Canadian Architect


Good Neighbour

An office building for a teachers' union complements its eclectic urban setting and innovates with new environmental sustainability strategies.

July 1, 2014
by David Steiner

The ETFO headquarters occupies a corner site in Toronto's St. James Town, near bustling Bloor Street and adjacent to a mix of Victorian homes, eight-storey apartment buildings and residential towers. KPMB Architects broke down the mass both horizontally and vertically, while integrating high-quality faade and landscaping materials to make a positive impact on the neighbourhood. Jesse Colin Jackson

The ETFO headquarters occupies a corner site in Toronto’s St. James Town, near bustling Bloor Street and adjacent to a mix of Victorian homes, eight-storey apartment buildings and residential towers. KPMB Architects broke down the mass both horizontally and vertically, while integrating high-quality faade and landscaping materials to make a positive impact on the neighbourhood. Jesse Colin Jackson

PROJECT Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario
TEXT David Steiner
PHOTOS Tom Arban, Jesse Colin Jackson and Maris Mezulis

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is a union that represents 76,000 elementary school teachers. In 2007, they decided to create a new headquarters to consolidate existing leases and provide sufficient room to host events. They wanted a building that expressed their organization’s values of social responsibility, environmental leadership, and a long-term commitment to Ontario students and families.

Toronto has numerous examples of headquarters attempting to express the values of a corporation through architecture, some more successfully than others. Banks do it best: their gilded towers make clear the focus is growing wealth. The city’s three major newspapers are perhaps the weakest: their buildings are unremarkable, saying little about the importance of what occurs inside. Many unions are headquartered in Toronto, and of the few that have their own buildings, ETFO is designed with the simplest and clearest of intentions. It is a good neighbour in an eclectic neighbourhood and sets a LEED Platinum standard for energy efficiency in commercial buildings.

The generously sized atrium is an integral part of the building's low-energy air circulation system. Tom Arban

The generously sized atrium is an integral part of the building’s low-energy air circulation system. Tom Arban

ETFO’s design is a lesson in first principles: plentiful south light, access to the outdoors on all levels, a skylit atrium entry, operable windows in office spaces, natural materials throughout the interior, and landscaping integrated with the overall plan. That said, a design that appears obvious once built often belies a complicated process.

The neighbourhood, led by municipal councillor Kyle Rae, was initially against replacing an abandoned two-storey brick building on the corner site with a commercial building. They feared a banal glass box filled with leased space, accompanied by increased car traffic. Instead, they wanted townhomes or a small condominium, but could not find a developer interested in working to the site parameters. KPMB Architects convinced Rae and his constituents by proposing a commercial building unlike the norm–a headquarters that would have no shadow impact on the adjacent housing and would complement the scale of the neighbourhood.

But what’s the scale of a neighbourhood that is anything but homogeneous? In the immediate vicinity, eight-storey 1970s apartments sit alongside Victorian-era single-family homes. One street to the west is the head office of Rogers Communications, a behemoth clad in seafoam-green metal and grey granite. It’s possibly the weirdest structure in downtown Toronto: a Postmodern mash-up of space-age columns and faux residential façades, capped by a turret.

A view of ETFO's front faade. Tom Arban

A view of ETFO’s front faade. Tom Arban

To address the local diversity of forms, KPMB broke the 11,000-square-metre building into smaller residential-sized blocks, aiming for what project architect Kael Opie describes as “texture and articulation.” The design team created texture by braiding a unitized curtain wall (custom-manufactured in Quebec) with terracotta-coloured fibre cement panels, vertical aluminum fins, and automated exterior Venetian blinds for shading. The north face is steeply raked, preventing shadows from being cast on the adjacent buildings. One of the most thoughtful gestures in the project is a recessed piece of the west façade that gives space around a 100-year-old black walnut tree. The designers created a courtyard under the tree’s canopy, and allow three floors of offices to peer directly into its branches.

A translucent canopy and Vermont-quarried dolomite slab pavers welcome employees and visitors to the building. Maris Mezulis

A translucent canopy and Vermont-quarried dolomite slab pavers welcome employees and visitors to the building. Maris Mezulis

From a pedestrian’s vantage point, the building is characterized primarily by the landscaping at grade and the soffit of the southern overhang, dressed in ipe wood. Mature European beech trees, planted in long rows, mark off the edge of exterior open spaces. Eschewing sod (which has no business being around any building), landscape architects NAK Design Group surrounded the building with ivy, Saskatoon berry shrubs, burning bush plants and hydrangea flowers. The plantings will soon fill in and become a dense mat of foliage, presenting a leafy screen between the building and the street. What the neighbours see from their balconies are either green roofs or white-ballasted roofs, the former capturing water for irrigation and the latter for toilets. All mechanical equipment is housed inside the building enclosure, leaving the rooftops free of visual clutter. The result is a sky-facing façade as handsome as the ones facing the streets.

Enter the building and you are greeted by the well-known KPMB signature style: superior detailing, open spaces that breeze easily into one another, and a generally calm palette of fine natural materials. The atrium stair, with its frosty white glass guardrails, is a spectacular piece of sculpture. Even the stainless steel glass fasteners have been painted white (a laborious process) to reduce visual interruptions. Ascending through the atrium–with offices on two sides, a view of the city to the south and a wall of ash wood slats to the north–is exhilarating. Look down and you see a field of Vermont dolomite stone tiles. Look up and you see the sky. Why take an elevator when this is the alternative? Or touch a button and the glass wall panels of a ground-floor meeting room march along a track and disappear through a closet door, thanks to a system by German manufacturer Dorma. The division between meeting room and lobby evaporates, making one enormous gathering space.

Energy Model--Winter

Energy Model–Winter

Energy Model--Summer

Energy Model–Summer

Behind all the surfaces–hidden above the ceiling, under the floor and beneath the building–is the “green” engineering, which incorporates highly unconventional systems for a commercial office. Architects who work on commercial projects are familiar with developers’ reluctance to invest heavily in energy efficiency. But union offices are a unique architectural species where the client is occupying the building, and their longevity is fairly certain. As such, the client can justify higher capital costs since reduced energy and a more comfortable environment will, in the course of the building’s life, pay for themselves many times over.

A boardroom with downtown views overlooks the central atrium. Maris Mezulis

A boardroom with downtown views overlooks the central atrium. Maris Mezulis

Energy consumption in a conventional building is driven primarily by the heating, cooling and distribution of air. ETFO uses radiant panels as the primary means of providing thermal comfort. This is far more efficient than forced air, as it requires less energy to temper water and pump it around a building than to temper and blow air throughout the same area. Perforated aluminum ceiling panels conceal capillary-like polypropenol plastic mats that circulate hot or cold water. In a virtuoso display of integrated design, KPMB worked with manufacturer Nelson Industrial to create the pattern and detailing of the ceiling panels. A majority of ceilings incorporate acoustics, heating and cooling, the return air plenum, all emergency devices, lighting and speakers. Fresh air is provided by displacement ventilation through a raised floor. It uses less energy than a forced-air system and reduces occupants’ perception of stale air quality.

In Winnipeg, KPMB incorporated similar high-efficiency mechanical engineering in Manitoba Hydro Place (see CA, January 2010). Kael Opie refers to both buildings as “climate-responsive designs,” where the building design is calibrated to the specifics of the local climate. For example, Manitoba Hydro’s radiant heating pipes were cast into the underside of the exposed concrete structure, using the concrete’s high thermal mass to store energy for heating and cooling. By contrast, ETFO’s aluminum ceiling panels have a low thermal mass, more suited to Toronto’s long, humid summers. Operable windows can create spikes in indoor relative humidity, so in order to avoid condensation, the ceiling panels are designed to quickly change temperature.

Eighty-five geothermal wells, drilled to 150 metres below the underground parking, deposit the radiant system’s energy into the ground, achieving a 71% reduction in heating and cooling compared to conventional mechanical systems. Geothermal wells generally require very large drill rigs, constraining their location to outdoor fields, beneath exterior parking, or underneath new buildings before construction begins. To accommodate the urban location as well as a tight schedule, the engineers needed an innovative solution. The team found a compact electric drill rig system in the Alberta oil and gas industry that could bore holes in the below-grade parking level after the building structure was erected. It is a Canadian ”first”–providing a precedent that can be used on fast-tracked projects and to retrofit older buildings with geothermal energy.

ETFO is one of those rare buildings that succeeds on multiple levels: the engineering systems, occupied spaces, finishes, landscape and urban gestures elide without effort. The technical bits, like operable windows that automatically lock when the humidity reaches a preset threshold, are as important to the overall architectural idea as the grand atrium. The architects calculate that the investments in energy efficiency will pay off in a dozen years or so. Measured by the benefit the building currently delivers to its occupants and to the neighbourhood, ETFO has already broken even.

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He writes about architecture and design for a number of national publications.


Client Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario | Architect Team Bruce Kuwabara, Shirley Blumberg, Kael Opie, Geoffrey Turnbull, Bruno Weber, David Constable, Zachary Hinchliffe, Christopher Pfiffner, Joseph Kan, Bryn Marler, Joy Charbonneau, Lynn Pilon, Carolyn Lee, Danielle Sucher, Bridget Freeman-Marsh, Lang Cheung | Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd. | Mechanical Cobalt Engineering | Electrical Smith & Andersen | Landscape NAK Design Group | Interiors KPMB Architects | Project Managers Turner & Townsend CM2R | Contractor Bird Construction | Sustainability CDML | Audio-Visual Engineering Harmonics | Code Leber | Rubes | Commissioning CFMS | Land Use N. Barry Lyon Consultants Ltd. | Planning Sorensen Gravely Lowes Planning Associates | Legal Davies Howe Partners | Cost Turner & Townsend CM2R | Transportation Lea Consulting Ltd. | Food Services Kaizen Foodservice Planning & Design | Waste Management Cini Little | Elevator Soberman Engineering | Lighting Suzanne Powadiuk | Acoustic Aercoustics Engineering Ltd. | Wind RWDI | Area 11,250 m2  | Budget Withheld | Completion Spring 2013

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