Brick & Beam 2.0: 80 Atlantic, Toronto, Ontario

Four storeys of office space at 80 Atlantic are built from glulam beams and columns, with nail-laminated timber floors. The building has a conventional concrete parking garage, ground floor and core.

PROJECT 80 Atlantic

ARCHITECT Quadrangle

TEXT Javier Zeller

PHOTOS Bob Gundu

Can a building material have moral weight? The way architects have associated morality with material over the past 100 years seems almost quaint in view of our current situation, where a human-caused planetary transformation is underway—much of it precipitated by the way we build.

It seems faintly ridiculous to tout the virtues of steel and rubber, like Hannes Meyer, or to bemoan falseness of surfaces, as Adolf Loos did. Our current imperative focuses on thinking about embodied carbon and energy use intensity. We are in a moral moment around materials again—but this time, the anxiety is less about capturing the Zeitgeist than avoiding Gotterdammerung.

Wood will be the future for Canadian architecture and construction. It doesn’t take any boldness to make this proclamation. Like moving to a plant-based diet, wood construction—and particularly mass timber construction—has an apparently unassailable logic. Any leftover prejudices against wood as un-modern or poorly suited to contemporary programs has been demolished by designers across the world, led by the pioneering work of Canadian architects and engineers, such as Michael Green and Fast + Epp.

Their projects and advocacy for the use of mass timber—as a means of offsetting more greenhouse gas intensive construction practices and sequestering carbon—have had significant influence. Clients across the country are increasingly aware of the virtues of mass timber, and building codes are being adjusted to incentivize its use. 

The use of mass timber columns, beams and deck creates a warm, spacious atmosphere for the open office floors.

Among the resulting new wave of structures is Eastern Canada’s first mass timber office building, 80 Atlantic. Located in Liberty Village, a former manufacturing district west of Toronto’s downtown, 80 Atlantic is an 8,000-square-metre through-block building that combines a conventional underground concrete parking garage and ground floor retail with four mass timber storeys of open office space. It is the second of two projects in Liberty Village by Quadrangle for Hullmark, a Toronto development and real estate investment firm with a focus on downtown neighborhoods. The new office building adjoins their previous collaboration—the renovation of a historic warehouse into offices and retail at 60 Atlantic.

Liberty Village has undergone a rapid and sometimes insensitive development over the past 25 years. While noteworthy original buildings remain, many large floor-plate warehouses and factories were demolished to make way for the new vernacular of Toronto construction: residential condos with concrete shear wall structures, clad in window-wall.

In contrast to this trend, Hullmark sought out a solution that would distinguish 80 Atlantic—the first new office building in the area in generations—from typical downtown offices. They aimed to create what Hullmark president Jeff Hull calls a “premium product” to attract tenants to the neighbourhood. Quadrangle architects Richard Witt and Michelle Xuereb found in Hullmark a partner willing to pursue mass timber, not just for its environmental logic, but as an aesthetic differentiator that had associations with the area’s historic brick-and-beam warehouses. 

The building’s main entrance is set within the block, off a courtyard shared with a warehouse renovated into retail and office spaces.

The resulting office building isn’t simply environmentally virtuous, it’s also a very good addition to the urban fabric. The thoughtfulness of the design begins with its relationship to the site. Paired with its neighbour to the south, 80 Atlantic frames a new landscaped plaza, sloped down from the street to give direct entrance to a brew pub at 60 Atlantic. The courtyard provides access to 80 Atlantic’s entrance lobby, located at mid-block a half floor below street level.

Because of the lobby’s large size and direct exposure to the courtyard, it becomes an extension of that exterior social space. The mid-block entrance has the added advantage of allowing the Atlantic Avenue street frontage to be dedicated to the ground floor retail tenant. A glassed-in loggia along the side of the courtyard guides visitors to the lobby in inclement weather.

Numerous connections at grade—including a through-block alley along the north face of the building that will include an art installation (not yet in place at the time of this writing)—are sensitively scaled. Together, they give the site a porous character, not unlike the better examples of the 19th-century factories that remain in the neighborhood.

The building form itself is straightforward and elegant. The ground floor is inset as a glazed plane on Atlantic Avenue, while service and parking entrances are consolidated on the building’s west face along Jefferson Avenue.

Floating above this recess are the office floorplates, wrapped along their west, north and east faces in a super-scale punched window composition of curtain wall and a rainscreen of porcelain panels. The curtain wall is set into the field of panels and composed freely in horizontal bands, its proportions and sizes an abstracted reflection of the surrounding fabric.

An uninterrupted glass curtain wall along the building’s south face overlooks the courtyard. This face of the building is the most dramatic showcase for the mass timber structure. Here, like a section cut, the delicately detailed glazing reveals the exposed wood ceilings, beams and columns that immediately set this project apart.

The mass timber elements are fire-proofed within a raised access floor that consolidates services.

The upper four storeys of 80 Atlantic are made up from glulam beams and columns on a 6.1-by-8.5 metre grid, supporting a nail-laminated timber (NLT) floor structure. The steel connections between column and beam are concealed (and fire protected) within the structure.

The feeling on these four floors is warm and airy. The one-way NLT slab, comprised of grade-2 SPF 2x8s, is completely exposed on the underside, un-interrupted apart from sprinklers and the occasional conduit feeding power to the smoke detectors and suspended lights.

The floor assembly is completed with plywood sheathing, an acoustic mat, and 50 mm of concrete topping to reduce sound transmission and create a level surface for a raised access floor. The concrete topping also provides the non-combustible surface required within the concealed plenum of the access floor. For this reason, the lower 400 mm of each glulam column is clad in a non-combustible gypsum assembly. Above this, a metal flange lifts the exposed glulam atop the access floor, creating a reveal that ensures a neat termination regardless of the tenant’s flooring choice.

Construction is sometimes simplified into a stark choice between concrete, steel and wood. But as project principal Richard Witt says, with mass timber, “it’s never just wood.” From the first floor ceiling down, a concrete slab on a nine-by-nine-metre column grid ensures compliance with the required fire separations between retail and office uses. The building’s elevator core and fire stairs are also structural concrete, providing lateral bracing to the mass timber structure on the upper four floors. Where deflection in the cantilevers at the office floors exceeded the design requirements, some steel elements were added within the access floor for improved stiffness.

Typical floor plan

What isn’t apparent to a visitor of the nearly completed building is the profound change that the wood structure made to the construction and design process. As the architects describe it, the site was comparatively quiet. Wood columns, beams and NLT panels were craned into place directly from transport trucks, saving lay-down space on the tight urban site, and a crew ranging from four to eight carpenters erected each floor in about two days.

Project architect Michelle Xuereb also notes that with no off-the-shelf components, mass timber construction—still a nascent industry in this country—compels a process of engaging directly with fabricators. This changes the design process to introduce significantly greater integration than is typical in traditional construction.

Mass timber construction is still new enough in Canada to be remarkable in its own right: radical for its capacity to transform architects and the building industry from villains in the climate crisis into a positive force. The elegance with which the material is deployed by Quadrangle at 80 Atlantic reflects a clear understanding of the logic and potential of this construction type. As mass timber is adopted more widely, its qualities as part of an architectural and civic framework will continue to be explored and refined. The success of buildings has always depended on more than their component parts—a lesson clearly understood by the design team of 80 Atlantic.

CLIENT Hullmark, with partner BentallGreenOak on behalf of Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada | ARCHITECT TEAM Richard Witt (FRAIC), Michelle Xuereb, Will Marenco, Jan Schotte, Wayne McMillan | STRUCTURAL Read Jones Christoffersen | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith & Andersen | LANDSCAPE Vertechs | INTERIORS Caroline Robbie, Julie Mroczkowski, Kathy Roudsary, Andrea Hall, Diana Smiciklas | CONSTRUCTION MANAGER Eastern Construction | BUILDING ENVELOPE RDH | SUSTAINABILITY RWDI |  HERITAGE Philip Goldsmith Architect | AREA 8,361 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION October 2019

Energy Use

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 150 ekWh/m2/year | BENCHMARK (National Energy Use Database, office buildings after 2010) 252 kWh/m2/year |

Greenhouse Gas Intensity (GHGi) 13 kg CO2e/m2
 Embodied carbon 2,143 t CO2 e
Embodied carbon of equivalent steel building 2,849 t CO2 e
Embodied carbon of equivalent concrete building 4,399 t CO2 e