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Architecture + Branding: ONroute service centres remove locale on busiest Ontario 400-series highway travels

1-Are we there yet?

For those familiar with prolonged highway travel, periodic stops, whether they be for refuelling, to grab a bite, to use the facilities or simply to stretch out for a bit, are an integral part of the road travel experience.

When travelling on some of the busiest highways, it is not a prerequisite to exit off the main thoroughfare onto secondary routes, and circumnavigate through a city or town in order to complete a necessary stop. Many of the most heavily travelled road networks, as well as most closed types of roadway networks, such as tolls roads or thruways, provide periodic designated areas for stops along the route.

Highway 401 West bound, near Toronto, Ontario, Canada

These designated areas carry different names depending on state or province, country and continent, but serve similar purposes. Whether they are labelled rest area, rest stop, oases, service center, service area, service plaza or travel plaza, all appellations refer to similar places (source: wikipedia.org). Simply stated, they are a transitory place where travellers can stop for a bathroom break, stretch, grab a coffee and a bite, refuel, get their bearings and resume their travel.

However, some of the similarities end at the functional component, as the built environment at each travel stop can vary extensively from one location to another, derivative of their particular geography, location, cultural history, and a host of other factors.

2-Rest. Relief. Refuel. Re-brand

Many rest areas along the most travelled highways were built in the 1960s, and are not relevant with today’s travellers. Thus, around 2007, coinciding with expiring oil company leases, the province of Ontario seized an opportunity to update many of the outdated travel stops along Highways 400 and 401 (source: mto.gov.on). On a typical day, in excess of 500,000 people travel the province’s two highways  (source: mto.gov.on).

View of the CN Tower and Toronto skyline on a hazy winter day, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Acquiring widespread perceptions that are less than flattering, rest areas are additionally disadvantaged by low appeal and desirability. An almost unalienable limitation of road travel, they are not regarded as places where one longs to linger, or generally looks forward to visiting. Furthermore, they have become notorious for being unsafe, unkept and unclean.

In a two-fold attempt to rebuild and refresh the travel stops along one of North America’s busiest travel corridors, the updating plan included a complete re-imagining. Tackling entrenched perceptions, efforts would be expended to address long-standing negative connotations and shortcomings relating to safety, lack of comfort facilities, cleanliness, questionable lighting and parking.

Rest Area, Existing, Along Highway 400 near Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

Modernized, with a full complement of amenities such as several Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs), fuel stations, separate automobile and truck parking areas, accessible washrooms, free WiFi, designated pet parks, convenience market, as well as seasonal picnic areas, the revised service centres are more welcoming and significantly improved in terms of accessibility, usability, and safety.

Redefining the user experience, the bulk of Ontario’s 23 service centres were scheduled for the redesign. With only a handful of service centres left to complete, many of these newly revised rest areas are already built and operational, welcoming travellers daily.

3-Holistic design

Starting with a collage of divergent designs, the assorted lot would be dismantled to usher in the newly re-imagined service centres. Bringing all the disparate parts together by adopting a holistic design was the primary task.

Rest Area, under demolition, Along Highway 401 to Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

Re-branded as ONroute, the service centres would align with an over-arching design guideline, stressing similarity, familiarity, and commonality between centres, as opposed to individual location specific idiosyncrasies.

ONroute service centre, under construction, Along Highway 400 near Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

A malleable inspired architectural form combining three principal elements of glass, stone and wood, the new service centres look inviting, warm, and familiar. Imbued with a sense of rhythm, with solid and clear portions within the elevations, back-of-the-house functions are tucked being the mostly opaque, solid mass walls. At the front, the sloped glass atrium accentuates the generous indoor court, flooding the indoor space with natural light. Low-rise, clustered close to the ground, the built form is quasi-transparent, approachable, and human scaled.

Scalable, the building design can adapt to encompass an incrementally greater number of restaurants and services, providing a big, bigger, biggest box, which can be housed by a different cast of characters. Medallions on the exterior wall display which concessions occupy that particular location.

ONroute service centre, approach view, Mallorytown, Ontario, Canada

The cumulative result is a flexible and malleable collection of buildings that espouse a cohesive exterior aesthetic, yet present configurable interiors, responsive to individual locales and adaptable to user needs. Putting some distance between the incongruent collection of past centres and the newer ones, the new guidelines communicate a different way forward.

4-Eyes on the street

Of all the ills and shortcomings that plague rest areas in general, the most common is the issue of user safety. More than any other shortcoming, from less than good-for-you food options, bad coffee, unclean washroom facilities, or limited item selection justified by being in a remote area, the most infamous undesirable attribute of rest areas is user safety.

ONroute service centre, Front 3/4 view, Trenton, Ontario, Canada

Therefore, increasing rest area user safety, both perceived and real, through anticipatory and thoughtful design would present a significant and desirable improvement. By providing large uninterrupted views of the activities, both from the outside in, and from the inside out, the expansive glass atrium aids in achieving that sense of safety.

The ability to see and to be seen dramatically increases the sense of safety, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. The concept of “Eyes on the street”, popularized by Jane Jacobs, ensures “natural surveillance” as the unobstructed views provide a direct visual link for all rest area users.

ONroute service centre, approach view, Ingelside, Ontario, Canada

Airy, accentuating openness and visibility, the glass atrium serves as a beacon through the night time hours, lighting the way for weary travellers, inviting them in to a safe space for a respite from the road.

5-Inconsistent becomes Interchangeable

In some locales, the built environment being unique, from quirky to memorable, could serve as makeshift mile markers, making it possible to locate oneself from landscapes and landmarks. In a not-so distant past, when driving along some of Ontario’s busiest routes, one could use travel stops as visual cues, or reference points, as they all featured their own quirks and anomalies.

The applied homogeneity in the ONroute re-branding effort, inherent in promoting the Ontario brand above all else, has paradoxically removed much of the individual sense of place.

ONroute service centre, side view, Ingelside, Ontario, Canada

Skilfully dispelling some of the most negative associations with rest areas, these new service centres may well begin the process of expanding the sphere of possibilities, and rewriting the playbook as to what might come to be seen as the new normal in road travel.

Yet, although the new design is miles ahead of its predecessors in terms of functionality, safety and usability, it has also purged uniqueness, regional charm and locality from the equation.

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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