Brilliant Green

Richmond City Hall, Richmond, British Columbia

Hotson Bakker Architects/Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Associated Architects

Located on two islands immediately south of Vancouver in the broad, fertile delta of the Fraser River, the City of Richmond has transformed over the past few decades from an intensive farming community to an archetypal car suburb. Sea Island, the smaller of the two, is almost entirely occupied by Vancouver International Airport. The similarly flat alluvial terrain of the larger Lulu Island allows an unimpeded, uninflected grid of broad arterial roads to crisscross the landscape, along which have sprouted the shopping malls, big box stores, car dealerships and other retail developments typical of the contemporary North American suburb.

At the heart of this rapidly transforming community, on the site of the original city hall, Richmond’s new City Hall reflects the municipality’s increasingly urban aspirations and its changing demographics (a Feng Shui master was consulted on the design, reflecting the culture of Richmond’s large Asian population). Designed by Hotson Bakker Architects of Vancouver and Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB) Architects of Toronto, the City Hall was developed by a team assembled around project principals Joost Bakker and Bruce Kuwabara, who studied architecture together at the University of Toronto.

The project follows a recently established tradition for Canadian cities to look to their City Halls for a strong civic image and a standard of urbanism in otherwise suburban surroundings. This was pursued explicitly in Jones and Kirkland’s Mississauga City Hall, and it was also evident, to a lesser degree, in KPMB’s Kitchener City Hall, which introduced a new level of urban sophistication to that Ontario city.

The design of Richmond City Hall reveals that the architects have learned important lessons from these antecedents, especially from Mississauga, whose neo-classical urban design challenged the development patterns of the burgeoning suburb, but which by and large remains an island of urbanity in a sea of sprawl. Rather than follow the model of a strong frontal square addressing a street largely devoid of pedestrians, Richmond’s carefully composed massing of tower, council chamber and meeting house addresses the corner of a busy intersection, creating a clearly legible visual presence scaled for vehicular traffic. There is a formal entrance from Number 3 Road artfully compressed between the tower and council chamber, providing an enticing hint of the exposed timbers in the galleria beyond, while a graciously-scaled court to the north addresses the parking area from where most visitors will arrive. This dual approach to the building allows for the creation of an intimate urban condition while acknowledging the inherent suburban quality of the context.

The discrete disposition of major program elements–administrative tower, council chamber, and meeting house–recalls similar strategies used in the earlier City Halls, but the ensemble at Richmond is coherently tied together by a restrained material palette that consists mostly of West Coast standbys: glass, concrete and wood. Formally, each of the elements adopts a language expressive of its function. The tower, which houses the City’s departmental offices, is rendered in a businesslike homage to 1950s Canadian institutional Modernism, its inherent stoicism animated by alternating horizontal bands of clear and spandrel glass, with glazed stair towers creating strong contrapuntal vertical elements. The crisp orthogonal expression of the tower’s south and east faades is offset by the stepped massing and canted wall at the west and north, articulated just enough to suggest a more playful, crystalline quality.

The council chamber’s circular plan establishes it as a unique element in the ensemble, employing a form traditionally associated with collective activity and non-hierarchic democracy. Its civic status is enhanced by glazed walls that allow for visual access from outside, a rarity given that council chambers are often hermetic spaces contained deep inside City Halls. Rich interior wood finishes provide warmth and intimacy, and the sawtooth pattern of the surrounding glass helps reduce the intrusion of noise from outside–especially that of jets taking off from and landing at the nearby airport–while also creating visual interest. Although the chamber is additionally buffered from the busy intersection by a reflecting pool, a concrete platform allows visitors to perambulate around the circular colonnade and look in to council proceedings or out to contemplate the water gardens which can also be enjoyed from the council chamber roof, accessible from the Mayor’s and council offices.

The third building element, the meeting house, extends west from the tower and council chamber cluster, along a generously scaled galleria with exposed glulam structure that faces the north court and acts as the main organizing element linking the various program components. The galleria runs the entire length of the building, from the east entrance off Number 3 Road to a less formal terminus at the west, ending somewhat anticlimactically for such a grand axial gesture. Its patterned floor finish helps to reinforce the larger structural order of the space, underscoring the satisfying material progression from concrete to steel to wood. The meeting house accommodates a variety of spaces for public gatherings, events and receptions, which can spill out to a south-facing terrace overlooking the water gardens. It’s here that the skilful integration of architecture and landscape emerges, revealing that the successful collaboration between the two architectural firms extended to include the landscape architects, Vancouver-based Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg.

The water gardens and extensive berming refer to the sloughs and dikes characteristic of Richmond, endowing the project with highly specific local significance. Less explicitly, these features also recall, on a smaller scale, Arthur Erickson’s and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s paradigmatic fusion of architecture and landscape at Robson Square, suggesting another aspect of the City Hall’s West Coast lineage. This is especially true at the west side of the site, where terrace-topped landscaped hillocks containing the building’s service spaces provide a topographic counterpoint to the unrelentingly flat surrounding terrain.

The terraced water garden is elevated a half level above Granville Avenue, enhancing the visual connection between the meeting house and Brighouse Park to the south. The plinth is the fortuitous result of having to raise the below-grade parking that it conceals above the water table–which in winter can be as high as one foot below grade–using a potentially problematic site condition to architectural advantage.

Landscaping strategies also included retaining existing heritage trees, utilizing high-quality soils, and introducing indigenous, low-maintenance trees as part of a larger strategy of sustainable design. In fact, Richmond City Hall adopts a variety of strategies to address issues of green building. The discrete disposition of program elements, for instance, facilitates flexibility in operating hours, which allows for more effective and energy-efficient heating, cooling and ventilation.

Glazing constitutes approximately 65% of the gross wall area, so window design was an important consideration. Low-E glazing and ceramic frit glass on west-facing walls help reduce the cooling load and eliminate glare. The administration tower features a shallow floor plate with open offices and increased floor-to-ceiling heights. These strategies, along with borrowed daylight from the glazed stair towers, help maximize daylight penetration into work areas, while operable blinds at all perimeter walls and solar shading devices on south-facing walls eliminate glare on computer screens. The use of daylight is optimized by means of continuous dimming daylight-sensing controls that adjust the artificial lighting level in response to the a
mount of available natural light. Meeting and exercise rooms feature occupancy sensors that automatically turn lights off whenever the rooms are unoccupied, and photo-sensors are used in both the interior and exterior of the galleria to automatically turn lights on or off as needed.

Operable windows are provided throughout, emphasizing access to natural ventilation. Fan coil units allow localized temperature control, provide constant air movement in the space, and shut down automatically when the windows are open. Mechanical ventilation is provided by two central make-up air units (MAUs), one serving the tower and one serving the meeting house and council chamber. The latter has a variable speed drive for demand ventilation when meeting rooms are occupied. Otherwise, the MAU operates at the minimum setting when the fans are running. The MAUs deliver twice as much outside air as specified by the Model National Energy Code for Buildings (MNECB).

Richmond City Hall participated in Natural Resources Canada’s Commercial Building Incentive Program (CBIP; see CA, August 1998), which required detailed modelling of the building with energy simulation software during the design stage to estimate building energy performance. When compared to the energy performance of a physically similar “reference case” building designed to just meet the requirements of the MNECB, figures for Richmond City Hall indicated that it would yield more than 26% in energy savings relative to the test case.

Most of the energy savings are attributed to a reduction in fans and pumps; the next highest savings are exhibited in lighting, stemming from reduced lighting loads, daylighting and occupancy controls. In addition, reduced heat gains from lighting and fans indicated space cooling savings of more than 53% per year.

Occupied now for less than a year, it remains to be seen if the building’s performance will live up to these optimistic projections, and much depends on the proper execution of the design and commissioning of the equipment. Given the City of Richmond’s demonstrated leadership in demanding a building with this level of energy performance, there is every reason to expect that their occupancy and maintenance of the City Hall will seek to maximize the benefits of its forward-looking design.

In this respect, Richmond City Hall is an important demonstration project in the cause for a more sustainable architecture. In its embrace of the role of quality architecture and urban design as defining elements of civic life, and with its commitment to environmental awareness enshrined in this building, the City of Richmond has set an important example for future development in its growing community.

Client: City of Richmond

Architect team: Joost Bakker (principal-in-charge), Joyce Drohan (project architect), Rick Clark, Kate Gerson, Andreas Kaminsky, Scott Edwards, Deryk Whitehead (Hotson Bakker); Bruce Kuwabara (principal-in-charge), Judy Taylor (associate-in-charge), Andre D’Elia, John Wall, Glenn MacMillan, Bill Colaco, Neil Bauman

Structural: Bush Bohlman & Partners

Mechanical: Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Electrical: R.A. Duff & Associates Inc.

Landscape: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg Inc.

Interiors: Hotson Bakker/Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Associated Architects with Seeton Shinkewski Design Group

Sustainability: Gordon Shymko & Associates Inc.; Dr. Ray Cole

Geotechnical: Cook Pickering & Doyle Ltd.

Code consultants: Locke MacKinnon Domingo Gibson & Associates

AV/Acoustical: BKL Consultants Ltd.

Construction Management: Dominion Construction

Feng Shui: Sherman Tai

Area: 120,000 ft2, 90,000 ft2 parkade

Budget: $30 million

Completion: July 2000

Photography: As noted