Canadian Architect

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Productive Infrastructure

Calgary shows its sustainable side with this deeply thoughtful and environmentally beneficial project.

October 1, 2011
by Canadian Architect

PROJECT Ralph Klein Legacy Park Environmental Education Centre and Shepard Wetlands, Calgary, Alberta
ARCHITECT Simpson Roberts Architecture Interior Design
LANDSCAPE Carson . McCulloch Associates
TEXT Graham Livesey

In our contemporary zeal to develop a massive amount of land, we tend to site plan rather than build sites from our land forms.
–William Rees Morrish, Civilizing Terrains: Mountains, Mounds and Mesas

Canada, as a large and relatively unpopulated country, relies enormously on constructed infrastructure including transportation, power supply, water treatment, waste management, and communications systems. The engineering of these systems, along with associated processes of heavy resource extraction, is a quintessentially Canadian enterprise. Furthermore, infrastructure has been vital to the maintenance of cities and agricultural landscapes since the dawn of urbanization. Urban infrastructure has tended to be, until recently, enormously expensive and largely mono-functional, typically involving extensive channels and networks that flow materials from source to dump. As we move forward to develop more sustainable forms of urban infrastructure, we will be faced with complex design challenges and the need to innovate. Given the environmental impacts of contemporary cities, it is essential for us to create infrastructure that is better designed, more integrated, and multi-functional.

Many cities today are pioneering in areas of urban infrastructure. For example, Edmonton is a world leader in solid waste management, recycling, and composting. According to the Edmonton Waste Management Centre’s website, it employs “North America’s largest collection of modern, sustainable waste-processing and research facilities.” Somewhat paradoxically, Calgary, a city infamous for its sprawl, is also a leader in a number of crucial areas, particularly parks development and wastewater management. As evidence of this, Calgary placed first in the world in the 2010 Mercer Quality of Living “Eco-City” Rankings, a section of the survey that measures water availability and potability, waste removal, sewage, air pollution, and traffic congestion. There are some advantages to low density and expanding cities like Calgary. The recently completed Ralph Klein Legacy Park (which includes the Environmental Education Centre) and the Shepard Wetlands project capture these conditions.

The clients for the project were two City of Calgary departments: Water Resources and Parks. The City of Calgary has developed world-leading facilities and processes for treating sewage, and has more recently begun to aggressively address the treatment of stormwater runoff. According to Wolf Keller, Director of Water Resources, approximately 30 percent of Calgary’s runoff is being treated before being put into the Bow River, what he terms a “small” and vital watershed system. The project began as the development of the Shepard Wetlands by Water Resources. However, beginning in 2003 and then again in 2007, funding was made available to develop a legacy park project for this area of the city. In 2003, former Mayor Dave Bronconnier announced the establishment of the ENMAX Parks Program which is funded by the ENMAX Legacy Fund. The Fund directs a portion of ENMAX dividends derived from the City-owned energy corporation every year. The legacy parks initiative has led to the restoration of a number of older parks and the development of new parks such as the Ralph Klein Legacy Park, named after the former mayor of Calgary and premier of Alberta. The Ralph Klein Legacy Park was dedicated in 2010, the centennial year of Calgary’s Parks department. Both Bronconnier, and the current mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, have been strong advocates of the legacy parks program.

The initiative created a highly productive and collaborative process between the two departments and the consultant team. The resulting scheme involves the Ralph Klein Legacy Park (approximately 30 hectares) and includes a park, the Environmental Education Centre, and surrounding wetlands. The remainder of the site (approximately 200 hectares) is devoted to a five-cell constructed wetland that is designed to process storm wastewater in order to open up development options in east Calgary. Engineered by CH2M Hill Canada, the constructed wetland is the largest in Canada and one of the largest in North America, and takes stormwater from an area of about 6,000 hectares–much of it currently undeveloped–to process it in stages and then send it down a 9.5-kilometre-long discharge canal to the Bow River. While the engineered wetland is devoted to the cleansing of stormwater, it will have a relatively simple bio-culture incorporated in the park that is separate from the larger system. This complex habitat will become an important outdoor classroom for the educational programs as it evolves. The project also provides stormwater retention during peak periods of intense rain and snowmelt.

The landscape design for Ralph Klein Legacy Park was handled by Carson¿•¿McCulloch Associates of Calgary. Gary Carson, the principal in charge of the landscape design, was involved with various schemes for the site for over a decade before the final program was settled upon. Using excavated soil taken to create the wetlands, a series of dramatic earth forms were created to structure the park. The overall shaping of the site is striking, an intentionally chiselled landscape reminiscent of Neolithic earthworks, or land art from the 1960s. The parking lots and building are formally organized with a southeast orientation to get a complete integration of building and landscape. Beyond the sculpting of earth, the planting and movement systems are simple and locally responsive. Water in the park is carefully choreographed as part of the educational program of the project. On one of the mounds, a small island itself, dramatic steel columns referred to as “sentinels” have been erected by the distinguished American sculptor Beverly Pepper. These provide a focal element in the design of the new landscape, and underscore an ambitious program on the part of both Water Resources and Parks to incorporate provocative contemporary art into projects financed by the City.

The building component for the entire project is the Environmental Education Centre by Simpson Roberts Architecture Interior Design Inc. As a structure, it occupies the key location in the park and is nestled within the larger wetland. The facility acts as a bridging element that emerges from the land and then marches out over the adjacent wetland. It begins as a heavy form clad in gabion baskets and ends as a light-framed structure clad in metal and glass. Quoting Chris Roberts, the principal architect for the project, the building is a kind of “jungle gym” that can be explored from all angles. This includes the ability to walk over the building and on catwalks under the building that are suspended just above water level. The organization of the building is simple and direct, employing a generous single-loaded corridor that provides access to the various multi-functional and service spaces. The loose programming of the building will allow it to evolve over time. Currently, the facility is primarily dedicated to educational programs, but also supports space for corporate functions, an artist’s studio, administrative spaces and the offices of the environmental non-profit Ducks Unlimited. The building will be heavily used by schoolchildren who visit the site to learn about the local environment. The classrooms are designed to open up to the exterior, weather permitting.

The building is particularly striking, especially when looking at the southwestern elevation with its strong and intriguing figural elements. Intentionally horizontal in its organization, the building is structured by gabion baskets at the entry end and sits atop a series of concrete piers when it projects over the water. The gabion b
askets are used to retain the landscape, but when extended into the building, they form part of a rainscreen wall system–the baskets are beautifully precise and filled with hand- selected local stone. The main floor acts as a series of discrete pavilions, with the façades, deck elements, and upper floor tying the various programmed spaces together. However, the strong figural aspects of the architecture are undermined by a less-developed northwest façade. The building’s interiors are generally well detailed, employing a multitude of materials. It is worth noting that the tectonic expression attempts to overtly demonstrate various green building materials and assemblies. Meeting LEED Gold standards, the Environmental Education Centre includes strategies such as water conservation, green roofs, solar shading, integrating solar panels for heating domestic water, using adjacent wetlands to cool the building, and minimizing construction waste. 

According to Anne Charlton, Director of Parks, the overall project was a very successful collaboration between all parties, and was clearly intended to raise the standard of public space and facility design in Calgary. Effectively a work of landscape urbanism, the development is consistent with recent efforts to merge sustainable space design and infrastructure to make large civil engineering projects become more multi-functional. Combining their complementary skill sets, the design team produced an integrated work of architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering that represents a new direction for large urban infrastructure projects. Calgary’s ever-expanding and evolving ambitious parks system is successfully being driven by the requirement that any stormwater managed by the City must be returned to the Bow River system as clean as possible. Soon the park system will be connected to Calgary’s new ring road and a new perimeter greenway system. The Ralph Klein Legacy Park and Shepard Wetlands demonstrates how today’s infrastructure can exist as an essential urban amenity, providing a host of accessible opportunities for citizens and wildlife. It is also intended to be a cultural landscape, part of a legacy of park design dating back to the formation of the City’s Parks Department in 1910. Finally, the scheme also demonstrates how an evocative landscape and architecture can be formed out of what was initially a largely featureless site. CA

Graham Livesey is an Associate Professor in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Calgary.

Client City of Calgary Parks
Architect Team Chris Roberts, Mark Latimer, Stephan Cieslik
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen
Mechanical SNC Lavalin/Wiebe Forest Engineering
Electrical Stebnicki + Partners
Civil CH2M Hill Canada
Public Art Beverly Pepper
Interiors Dotted I
Contractor Graham Construction & Engineering
Area 1,932 m2
Budget $14.4 M (Environmental Education Centre); $20 M (Ralph Klein Legacy Park; $87 M (Shepard Constructed Wetlands)
Completion February 2011




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