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Design presents challenges and opportunities for PCL Constructors

Photo: Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press

“Building the Inuit Art Centre means being a part of something that will impact the culture of Winnipeg and the whole country,” says Tom Schmalz, PCL Constructors’ project manager. “It feels good to help create something iconic for the city.”

Schmalz says the Inuit Art Centre’s design is unusual and complex, but it helps his team a lot that both the WAG and the Centre’s architect, Michael Maltzan, articulated a clear vision for what the building is meant to achieve.

“We can visualize how the building will celebrate Inuit culture and engage people with Inuit art,” says Schmalz. “Understanding how people will experience the Centre helps guide us along the way to the end product.”

Schmalz recalls being “blown away” by the number of curves in Maltzan’s design. “But we’ve done curved elements before,” he says, adding the construction team employs a variety of methods to precisely align key structural points. “We use computers and lasers to define important reference points, such as the exact centres of circles and curves. We also go old-school, physically running string lines in some spots, just to make sure we have all the information possible.”

The Inuit Art Centre’s one-of-a-kind Visible Vault emerges from the lower level to rise up two more storeys through the heart of the building. According to Schmalz, piecing the vault together will be the most technically complex aspect of the project.

Schmalz explains that each of the 20-foot-high sections of glass needed for the vault’s walls will be custom-curved. “The vault will not have one piece of straight glass whatsoever,” he says, meaning the horizontal aluminum spans required to hold up the glass must be bent precisely to accommodate each section of glass.

“The vault has so many curves and intersecting radii. We’ll have to work out the technical details even before ordering the materials,” says Schmalz. The challenge will be marrying familiar materials, including steel, glass, and aluminum, in ways no one has before—at least not in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg’s Border Glass & Aluminum is PCL’s partner on assembling the vault. They will review project specifications for the glass and aluminum and make any adjustments needed before ordering these custom-shaped materials from fabricators.

It won’t be possible to move the vault’s huge glass sections into a completed building, so much of the Inuit Art Centre will be built around the pieces after they’ve been delivered. Then once the vault’s steel and aluminum frame is built, each 20-foot-high glass pane must be tipped up and placed into its vertical position—another “interesting challenge” for the team to work out, according to Schmalz. He says they’re already thinking about the tools they’ll need for this highly specialized job; perhaps customized suction cups precision-designed to match the glass’s curves and almost certainly a low-profile crane capable of maneuvering large items inside a roofed space.

Border Glass will also install skylights above the Centre’s largest gallery, says Schmalz. They will be angled to avoid snow buildup and, unlike most skylights, elevated above the roofline, requiring special steel framing and insulation.

The PCL team enjoys finding solutions for opportunities and challenges that arise when constructing a one-of-a-kind building. As Schmalz says, “One of the joys of this job is to be challenged in new and different ways.”

Here are some Inuit Art Centre building activities you’ll see over the spring and summer:

  • Steel structures going up between February and July
  • Exterior framing erected in July and August
  • Glazing installed between April and September
  • Masonry work done between July and October
  • Roofing installed from July to September

Stay tuned for updates on the exciting ‘last lap’ before the WAG Inuit Art Centre opens in 2020!

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WAG-Qaumajuq recognizes that land acknowledgements are part of an ongoing dialogue with Indigenous Nations, and we are grateful to live and work on these lands and waters. Institutionally, WAG-Qaumajuq is committed to acknowledging our colonial history and we are actively working to interrogate the Gallery’s colonial ways of being.

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