elements: These plans put YWCA Higher Ground in a strategic location. In doing so, Higher Ground and ancillary extensions provide guiding design principles for the Hub and campus.

Residential components could incorporate modular building with modulated densities and massing.

Overall the architectural aesthetic is envisaged as contemporary regionalism using natural materials.

Other program elements are:

            • expandable and non-disruptive parking

            • preservation of tree and buffer zones

            • secure site plan with greater visibility

            • Day Care with secure outdoor play space

            • Transitional Supportive Housing 

            • Affordable Housing phases with mixed unit types 

            • Community Space for multi-use activities and broader community access

            • Social Service agencies buildings for co-locating related services in Canmore, with phasing opportunities

            • Community Gardens

            • Green Commons / Playing Fields / Park space with discrete secured areas