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How Farmland Was Transformed Into a Luxury Spa

Universal Accessibility and Minimalist Architecture at a Spa Inspired by European Thermotherapy Rituals
Rocks used in the central pool come from the nearby rock quarry, Carrière Mont-Bruno. (Raphaël Thibodeau)
Rocks used in the central pool come from the nearby rock quarry, Carrière Mont-Bruno. (Raphaël Thibodeau)

Förena Cité thermale might be the fourth and most recent spa opened by Groupe Skyspa, but it’s the first that Patrick Rake, president and founder of the company, had in mind. A frequent traveler, Rake was interested in thermotherapy, meaning the application of heat or cold to improve physical and mental health, across the world and wanted his fellow Quebecers to discover it as well.

“Thermotherapy isn’t the same experience from country to country,” explained Geneviève Lamy, marketing director at Groupe Skyspa. “There are different rituals and traditions depending on where the thermal experience is happening, and Rake wanted to bring some of them here.”

The main building at Förena Cité thermale. (Raphaël Thibodeau)

The spa’s three buildings are each inspired by the thermotherapy practices of three countries: Germany, Russia and Iceland. There is the Icelandic-inspired Piterak building, which includes the reception, the boutique, the massage rooms and the changing rooms; the Russian pavilion Buran, which includes a dry sauna, a steam room and a cold waterfall; and Foehn, the German-centric pavilion, which features an external cold basin, a dry sauna and a panoramic relaxation area.

From Farmland to Architectural Spa

Förena Cité thermale is the fourth spa from Groupe Skyspa. The first to open was Spa Nordic Station in Magog in 2004, then SKYSPA located in shopping centre DIX30 in Brossard in 2007 and SKYSPA in Quebec City in 2011.

After opening those three spas, the time had come for Groupe Skyspa to start working on Förena Cité thermale. The team, the opportunities and the expertise were in place to turn Rake’s vision of an international spa into reality, according to Lamy.

Of course, even with those elements in place, Rake still needed a site that was conducive to his vision. Fortunately, he soon found exactly what he was looking for: a relatively large piece of land that was located within the greater Montreal area with a natural feel.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

The first phase of Förena Cité thermale cost approximately 12.5 to 13 million Canadian dollars ($US9.2 million to $US9.6), according to Lamy. Rake and his team secured agricultural land in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville that was rezoned from residential to allow for commercial use.

Groupe Skyspa collaborated with landscape architecture and planning firm Projet Paysage to design the exterior landscaping. “They were leading the project because we wanted the focus to be on the outside environment,” Lamy said. “The landscape architect is about half of the investment in a project like that,” added Isabelle Beauchamp, lead architect at Blouin Tardif Architectes, which led the architectural and interior design aspects of the project. “Collaboration was really good,” Beauchamp said of working with Projet Paysage. She added that both firms were on the same wavelength in terms of utilizing simple and understated designs.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

The land on which Förena sits is a long and horizontal parcel, which inspired the main building’s architecture. There is a natural slope to the terrain, which creates a two-floor difference from one end of the field to the other. “We used this natural drop for the main building, which is like a big bar in the landscape,” Beauchamp explained. “It’s on two levels, but from the main street, you only see one floor.”

Architects used the main building to create a large retaining wall and developed the lower floor as part of the spa. The building is also used as a shield to cover the noise of trucks passing nearby on rang des Vingt Cinq.

The spa is on two levels, but from the main street, you only see one floor. (Raphaël Thibodeau)

The architecture had to speak to the agricultural character of the location, according to Beauchamp. Eastern aged cedar was used as cladding, reminiscent of old farms in the area. “We wanted to have a relationship with the outdoors and the landscape,” Beauchamp explained. In addition to showcasing the natural environment, architects collaborated with surrounding businesses. For example, rocks used in the central pool come from the nearby rock quarry, Carrière Mont-Bruno.

To avoid décor that could distract from the beauty of the natural environment, architects proposed a minimalist approach. “We were clear from the beginning that if we worked with them [Groupe Skyspa], the project had to integrate well within the environment and be enduring,” Beauchamp said.

A view on the surrounding landscape. (Raphaël Thibodeau)

Immersive details specific to each country featured at the spa were highlighted in the design. For instance, in the Buran pavilion, there is a tapestry showcasing Siberian mountains, and this visual element is accompanied by the sound of wind passing through the trees and the scent of clary sage, a common plant in Russia. Meanwhile, the German building is reminiscent of the Black Forest; there are images of the forest adorning the walls, which are complimented by forest noises and green sauna benches. “We try to provoke all the senses so it’s a multi-sensory experience. We want people to be as immersed as possible,” Lamy explained. “There aren’t a lot of spas that do that, that bring people into a completely different universe,” she said. “I think people have to live it to understand.”

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

A Long-Term Development Scheme

Blouin Tardif Architectes wanted to create a design framework that would allow Groupe Skyspa to develop their spa by giving them “a very simple structure that is easy to build and that could grow through time,” Beauchamp said.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

Development over time was an important aspect of the project because the construction of Förena Cité thermale is far from over – only about 30% of the land surface area is currently being used. In 2024 and beyond, Groupe Skyspa plans to continue the expansion of the spa with pavilions focused on Asian spa techniques. The main building might also be expanded, as it was designed to be enlarged over time, adding more changing rooms and massage rooms.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

There are also plans to include a hospitality segment featuring about 60 rooms. Since the land is at the foot of ski hill Ski Saint-Bruno and close to the National Park of Mont-Saint-Bruno, the project sits in a recreational and tourism hub. “Adding a hotel will contribute to our two neighbours,” Lamy said.

Making Inclusivity a Priority

Universal accessibility was an important criterion during the design of Förena Cité thermale. The experience begins at the entrance of the site from the parking lot, as clients climb up one floor with the help of a long ramp. “It becomes more inclusive if everyone has to take the same entrance, it’s not a ramp dedicated solely to people with reduced mobility,” Beauchamp explained.

The main building also houses an elevator, which fosters accessibility for treatment rooms, the dining room and changing rooms. While some installations within the spa require guests to climb a few steps, it is possible for individuals with limited mobility to complete a full thermal cycle. “We tried to make sure that there were as many elements as possible on a single floor,” Lamy explained.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

“It’s proven that thermotherapy is beneficial for the body, so we wanted to be as accessible as possible,” added Lamy. “It was important because our mission is to make people feel good. If we can include people with reduced mobility in as many facilities as possible, it’s important that we do, so it was something we talked about with the architects.”

Förena Cité thermale also wants to be inclusive of non-binary people. For now, there are unisex bathrooms, and the addition of non-gendered changing rooms is being considered. “They shouldn’t feel different and unwelcome,” Lamy said. “We want [non-binary customers] to have the same experience as other clients,” Lamy said.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

Förena Cité thermale attracts a wide variety of clients as going to the spa is becoming more mainstream. “I think that one of the good aspects of COVID is that people really learned the importance of taking care of themselves,” Lamy said. “Everyone deserves well-being in their life.”

Overcoming Challenges

Förena Cité thermale officially opened in February 2020 – just a few weeks shy of the closings imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Since COVID hindered its business activity, the spa is now relaunching. “It’s going to be one year since we fully reopened, and it’s been running smoothly. There has been a great response from the clientele,” Lamy said.

The project broke ground in September 2018 and the construction was completed in January 2020. Beside the architect and the landscape architect, Skyspa hired construction manager LEM Experts-Conseils to insure an efficient construction process.

(Raphaël Thibodeau)

According to Beauchamp, one of the biggest challenges was the tight budget, as well as the size and complexity of the project. “While the construction was moving forward, we, along with the client and the managers, had to make decisions to reduce costs or to simplify construction methods,” she explained. “The biggest challenge was managing construction in a fast-track fashion, especially for a project of this scale.”

This collaborative approach has produced outstanding outcomes, as Förena Cité thermale won the excellence prize in the commercial and industrial buildings category from architecture association Ordre des architectes du Québec in 2021.

“A project like this, winning an architecture prize, does not happen by magic — it’s about teamwork,” Beauchamp said. “Everyone was proud of the project, and it shows today.”