Mother House of the Sisters of St. Joseph
Divine Intervention: A new convent reflects the mission of its occupants by connecting to the surrounding environment and community.
Though their congregation was founded in 1890 and is steeped in tradition, at heart, the Sisters of St. Joseph are a group of thoroughly modern women. That sensibility is reflected in their new motherhouse in Peterborough, Ontario, designed by Toronto-based Teeple Architects.
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In the early years, the Sisters of St. Joseph’s congregation grew and prospered, prompting them, in 1894, to secure a parcel of farmland on the outskirts of Peterborough, about 75 miles northeast of Toronto. The sisters named their diminutive rise in the landscape “Mount St. Joseph” and, as time passed, acquired adjacent properties and grew their membership to about 250, which they accommodated in a looming yellow brick convent that expanded over the decades with a series of additions.
At the beginning of the new millennium, with a greatly diminished membership and a large, deteriorating, and outdated home, the sisters realized it was time for a change and brought in Teeple Architects, which had recently completed a number of projects for the nearby Trent University. Acknowledging the need to downsize, the sisters sold off and gifted swaths of their property, including the old facility, reducing their parcel from about 50 to 6 acres, and pumped some of the proceeds into the design and construction of a new motherhouse that would not only better meet their needs, but also more accurately reflect their mission.
After an initial schematic false start, which represented a traditional approach to monastic life, including a series of terraced, cloistered gardens, the architects developed a strategy more sensitively tailored to their clients’ ideology. Acknowledging the sisters’ commitment to ministering to the needy on a local level and beyond, the architects focused on an outward-looking building that welcomed the community and allowed the outside to flow in. “The clients didn’t want the emphasis to be in the heavens,” says principal Stephen Teeple. “They see spirituality in the landscape, all around.” A harmonious relationship with the earth and care for the environment is another important part of the sisters’ vision, so incorporating sustainable approaches also became central to the design.
In their second take, the architects created a low-slung building nestled into the sloping site. Anchored by a base of locally quarried Owen Sound ledgerock limestone that in its rectilinearity echoes the formality of the original agricultural grid and hedgerows, the convent’s upper portion, clad in white fiber-reinforced cementitious paneling, follows a more freeform rhythm and lends a lightness to the building. The 56,500-square-foot motherhouse, which has a fly-ash concrete and recycled steel structure, is vaguely H-shaped in plan, with offset courtyards occupying the voids between the legs. Public areas—such as the Main Gathering Space, dining room, kitchen, and library—lie at the building’s center. Residential and infirmary wings lead off this core, rendering small communities that are at once intimate and connected. Sightlines between public and domestic realms are kept open. Hidden in the plan, explains Teeple, is a simple circuit that lends itself to easy orientation.
On the building’s south side is the 80-seat chapel. It juts off the main volume and has its own entrance, enabling the public to attend mass while preserving the sisters’ privacy. But figuratively, it is the heart of the convent. “Everything comes back to the chapel,” says the convent’s general superior, Sister Dorothy Ryan. “This is where our life is focused. The rest allows us to do it.”
The architects addressed Peterborough’s climate—which is typified by warm summers and long, cold winters—with a variety of solutions. A small green roof on the southern side of the building and thermoplastic reflective roofing on the rest help mitigate solar gain, as does low-e glazing. And a north-south axis minimizes exposure on the east and west facades, while overhangs shade the southern side of the building. Semi-rigid insulation (made from basalt rock and recycled steel slag) and fiberglass windows with argon-filled double-glazing help combat the harsh winters. “Two high-efficiency modulating, condensing boilers, a variable speed cooling tower, and distributed water source heat pumps are used for heating and cooling,” explains Enermodal Engineering’s HVAC designer Stan Holko, PE. Variable speed fans modulate ventilation capacity based on time-of-day schedules and carbon dioxide sensors in select public spaces. Additionally, ventilation is separated from heating and cooling with two dedicated outdoor air handling units (DOAUs)—complete with energy recovery wheels—serving the common areas and regular suites, and a third DOAU with a sensible-only air exchanger that serves the infirmary suites.
The architects maximized daylighting with ample apertures and also minimized energy consumption with electrical lighting. “Our goal is to keep lighting power density 25 to 33 percent below what is recommended by ASHRAE,” says Enermodal lighting consultant Brandon Barroso. To do this the team used high-performance lighting fixtures and even worked with a manufacturer to lamp chandeliers with compact fluorescents. Occupancy sensors and dimming are used throughout interiors, and exterior lighting is designed to emit all light below 90 degrees from the horizon to minimize impact on the surrounding area and the night sky, explains Barroso.
What was one lesson learned? “We became convinced that engineering has to be integral at the early stages,” says project architect Bernard Jin. “The selection of components has to be made early on. Once you define criteria for systems, then you can define your design criteria.”
Pragmatists that they are, the sisters recognized the importance of future use for their building, in light of the fact that it will undoubtedly outlive its 45 aging occupants. Easy conversion to senior housing became a design requirement, not a difficult task given the similar needs of the current users. Today, a fully equipped infirmary provides 24-hour nursing care for 12, while the rest of the building responds to the needs of the elderly with simple circulation, full accessibility, ample railings, call buttons, resilient flooring, and contrasting color between the walls and floors. In accordance with modern standards for senior housing, each resident enjoys a bedroom with a private bath and ample closet space—a far cry from the spare dorm-like accommodations of their former quarters. Despite all this, warming up the occupants to this radical change was not easy, but was helped, says Sister Dorothy, by including them in decision-making and letting them choose their own rooms.
As the sisters’ congregation has dwindled over the years, Peterborough—today a city of about 75,000—has grown up around them. Mount St. Joseph, perhaps now more than ever, is a place for both connecting with the larger world and finding private sanctuary. The sisters’ new home has helped them do this and has also had other unexpected effects. “The community is closer together now,” says Sister Dorothy, referring to the women. “There is more camaraderie, more sharing now—and there are fewer places to hide,” she quips. As is their way, the sisters have thought beyond their own immediate needs. “We’re an aging community,” acknowledges Sister Dorothy. “If you were to show up 15 to 20 years from now, we probably won’t be here. But this building has all kinds of possibilities.”