January 1, 2016
by Brandon Webber
Balconies, terraces, an accessible roof and generous glazing connect the Mosaic Centre’s users to the outdoors. (Photo: Josh Kjenner)
PROJECT Mosaic Centre for Conscious Community and Commerce, Edmonton, Alberta
ARCHITECTS Manasc Isaac Architects
TEXT Brandon Webber
PHOTOS Josh Kjenner unless otherwise noted
When it comes to sustainability, Edmonton—known more as the capital of dirty oil than for green design—is a paradox. The city’s suburbs creep further each year into Alberta’s best agricultural land and the car still dominates urban planning. Yet surprisingly, Edmonton is also home to more net-zero residences than any other city in Canada. The waste management program designed in Edmonton is a model other cities around the world come to study. In the midst of this stands the newly opened, ultra-sustainably designed Mosaic Centre.
The ultra-sustainable centre is located in suburban Edmonton. (Photo: Garth Crump)
A paradox in and of itself, Mosaic stands in the far south of Edmonton, just east of a section of the Queen Elizabeth Highway used by 90,000 cars daily. Its neighbours include low-density, low-rise commercial buildings, oversized single-family suburban homes, and vacant lots waiting to be paved into parking. That being said, Mosaic aims to be the first Living Building Challenge certified project in Alberta. As an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) build—one of the first in Edmonton—it was both 5% under budget and 30% ahead of schedule. It is also one of the world’s first net-zero energy commercial buildings in a cold climate.
Exposed glulam columns and beams lend a down-to-earth character to the workspaces. (Photo: Ross Auser)
To achieve this, Mosaic employs some exceptional design features. The 30,000-square-foot building is constructed with a glulam structure. In fact, glulam is used throughout—even scraps and cut-offs were upcycled into furniture, desks and art. A 250-square-foot, three-storey-high green wall helps purify the air and moderate humidity. A majority of the south and east façades, as well as a rooftop pergola, are clad in photovoltaic solar panels that produce 213kW of power—60 times the capacity of a typical residential system. Four electric car charging stations and a 40-bicycle garage encourage alternative means of transportation. Moreover, the design concept goes well beyond practical environmental considerations. It presents a model that rethinks the ways we live and work.
I recently met with project architect Vedran Skopac of Manasc Isaac—an Alberta firm known for its environmentally progressive approach. Over a few drinks, we talked about the concept and construction of Mosaic as well as the design philosophy that guided it. Our discussion kept circling back to three principles—the “three Ds of design,” as Skopac calls them.
The first of these principles is distinction. Context—the unique place, people and purpose behind a building—should define form. Every place is different and no two people are the same. Can a building be as distinctive as its place and the people that inhabit it?
A restaurant, daycare and wellness centre are accessible from the ground floor. (Photo: Josh Kjenner)
Part of Mosaic’s unique context was the desire of the clients—building owners Oil Country Engineering and EcoAmmo Environmental Consulting—to obtain Living Building certification. The rigorous certification requirements include demonstrating net-positive water and power output, net-positive waste diversion, as well as less quantifiable goals such as equitable community living and investment.
Most Living Buildings exist in moderate climates. To mitigate Edmonton’s cold conditions, sunshades on the south-facing glazing were specifically designed to stay icicle-free in the winter, and a triple-glazed fiberglass curtainwall system reduces thermal bridging through the skin. The project also deploys a geothermal heating system—including 31 boreholes drilled down to a 70 metre depth—paired with concrete floors to store thermal energy.
The site plan was also a major contextual consideration. The building is positioned slightly askew to the street grid to maximize solar gain, with the upper portion of the volume cantilevered to minimize the building footprint. This provides a large amount of south-facing land for gardening, composting and a daycare playground. Berms and bio-swales planted with edible vegetation create more intimate spaces, while draining rainwater into a 7,000-gallon underground retention tank for irrigating plants in the garden and on the roof.
A series of bridges and stairs spans through the split-level building, which is three storeys tall on one side and two storeys on the other. (Photo: Josh Kjenner)
Skopac believes a Living Building like Mosaic needs to do more than just be environmentally sustainable. Buildings also need to be “emotionally sustainable,” he says. His second design principle, dynamism, acknowledges that people’s desires, motivations, goals and relationships are always changing. We create clutter, we let things pile up, we leave tools out after tasks. We work in ways that may not be logical at face value. Given our own volatility, how can a workplace like Mosaic increase its users’ quality of life, appreciation of beauty, enjoyment of other people and satisfaction in work? The design team responded to these questions by creating dynamic spaces that invite imagination in use instead of declaring a single purpose. For instance, the feature stair’s broad glulam-and-steel steps are not just used for circulation—they are designed to be collision and connection spaces. These small interactions are intended, rather than inadvertant, producing a heightened sense of community. The stairs also play host to intimate lectures and pop-up markets. The use of the space is not limited or prescribed.
Flanked by a living wall, the atrium includes oversized steps that can be used for informal gatherings. (Photo: Josh Kjenner)
In other parts of the design, the principle of diversity is at play, with value provided in the specific rather than the general. Layouts that are too open, Skopac observes, can actually end up curbing creativity. Mosaic’s ceiling heights and room sizes vary considerably to accommodate specific needs, with vaulted ceilings in the restaurant and more cozy, intimate meeting spaces and workrooms.
With its diverse programs, Mosaic sometimes seems more like a community centre than a commercial property. A full-service restaurant locally sources produce (including from onsite gardens), has a no-throw-away food policy, and harvests honey from a four-hive rooftop apiary. A wellness studio on the main floor provides workout opportunities. Atop Mosaic, a terrace and greenhouse are in development. A second floor communal kitchen provides additional space for informally connecting. A major tenant is the co-working space Interchange, which provides flexible desk room for small, socially minded companies. Mosaic implements mixed-use ideals at the building scale. You might arrive as a consultant and leave as a gardener; both types of work feel natural and complementary.
To achieve this type of diversity, the architect included members from the client and construction teams during concept development. It was an ideal approach for a building that used the IPD construction process, in which all the suppliers, trades, consultants and owners were at the table from the beginning. Each brought their own expertise and local knowledge to bear in the project, often finding creative opportunities or reductions in cost.
Large arrays of photovoltaic panels on the façade and roof contribute to the building’s net-zero energy goals. (Photo: Ross Auser)
Mosaic represents a community of diversity and it stands as a model for how people can work together to achieve a high-aiming vision. In some ways, that brings us back to Mosaic’s paradox: that it stands in the midst of a suburb in a city bent to feed off the profits of oil extraction. Perhaps it is intentional that Mosaic exists in direct contrast to its surroundings. To be an environmentally sustainable project is not enough though, even if the numbers work—Skopac argues that these places need to be beautiful and that “beauty is a survival skill.” He believes people won’t necessarily protect something because it is sustainable—they will protect it because they find it beautiful. As a community, Mosaic strives to present environmental design as not only necessary, but necessarily beautiful.
Brandon Webber is a writer and head of a small creative agency in Edmonton, Alberta. He is passionate about architecture and urban design that promote walkable and resilient communities.
CLIENT Mosaic Family of Companies (Christy Benoit & Dennis Cuku) | ARCHITECT TEAM Vedran Skopac, Shafraaz Kaba, Alecsandru Vasiliu, Eleanor Moloney, Sonny Shem, Rob Mark, Claudia Yehia-Alaeddin, Zohadya Syed, Josh Kjenner | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL Clark Engineering | ELECTRICAL Manasc Isaac | LEED AND LBC EcoAMMO Sustainable Consulting | LANDSCAPE PICEA | CIVIL DGE Group | GEO-EXCHANGE rEvolve Engineering | PV SYSTEM Great Canadian Solar | ENERGY MODELING ReNü Building Science, Habitat Studio | CODE GHL, Manasc Isaac | COMMISSIONING Integrated Designs | INTERIORS Manasc Isaac Architects, Blue Graphite, MIDORI | ART Clay Lowe & AJ Louden, Oliver Apt, Adam Larson, Tim Antoniuk, Vedran Skopac | CONTRACTOR Chandos | AREA 30,000 ft2 | BUDGET $10.5 M | COMPLETION February 2015