Code Green

Computer Science Building, York University, Toronto, Ontario

Architects Alliance (formerly van Nostrand DiCastri Architects) in joint venture with Busby + Associates Architects

Like many suburban university campuses built across Canada in the 1960s and early ’70s, York University suffers more from a lack of density, with few well-defined outdoor public spaces, than from any lack of facilities. In fact, for a relatively young institution, York boasts a remarkable number of first-rate facilities. Academically the university prides itself on a tradition of progressive humanist social thinking, and is home to respected humanities and fine arts faculties as well as noted professional schools such as the Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School. Aside from academic programs, there are well-known facilities including the Tennis Centre, home of the annual Canadian Open tennis tournament, the Track and Field Centre–a training facility favoured by elite athletes–along with the Beatrice Ice Gardens, an arena, and athletics stadium. The campus also provides the usual range of housing for graduate and undergraduate students and a housing co-op originally sponsored by the faculty union, now occupied by both staff and faculty.

As with many suburban campuses built during the late ’60s baby boom expansion in post-secondary education, York is defined by a perimeter ring road with academic buildings predominantly within the ring and residences, sports and recreation facilities dominating the exterior. Within the ring road, there are two key areas of the campus: a pedestrian concourse known as the Campus Walk and the Harry W. Arthurs Central Common. These stand out as having the potential to support the public cultural life of a university in ways similar to older campuses, like Harvard and Columbia, McGill and the University of Toronto. While the Common, on axis with the main campus entrance, is intended as the central space for the campus, the nearby Campus Walk operates at the scale of a pedestrian street. The latter has the potential of providing a coherent and relatively well-defined public space with enough density to give it a sense of convivial urbanity, around which the academic life of the campus revolves.

Over more than a decade, initially at the instigation of past president Harry Arthurs, York has undertaken an ambitious and forward-looking building program. The university has engaged prominent architects to improve on the existing campus building stock, and to intensify and bring further coherence to the public open spaces of the campus, in contrast to the desultory ambience of the surrounding suburban context. This program has included buildings by Moriyama and Teshima, A.J. Diamond, Donald Schmitt & Company, Barton Myers/Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, and Steven Teeple, and upcoming buildings by Hariri Pontarini with Robbie Young & Wright Architects, and Architects Alliance.

The recently completed entrance pavilion and Honour Court by Steven Teeple Architect is a striking wedge-shaped composition that sets the tone for visitors to the campus. One of the most successful buildings constructed during the decade-long period of expansion is the Student Centre by A.J. Diamond, Donald Schmitt & Company (see CA, May 1992). Situated at the critical juncture between the Common and the Campus Walkway, the building provides a variety of transitional spaces between the core interior areas and the surrounding exterior, adroitly addressing common complaints about the bleak winter environment of the windswept campus.

In anticipation of a sharp rise in enrolment projected over the coming years–brought about both by the “double cohort” resulting from the Harris government’s elimination of grade 13 in Ontario high schools and the “echo” population surge of children of the baby boom generation–the campus building program has accelerated over the past four years. As part of this construction initiative, in 1996 the university set out the program for a new Computer Science Building, to be located on an infill site near the center of the campus facing the tree-lined pedestrian concourse.

Prior to announcing plans for the computer science facility, York University had begun to actively pursue a green agenda both in the day-to-day running of the institution and in its construction and maintenance programs. A state-of-the-art co-generation plant was built, and sustainable guidelines were established for new campus buildings.

In early 1997, after establishing a short list of potential architects, the University selected the joint venture team of Vancouver-based Busby + Associates Architects and van Nostrand DiCastri Architects of Toronto (since merged with Wallman Clewes Bergman to form Architects Alliance). The team was chosen for a combination of architectural and green building design experience.

The Computer Science Building provides a valuable example of the way in which the objectives of sustainable building design can be brought to bear in the context of a competitive construction market. The architects approached the design with the intention of fully integrating the compositional, volumetric and sustainable building strategies as a catalyst for a distinct architectural proposal, while meeting the required construction budget and using 50% less energy than an equivalent standard facility. The comparative evaluation used in the Green Building Challenge assessment, based on an equivalent building of standard construction that meets base building code requirements, shows impressive results in energy use. The York figures show heating at 29%, cooling at 19%, ventilation at 32% and internal lighting at 61% in relation the comparison building (see CA January 2001).

The building consists of an elegant modernist three-part composition, incorporating a rectangular donut around an atrium, a bar of offices and labs, and the large wedge-shaped volume of the building’s main lecture theatre in the southeast area of the plan. These three elements are linked by a three-storey circulation atrium running north-south the entire length of the building. Volumetrically the composition is divided between a recessed, largely glazed single-storey base and a faceted, highly articulated two-storey volume above. Given the campus master plan’s intention to increase density and enhance definition of public open spaces, the architects approached the design as an urban infill building, establishing continuity with surrounding buildings in materials, scale, volume and circulation routes. The material palette of the building exterior combines pre-cast concrete, copper sheathing and large areas of glazing, with an interior of exposed structural concrete, drywall, maple millwork and extensive use of glass partitions separating offices and labs from circulation areas.

The building combines undergraduate lecture halls and computer labs, primarily on the ground and sub-grade levels, with graduate and faculty offices on the upper two floors. A high-end immersive visualisation space is incorporated at the north end of the building on the top floor. The plan is developed along similar lines to a late Team X approach, where the three major elements of the building read internally as discrete volumes. The broad circulation areas between these volumes run both east-west and north-south, operating as streets under a unifying roof, intended as part of the larger pedestrian circulation system of the campus.

Nestled under the tilted plane of the lecture theatre seating is an expansive entry lobby, which will incorporate a caf. Responding to the master plan intention that buildings along the Campus Walkway engage the area, the main entrance faade is almost entirely glazed, benefiting from full southern exposure, with an exterior glass canopy and seating. Fully visible from the concourse, the caf will be a key gathering and meeting area directly across from Curtis Hall, a large complex designed by John Andrews housing numerous undergraduate lecture spaces.

The lobby provides stair access to additional basement level classrooms,
labs, and storage areas. The north-south circulation atrium together with a “tree atrium” within the donut provide an important communal amenity in the building while also operating as the primary air movement devices, creating stack effect ventilation. Warm air within the building rises through the atria to be exhausted through thermal chimneys creating negative pressure in the adjoining spaces, which in turn causes air to be drawn in through windows and from the north side of the building via a large subterranean air plenum. The plenum exploits the 17C ambient ground temperature, providing pre-cooling of air in summer and pre-warming in winter.

One of the key successes of the building is the way in which the designers’ green agenda merges holistically and seamlessly with an elegant planning and compositional strategy, demonstrating a link between good design and responsible practice. The focus on sustainable building techniques gives rise to a number of striking compositional devices. As mentioned above, the volumetric articulation of the three primary elements–the bar, the donut and the tilted lecture hall–provide exciting compositional variety, while at the same time creating the dramatic and clearly functional atria. Similarly, the lively surface articulation of external shading devices along with bold two-storey copper-clad faceted panels of the east and west faades, hovering out over a glazed ground floor level and referencing internal program, are compositionally engaging while providing the interior with controlled glare and solar gain.

Green strategies also include a partial planted roof, cisterns to control storm water and use of extensive natural illumination and ventilation, together with use of the exposed fly ash concrete structure to moderate daily temperature fluctuations. Collectively this results in a tremendous reduction in greenhouse and acid gas emissions and maintenance costs over the life of the building. Projections show a reduction of 85,715 tonnes of GHG emissions over a 75 year life span.

While these broad issues would be a positive incentive to any client group, a key factor in the proposal was budget. Higher capital costs for green buildings have been the most significant disincentive to the broad acceptance of sustainable building principles. Despite the comprehensive green strategy of the building proposal, the design team was able to meet the $168 per square foot budget established by the client for the 102,000 square foot building. In this sense the building will be a significant step toward the ongoing integration of sustainable building practice with mainstream construction and design, and should become a benchmark in architectural and engineering practice–as it has for the university administration–for future buildings on the York campus.

John McMinn is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo.

Client: York University

Architect team: P. Busby, V. Gillies, M. McColl (associate-in-charge), A. Waugh, S. Ockwell, J. South (Busby + Associates); A. DiCastri, B. Zee, W. Bettio, M. Lukasik (van Nostrand DiCastri)

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Mechanical: Keen Engineering Co. Ltd.

Electrical: Carinci Burt Rogers

Landscape: Robert Packham Design Inc.

Contractor: Ellis-Don Construction Ltd.

Environmental sustainability: Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell

Wind studies: RWDI

Costing: Hanscomb Consultants

Area: 102,250 ft2

Budget: $17.8 million

Completion: Fall 2001