Canadian Architect

Feature

Plugged-in SITE

A new building at the University of Ottawa represents a sophisticated integration of program, structure and systems.

July 1, 2003
by Rhys Phillips

School of Information Technology and Engineering, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario
IKOY Architects Ltd.

It has been 15 years since IKOY Architects’ sleek William Davis Computer Research Centre on the campus of the University of Waterloo contributed a powerful argument for the emerging high tech/information workplace in Canada (see CA October 1988). With the recently completed School of Information Technology and Engineering Building (SITE) anchoring the southern tip of the University of Ottawa campus, Ron Keenberg has reiterated a convincing and refined statement of design.

Many of the ideas explored at Waterloo, such as energy efficiency through use of thermal mass, interior flexibility, expansive light filled workspaces, expressive structure, and sleek skins–staples of IKOY’s work–are present. But while it too is a campus building, SITE is also an urban artefact and an engaging Modernist icon that strengthens a prime gateway to Ottawa’s ceremonial core.

The project is on a very tight triangular site on the campus’ most southern tip. Its southwest edge is harshly defined by the heavily trafficked Nicholas Street/Bus Transitway corridor, while its lower northeast side is bounded by King Edward Avenue. Keenberg identified three issues to be addressed on the site. First, it had to exploit the picturesque views across the Transitway to both the Rideau Canal and the Peace Tower. Second, it had to be a good neighbour to the historic Sandy Hill community across King Edward. Finally, it had to serve as a gateway to the Nation’s Capital.

Toward the traffic corridor, the building opens up with a five-level curving glass galleria. Above, perched on nine 50-foot tapered exterior columns, rests a canted, two-storey glass “tiara” containing professors’ offices. Approaching along Nicholas, the curve of the wall and its crown act to draw the eye to the distant Peace Tower. Its transparency both affords remarkable views for users and to commuters a reciprocal glimpse into campus life.

Unlike at Waterloo, the SITE building also strikes a classical pose. Although the new building revels in a Modernist’s love of exposed structure, Keenberg sees no conflict with the classical form of the university’s Tabaret Hall. SITE’s southeastern faade, therefore, reflects a respectful if more fluid nod to the big colonnaded entries with impressive pediments characterizing the staid, Beaux-Arts harmony of the very classical Tabaret.

At the shoulders of the arc, glazed elevator shafts animate the building and afford dramatic views of the city. The galleria or “agora” houses over 300 wired study locations permitting access to the university’s data systems. This access creates a grand, informal reading room in the tradition of the best libraries. A circulation balcony fronts offices at each of the five open levels, with a continuous, wired study “counter” overlooking the galleria with views to the exterior.

On the King Edward Avenue faade, which angles back from the street, a muscular wall of punched, pre-cast concrete panels sets up a powerful datum. This bearing wall, with its formal window treatment, responds to Tabaret’s walls and windows. An extruded, grand rotunda acts to scale down the wall’s imposing presence.

The rotunda’s exterior circle of gracefully slim, pyramidal concrete columns is capped by wide flange beams painted the colour of red oxide primer. These converge inwardly to a heavily articulated giant concrete column at the rotunda’s centre.

The rotunda acts as the lynchpin in a complex game of circulation. Its ground level is 21 feet below the galleria floor. The circular steel stair ascends to a study mezzanine linked by the food services court to the galleria. An exterior bridge from this upper area crosses to a roof path across the Colonel By engineering building which links to the university’s path system.

The building has two major entrances at two different levels providing access to the rotunda from different directions. “At Tabaret Hall,” Keenberg notes, “you confront a ceremonial stair, then you go up a double winding, formal stair. Here at the other end of the campus, you either go up or down on this curved, wide-flanged staircase and it is different but also the same in its elegant, classical sweep.”

At its lower level, the rotunda connects to a circulation space serving seven lecture halls. It also provides access to SITE’s buried treasure. Carved deep into the slope is a 334-screen computer library with a generous 20-foot ceiling. Its eastern edge is defined by a glass wall with rich, yellow-coloured framing that undulates to create a parabolic sculpture.

If SITE’s two major faces have classical antecedents, the end faades owe more to the Gothic concern with structure and verticality. The concrete bearing walls pass outside the building to become open blades interspersed with glass yellow X-braces, stainless steel ducts, blades of bearing wall, glazed elevator shafts exposing blue elevators and bowed corrugated steel stairway bays to produce a strong kinetic effect.

Ron Keenberg has been as critical of post-war Modernism as he is a scathing opponent of Ottawa’s preference for weak historical pastiche. “The problem with most standard Modern buildings is their effective suppression of the wonderful adaptability of man. While our needs constantly change our buildings mostly cannot. We have made obsolescence the villain of Modern architecture.”

SITE strives to meet Keenberg’s long held view that a building must be capable of being “plugged in, plugged out, and then plugged back in.” This means designing buildings in which the intrinsic structure may be permanent but the four additional “constructive components,”–mechanical, electrical, skin, and what he calls fitments–are easily adaptable. For Keenberg, “permanence is directly proportional to the ability to change with ease and a minimum of cost and disruption. Variability leads to permanence.”

Such adaptability, and hence permanence, is also responsible building because it impacts positively on long-term consumption levels and waste. At the same time, while he dislikes the term “green architecture,” responsible design also means ensuring exceptional energy performance levels as a matter of course.

Systems

Most large-scale buildings today, Keenberg argues, have their mechanical rooms out of easy reach. At SITE, prefabricated portable mechanical modules sit on the ground at the south end. In future, obsolete mechanical systems will simply be unbolted and new ones installed. Keenberg estimates the efficiencies of the new system will then pay for themselves in less than five years. At the same time, these units and their weave of stainless steel ducting are transformed into robust architectural sculptures.

Much of the interior ductwork is an integral part of the structure itself. Notably, SITE’s upper floors are hollow core concrete planks, their nine-inch cylindrical cores providing much of the distribution for heating and cooling. In the gallery floor, air is replaced by water. “The concrete,” Keenberg explains, “acts as active mass thermal storage for the heat pumps and exchangers. We warm the concrete mechanically by pumping heat throughout the building’s plank floors, then, after the warm air is shut down, the planks radiate heat through the night. In summer the process is simply reversed. Sophisticated computer simulations have demonstrated that the heating cost per square foot will be 14.5 kilowatts, almost half the level for the average office building.

With respect to electrical and communications systems, SITE is a data wired building, but with no expensive raised floors or cheap dropped ceilings. Exposed, easily accessed cable trays painted bright green carry the wiring and cabling. This approach also opens up lighting options. The vertical workspace, or computer screen, is now the most important. To minimize hot lighting and glare on screens, IKOY collaborated with Phil Gabriel of Gabriel Designs to create light fixtures that reflect soft light off the white-painted concrete ceilings. No dropped ceiling
s also means that voluminous, 11-foot heights are standard. The benefit is good lighting with less eyestrain and a better space in which to work.

Assembly, not Construction

Easy adaptability also requires replacing standard notions of construction with the process of “assembly.” “If you can assemble,” Keenberg notes, “you can disassemble and re-assemble.” At SITE, the design team sought as much as possible to make use of climate-controlled plants to manufacture pieces small enough to transport for on-site assembly in all weather conditions.

Similarly, fitments, like non-bearing partitions, give way to panels that are easily adjustable, that can be unbolted, reconfigured, and bolted back together. Surfaces are as maintenance-free as possible, which means using the inherent colours and textures of a rich palette of materials instead of paint. Only 5% of SITE’s surfaces are painted.

The Skin

Most exterior walls used today, Keenberg continues, are poor moisture barriers. Permanence, he argues, has nothing to do with something being thick and solid. “People think that brick is permanent while metal siding 1/30th of an inch thick is impermanent. I argue the opposite; brick is impermanent because it is a rather ineffective water screen veneer.” By contrast, a thin metal membrane has far fewer joints.

SITE, however, utilizes only limited exterior metal skins, relying instead primarily on bold, transparent glass curtain wall. According to Keenberg, the building is 85% glass–light admitting glass and not “those phoney panels backed by insulation.” The beauty of fine triple glazing systems is that when combined with the latest technology and sealants they perform admirably. Besides, Keenberg adds, returning to the theme of adaptability, “if the seal breaks, condensation signals the problem; the offending panel is popped out, and a new one is plugged in.”

SITE is a refreshing tonic for Ottawa’s largely grey city core. In addition, its mix of boldly articulated elements with a high level of transparency appears to be a hit with both the thousands of commuters who pass by it each day on the Transitway and with its Sandy Hill neighbours. SITE would seem to indicate that there is indeed a broad appreciation for confident, animated modernism.

Rhys Phillips’ contribution to architectural criticism was recently recognized with an Honourary Fellowship from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s College of Fellows.

Client: University of Ottawa
Architect team: Ron Keenberg, Hein Hulsbosch, Don Blakey, Bert Rupert
Structural: Sauv Boucher Associs Inc.
Mechanical/Electrical: Stantec and the ECE Group Ltd.
Landscape: Corush Sunderland Wright
Interiors: Ron Keenberg, IKOY Architects Ltd.
Area: 17,100 m2
Budget: $46 million
Completion: June 2002
Photography: Steven Evans