Bedazzled Box

PROJECT Energy. Environment. Experiential Learning, University of Calgary, Alberta
ARCHITECTS DIALOG Alberta with Perkins+Will Canada
TEXT Alexandra McIntosh
PHOTOS Tom Arban

“Oh, you mean the shiny one.”
–Taxi driver to Peter Busby, en route from Calgary airport to EEEL

With its alliterative title and slippery acronym, the Energy. Environment. Experiential Learning (EEEL) building is as much a recognizable landmark for cabbies as it is for students. Situated on the northern perimeter of the University of Calgary campus, EEEL is a glossy reflective beacon, bouncing light and warmth off its surfaces. Die-cut raw aluminum panels clad the exterior, interspersed with diagonal jutting fins, horizontal sunshades and bright green vertical louvres that shift incrementally throughout the day.

The sparkling exterior brings together diverse disciplines under one roof: students in the Energy and Environment program share work and study space with future biologists, chemists and geoscientists. The first three floors house undergraduate teaching labs and classrooms while the upper two floors are intended for graduate research. 

Opened in September 2011, EEEL attained LEED Platinum certification in April 2013. Among its notable sustainability features are geothermal earth tubes that precondition the air, grey water and stormwater reuse, triple-glazed windows and natural ventilation. Despite its size, daylight penetrates to most areas of the building through generous interior glazing and large perimeter openings, reducing the need for artificial lighting. The exterior aluminum panelling is angled down on the south façade to direct sunlight into a pedestrian square, while the panels on the north street-side façade are oriented upwards, bouncing light into the sky and making the building appear brighter. 

Beyond EEEL’s intelligent environmental features, the building’s success has as much to do with social space and community building. At 24,531 square metres, EEEL is in essence a large rectangular box, but its interior is defined by what is not there–the negative space formed by generous interconnected open areas, wide hallways and a central atrium. The atrium’s principal defining feature, a grand staircase, climbs from the ground floor to the second and third floors in a series of terraces. This “social stair” is bathed in light from the clerestories above and surrounded by glass-walled laboratories and workspaces that run the length of the north and south walls. Openings at the east and west ends of the building allow light in and views out.  

Watch and Learn 

Despite its flagrant misuse of punctuation, the Energy. Environment. Experiential Learning building is designed to teach. Like several recent engineering buildings, EEEL showcases aspects of its own structure and functionality. Design architect Peter Busby of Perkins+Will Canada explains, “we wanted EEEL to be intelligible, to demonstrate a high degree of environmental performance. There is no mystery–you can see how the building responds to environmental stimulus.” 

Engineering students can observe the automated green louvres on the south façade pivot in response to sun movement. Junior geoscientists can examine a series of arches by the south entrance that is both decorative and didactic: the forms comprise natural stone layered in correct geological order, demonstrating the standard entrapment of oil and gas in sub-surfaces. Inside, plumbing to control in-slab radiant heating and cooling systems is revealed behind glass access doors. Mechanical systems at ceiling level are exposed and meticulously labelled. The visual effect of these narrow pipes in perfect parallel alignment running the length of hallways and around corners is one of a kinetic sculpture in stationary mode, or, if you turned the lights off, perhaps the set of Tron

In addition to explicit instructional elements, the learning process at EEEL is rendered visible. The back wall of the ground-floor lecture hall is fully glazed, rendering the projection screen and teachers’ silent gesticulations visible to the public. Similarly, writing directly on the glass walls/windows is encouraged in the labs, including those that line the north-south hallways. Perhaps weary of a mildly Hollywood fantasy of scientific ideation (warning: genius at work) or simply bashful, students and faculty are only just beginning to incorporate the practice. 

Flexible Futures

Part of EEEL’s sustainability strategy is a clear attention to the way the building might change and adapt over time. “The basis of the spatial organization was a laboratory module that could be used on its own for smaller labs or ganged together to provide very large teaching or research labs,” explains project architect Jim Goodwin of DIALOG. The simplest of these modules are 60-square-metre classrooms, and even these include infrastructure to allow for future expansion or conversion to labs. Pre-cored floor drains, access to compressed air, water and gases, and space for ceiling-mounted retractable projection screens are all in place. With an eye to the pace of change in research and technology as well as the cost of retrofitting science buildings, the project team planned for the future. 

Similarly, in keeping with the university’s long-term campus plan, EEEL will eventually be connected to other facilities by elevated walkways. The prevalence of +15 pedestrian connections–particular to Calgary’s downtown core and harsh prairie winters–is both practical and problematic. On campus, the sudden and formidable onslaught of foot traffic during class changes creates congestion and noise, not to mention physical barriers to the lone salmon swimming upstream. To compensate, the +15s are planned at two corners, funnelling traffic diagonally up or down the social stair and leaving quiet zones at opposite ends of the building.

Community Laboratory

The student experience within EEEL was essential to the design process. The program stipulated a variety of spaces for learning “on- and off-grid.” In addition to labs and classrooms are small lounge areas with soft seating for post-class discussion and coffee breaks, countertops with high stools for individual study, and enclosed spaces for group meetings. Working in these fishbowl-like rooms, students both command a view overlooking the central atrium, and are themselves put on vivid display. 

There is an articulated intention for EEEL to build a sense of community, both within the departments that share the building and across the university campus. Labs are labelled as “instructional spaces” rather than “engineering” or “biology” to smooth potential hierarchies between departments and to avoid drawing distinctions between undergraduate and graduate work. Classes from other faculties are invited to use the lecture halls, creating diversity in the student population. 

One of the significant features in facilitating community interaction is the monumental staircase. Flanked by regular steps, generous wood-clad platforms serve as tiered surfaces for sitting, with soft chairs and small tables placed at irregular intervals. According to Jonathon Greggs, Director of Campus Planning, the use of the social stair was immediate and intuitive. On an average weekday, students are settled in small clusters, poring over laptops, or simply climbing the stairs to the second and third floors. 

When asked about EEEL’s social capacities, or more specifically, its potential to create a sense of community, Busby speaks of peer learning opportunities and the deliberate mixing of faculties, “stirring
it up to see what they can learn from each other.” Facilitating peer exchange was essential. “It’s difficult to get large groups of people together, and usually the solution is a lecture hall, which is quite formal,” he says. “Socialization among young people is often a condition of ‘me and my phone,’ so creating opportunities for them to bump into one another, to work together, becomes a priority.” 

As Greggs notes, “there has been a major focus in the last decade on interdisciplinarity and collaboration in postsecondary environments. But what does this actually look like when you build it? Ultimately, it has a lot to do with the facilitation process; you need inviting spaces with services that bring people together.” Communal kitchens and workspaces scattered throughout the building encourage interaction among students and faculty. But the ground-floor entry space and social stair of EEEL reach beyond the building’s primary users and serve a larger community. EEEL was intended to act as a major new interior public space on campus, and students from multiple disciplines make the trek for a cup of coffee or the chance to work and relax on the social stair. In addition, the building facilitates public transit use: the main lobby displays schedules and provides a comfortable waiting area for multiple bus routes that stop at the corner.

In full acknowledgement of the circumstances of 21st-century higher education, spaces throughout EEEL are adaptable for fund-generating and public events. The jumbo projection screen above the social stair has shown everything from academic lectures to film screenings and hockey playoff games. Double-height spaces on the upper floors shift from hushed reading rooms to collaborative workspaces according to students’ dictates, and into evening venues for swishy cocktails and donor-courting. Importantly, however, the student-centric mandate is maintained and the principal occupants of the building are never fully excluded from such events. Just as their learning activities are made visible through transparent walls, even during a fundraiser students can continue their path through the building, observing and circulating around the flower arrangements, votive candles and metres of tulle.

Two years after its opening, EEEL has garnered several design awards and achieved its sustainability rating. The foliage has had a fighting chance to gain a foothold. Two years’ worth of foot traffic and an accumulation of dust bunnies in hard-to-clean places may also be evident, but so too is student adaptation and modification–ultimately, adoption–of the building’s public and learning areas. To Peter Busby’s taxi driver, EEEL may still be a shiny, spottable-from-afar landmark on the University of Calgary campus. But to its current and prospective users, EEEL wears its structure and the disciplines housed within proudly on its sleeve. CA 

Calgary-based Alexandra McIntosh writes on architecture, design and visual arts.

Client University of Calgary
Architect Team DIALOG–Jim Goodwin, Rob Adamson, Ken Johnson, Robert Jim, Madeleine Schmidts, Kate Jones, Robert Veniere, Heather Glendenning, Eric Brassard, Tim Mcginn, Peter Atkinson, Rick Adams. Perkins+Will–Peter Busby, Aneta Chmiel, Alex Mccumber, Rick Piccolo, Sören Schou, Eric Stedman.
Structural RJC Engineers and DIALOG
Mechanical DIALOG
Electrical Stebnicki + Partners
Landscape 02 Planning + Design
Interiors DIALOG
Contractor Ellis Don Construction
Civil Aecom
Code Senez Reed Calder
Building Envelope Building Envelope Engineering Inc.
Acoustic FFA Consultants in Acoustics and Noise Control Ltd.
Audio-Visual Sharps Audio Visual
Project Management Duke Projects Inc.
Elevator Vertech Elevator Services Inc.
Quantity Surveyor Spiegel Skillen + Associates Ltd.
Area 24,531 m2
Budget $188 M
Completion September 2011