Design

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Inside the HQ of the Communications Security Establishment Canada

By DAYANTI KARUNARATNE

The view from Ogilvie Road
The view from Ogilvie Road

Last week, we were approached by Toronto’s WZMH Architects with an alluring proposal: would we like to share images of CSEC‘s new east-end headquarters?

Yes, please! This is the closest most civilians like us will ever get to seeing the 775,000-sqaure-foot complex, which was built with a public-private partnership for $867 million. Built to achieve LEED Gold certification, the modern facility is said to be of substantial economic benefit to the community and is expected to generate approximately 4000 employment opportunities. 

The preamble of the pre-approved text that was supplied with the below images notes that the government is “Fully committed to the safety and security of its people” and describes the services provided by CSEC as “acquiring foreign signals intelligence in support of defence and foreign policy; protecting electronic information and communication of importance to the Government of Canada; and, providing technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement agencies.”

A view of the south facade of the CSEC headquarters in Ottawa.
A view of the south facade of the CSEC headquarters in Ottawa.

The design of this facility incorporates a number of creative features — and takes into account the data-heavy nature of cryptology work. 

“The physical form is an architectural interpretation of a maple key, (the maple tree’s distinctively shaped seed), subtly reminiscent of the literal and symbolic importance of the maple to Canada. The design concept resides in mathematical ontology, and is the genesis of the geometrical form and layout of the hub, the communal focus of the facility.”

An aerial view from the South East
An aerial view from the South East

The building features a central ‘hub’ for gathering, which the architects continually reference as key the functionality of the space.

“Just as man-made forms incorporate natural organizational metaphors into the design, so does the palette of finish materials. A rigorous, mathematical understanding of organic form and proportion – especially their movement in nature – are at the root of the hub geometry, creating a seductive play of solid and void, light and shadow, straight and curved.”

Inside the hub, looking at one of the tree house structures
Inside the hub, looking at one of the tree house structures

I couldn’t help but find the “tree house” term endearing. How many of us, as children, spied on siblings and adults from tree top escapes? These “tree-house structures rise inside the glazed west wall, drawing attention to the meadow and woods outside.”

Here, the best and brightest get their own high-tech peephole — even if its more of an escape from the focused, technology driven work that is the reality of cryptology today.

The west facade of the new CSEC building
The west facade of the new CSEC building

“CSEC must recruit the best and the brightest Canadians to form a dedicated workforce comprised of engineers, computer scientists, programmers, physicists, mathematicians, language specialists and intelligence analysts. Most will spend their workday face-to-face with a computer, spending endless hours sorting, analyzing and synthesizing data. People engaged in this intensely focused, technology-driven work require ‘relief.’ In order to attract and retain these dedicated professionals, the [facility] is designed to provide just that. By emphasizing open airy space with access to daylight and views, work environments alleviate the sense of oppression that can result from feeling ‘chained’ to a desk.

Each office pod faces the hub with this front porch area
Each office pod faces the hub with this front porch area, a welcoming interactive area that is branded differently for each group for easy way-finding

Indeed, it’s a much brighter, more airy space than one might expect for an agency that is closed to the public. As the architects note: In addition to satisfying program requirements, the footprint of the facility is designed to sensitively integrate into the surrounding heavily wooded lot, consistent with CSEC’s vision for a collaborative work environment that engages the outdoors.

WZMH Architects offers the following as a conclusion:

“Through an innovative approach to way-finding and branding, the vast space is broken down to the human scale, providing employees with a sense of ownership and of place. It also displays and demonstrates CSEC’s commitment to stewardship of the environment by incorporating sustainable design principles and prudent use of natural resources. Taking advantage of the natural beauty of the site, the transparency of the design establishes visual and spatial continuity between inside and outside, man and nature.”