Canadian Architect

Feature

Sustained Discussion

The first follow-up conference to Vancouver's GBC '98 reveals that Canadian architects are beginning to make important contributions to sustainable design.

January 1, 2001
by John McMinn

The follow-up to the Green Building Challenge (GBC) conference held in Vancouver in 1998 took place in Maastricht, The Netherlands, from October 22 to 25, 2000. Jointly organized by the Dutch Energy and Environment Agency, the Dutch Housing Ministry, the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building Construction (CIB) and the GBC 2000, Sustainable Building 2000 (SB2000) attracted more than 800 delegates representing 35 countries from six continents. Participants discussed a variety of themes related to all aspects of sustainable building, ranging from the design, construction, and recycling of the built environment to legislation and policy initiatives, performance measuring and assessment tools, and the marketing of sustainability.

The conference included an exhibition featuring buildings from 14 countries participating in the GBC 2000. A primary aim of the GBC is the creation of an internationally accepted assessment tool measuring energy and environmental performance, leading to higher standards for sustainable building and development world-wide. Participants use the Green Building Assessment Tool (GB Tool), and are working co-operatively to improve the software to be adaptive to regional conditions while maintaining broad international standards.

Initially developed by Nils Larsson of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Professor Ray Cole of the University of British Columbia School of Architecture, to date the GBC process has been substantially funded by NRCan. Despite its international acceptance, the elaborate scope of the assessment process means the GB Tool is more useful in academic research than as a day-to-day aide to practitioners. Certain countries have developed their own assessment tools, such as the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) from Britain and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) developed by the United States Green Building Council. LEED, which is used to assess building performance during the design process, is becoming widely accepted in the U.S. An appendix to LEED Version 2 tailored to Canadian building practices and standards is currently being developed by Busby + Associates Architects and Keen Engineering of Vancouver. It will be circulated through professional associations for discussion in early 2001.

The featured Canadian projects compared very well with those from countries recognized as further advanced in sustainable building, with the major distinction being the sheer volume of green building being done. Without legislative policies providing economic incentives for private and public development to go green, efforts in this area will remain little more than token gestures compared with the bulk of construction that pays little heed to sustainable practices.

One such incentive program was outlined by Marjo Knapen of the Dutch firm W/E Consultants. The Municipality of Tilberg in south central Holland has developed its own assessment tool, the GPR-2 DuBo, as a way to stimulate sustainable building. The municipality takes an active advisory role in new developments, assisting in the adoption of sustainable principles in all aspects of a project. Financial incentives have also been put in place. Knapen cited De Wijk, a new 3,000-unit housing development, where the City used GPR-2 DuBo to determine standards of sustainability reached by individual builders. Under the program, the builder gets back a refundable deposit if the project meets required standards. There is a further market-driven incentive where individual homebuyers are eligible for mortgage interest rate relief of up to 2% if the new home they purchase meets required green standards. Developers whose projects meet the standards are expected to enjoy better sales through the incentive offered to individual homebuyers. Similar programs exist in other Dutch cities; Rotterdam recently adapted the assessment tool and incentive program for office and industrial buildings.

Another issue stressed at the conference was that discussion of sustainable building must include urban scale development. Sebastian Moffatt of Vancouver’s Sheltair Group created tremendous excitement with examples of his firm’s consulting work throughout the world. The projects ranged from resort developments in the B.C. interior to North and South American cities as well as extensive work in Asia. Moffatt focused on the benefits of adopting on-site infrastructure dealing with energy and water supply, solid and liquid waste management, surface drainage, communications and access. The projects discussed demonstrated the benefits of clustering on-site systems among small groupings of buildings rather than using larger centralized municipal systems for both dense urban areas and suburban development.

Moffatt argued that the smaller systems are more efficient both operationally and in terms of land use, easier to integrate with complimentary urban systems, responsive to changes in population and more easily upgraded to benefit from improved technologies. On-site infrastructure costs can be off-loaded to developers, reducing municipal expenses and creating incentives for more efficient design and load management. He also sees quality of environment benefits. “Architectural infrastructure can become an important element in neighbourhood design and place-making–using surface drainage, for example, as public water art and as linear parks, or using renewable energy systems or composted soil as visual landmarks for celebrating ecological processes.” The resistance shown by many municipalities to this local scale approach, Moffatt contends, is largely due to massive investments in large centralized systems and the lack of “appropriate institutional structures for ownership and maintenance.”

The plenary session at the conclusion of the SB2000 conference outlined a series of broad if rather obvious objectives and conclusions. The need for global perspective and local implementation–“think globally, act locally”–was stressed, recognizing diverse regional and local cultural and ecological conditions. The recognition of a balance between the global and local was also seen in the call for regional gatherings where specifics of regional economic, cultural, material and climatic conditions impacting on sustainable building initiatives can be discussed in a more focused way. These would occur at more frequent intervals, prior to the next biannual global conference scheduled for 2002 in Oslo. The need to communicate the importance and the possibilities of sustainable development to a broader audience through national organizations and publications was also stressed. To this end, a new magazine, Sustainable Building, was launched at the conference (see www.aeneas.nl).

Canadian GBC Entries

The Canadian entries to the GBC 2000 provide an illuminating cross-section of sustainable building possibilities in this country The selected projects include a renovation in Vancouver incorporating a new double skin for a B.C. telephone utility office building, a new computer science facility at York University in Toronto, and the transformation of a disused locomotive factory in east-end Montreal into a high-tech business park.

The Canadian GBC selection committee included representatives from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and NRCan along with consultants with expertise in various aspects of sustainable building. These representatives focused on the submitted projects’ technical and performance credentials, and Canadian Architect editor Marco Polo was invited to comment on the architectural merit of the entries. The question of architectural quality in the GBC performance assessment has been contentious since the International Framework Committee (the GBC governing body) ruled that a rating for architectural quality could not be included in the assessment system. This is based on the committee’s aim to maintain a rigorous level of objectivity, but implies that architectural quality is a non-measurable judgement of taste associated with superficial appearance more than with a building’s inherent characteristics. This has given rise to a recommendation for the inclusion of measurable categories reflecting architectural quality intrinsic rather than extrinsic to a building design.

The inclusion of some means by which to register architectural performance or quality is crucial to a holistic approach to sustainable design, where fundamentals of intelligent rather than expedient response to site, ambient environmental conditions and choice of materials make for both quality design and efficient performance. Ottawa architect Stephen Pope presented a paper outlining categories within which objective measurement of architectural quality intrinsic to a comprehensive building concept could be incorporated within the GBC evaluation. This would include factors such as diversity of space, articulation of threshold and connection between interior and exterior, coherence of stylistic approach and appropriate level of finish and detail relative to context.

While these issues may seem obvious to many architects, of the projects submitted to the Canadian GBC selection committee, few represented comprehensive approaches to good environmental performance. Several projects typified the problem of much standard construction, where the green label is more an add-on than a fundamental attitude affecting decisions made from initial concept through to detail design and specification. The projects selected each represent a distinct example of a comprehensive attitude to sustainable building, uniquely tailored to the circumstances of their context.

William Farrell Building

The William Farrell Building renovation in downtown Vancouver consists of the upgrade of a 1946 brick-clad concrete frame building, formerly filled with telephone switching gear, for Telus, the B.C. telephone utility. Designed by Busby + Associates Architects, with mechanical by Keen Engineering and structural by Read Jones Christofferson, the eight-storey building encloses 131,245 ft2 of space and is the first retrofit double-skinned building in Canada. The project came about due to the change from analog to digital switching technology at the utility, which made 90% of the space in the building available for a much-needed downtown client interface facility and other upgraded offices, along with retail space at street level. Mindful of the PR potential of being able to call themselves “green” along with the financial benefits (zoning restrictions limited a new building to 60% of the gross floor area of the existing), Telus opted to retain the building. Features include 14′-8″ floor-to-floor heights, individually operable windows and air supply, higher than average levels of natural illumination and an annual 50% reduction in energy use relative to an equivalent conventional building.

Built at a cost of $13 million ($99/ft2), the renovation includes a new external glazing skin supported about 90 cm off the existing surface of the building. The new faade incorporates areas of clear glazing, ceramic frit glass panels reducing solar gain, and light shelves in the interstitial space to reflect natural light deep within the building. Photovoltaic panels in the faade provide power to operate fans and louvres within the interstitial space, assisting in warm weather ventilation.

The double skin acts as a ventilation chimney in warm weather and as an insulating jacket in cool periods. In winter months louvres at the top of the double skin remain closed, trapping a layer of air, allowing the building mass to retain available solar energy, which is then re-radiated into the building. The exposed concrete structure acts as a heat sink, helping to reduce temperature fluctuations. In warm weather, with the louvres open, heat build-up within the double faade causes convection air movement. Assisted by fans, warm air is drawn up and out the top of the air space, creating negative pressure within the interior, which in turn draws warm air away from the occupied areas.

The renovation incorporates raised access floors that double as supply air plenums providing warm or cool air down low where it is needed, and extracting it above where it naturally rises. The project also benefits from a remarkable opportunity: the adjoining building, also owned by Telus, has a continuously operating refrigeration plant whose waste heat provides 100% of the energy required to heat the new facility, dramatically reducing the environmental load of the building.

York University Computer Science Building

The York University Computer Science Building exemplifies how sustainable building design objectives can be brought to bear in the context of the competitive construction market. The building is a joint project by Associated Architects van Nostrand, DiCastri Architects (since merged with Wallman, Clewes, Bergman to form Architects Alliance) and Busby + Associates Architects. Structural engineering was done by the Yolles Group, with mechanical by Keen Engineering. The architects approached the design with two main goals: to fully and elegantly provide for the programmatic and spatial requirements of the university and to use the project as an example of the broad benefits of a comprehensively-conceived green building using 50% less energy than a standard equivalent facility.

Located near the centre of the York University campus facing a tree-lined pedestrian concourse, the building’s green strategies include the provision of extensive natural illumination and ventilation coupled with generous communal spaces, which play a key role in the building’s mechanical functioning. Where possible, recycled materials including brick, steel, aluminum and fly ash in concrete are used. Additional green features include provision of a highly efficient building envelope, a reduced mechanical system, use of the thermal mass of the concrete structure, decreased lighting loads, and retention of storm water through a planted roof and cisterns. Collectively, this results in a tremendous reduction in greenhouse and acid gas emissions over the life of the building; projections show a reduction of 85,715 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over a 75-year period.

While these broad issues should be a positive incentive to any client group, the key factor in the proposal, given the current resource-starved environment of educational institutions, was budget. Higher capital costs for green buildings have been the most significant disincentive to the broad acceptance of sustainable building principles by developers and facilities administrators. In the case of York, the design team was able to match the cost of a conventional alternative, meeting the $16.6 million budget for the 102,250 ft2 building ($162/ ft2).

The building incorporates a rectangular donut and bar of offices and labs, both on three floors, linked by a full-height circulation atrium with a large lecture hall in the southeast corner. A glazed entry lobby/caf nestles under the tilted plane of the auditorium seating, from which basement access leads to additional labs, classrooms and storage areas. The 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, creating negative pressure in the adjoining spaces, which in turn causes air to be drawn in either through operable windows or from the north side of the building via subterranean air plenums. These plenums exploit the ambient 17C ground temperature, providing pre-cooling of air in summer and pre-warming in winter.

The designers’ green agenda appears to merge holistically and seamlessly with an elegant planning and compositional strategy, demonstrating the all-important link between good design and responsible practice. As mentioned above, the volumetric articulation of the three primary elements–the bar, the donut and the tilted lecture hall–provide satisfying compositional variety while at the same time creating the dramatic and clearly functi
onal atria. Similarly, the lively surface articulation of external shading devices, along with bold two-storey faceted panels on the west faade hovering out over a glazed ground floor level, are compositionally engaging while providing the interior with an important shield from excessive glare and solar gain.

The Angus Technopole

In the mid-1990s a plan was developed to create a new 6.5 hectare business park specializing in environmental technology on the former site of a Canadian Pacific locomotive yard in east-end Montreal dating back to the end of the 19th century. The project was designed by difica Architecture + Design + Engineering (formerly Dupuis Dubuc) under the direction of principal Guy Favreau. After CP closed the factory in 1992, and with the building threatened by demolition or conversion to a shopping mall, a local grassroots organization, the Societ de Developpement Angus (SDA), was formed to save the historic building. It was here that thousands of Montrealers–including, for a time, Maurice “Rocket” Richard–built rolling stock for the railroad industry in what was the largest industrial complex in Canada and one of the world’s first assembly line factories. Given the size of the workforce, the Angus site also had a long history of labour union agitation, a factor that influenced the grassroots resistance to CP’s early plans to build a high-end mixed use development which would have fundamentally altered the character of the working class neighborhood.

Though the project did not match any of the three building type categories in the GBC format, it was selected for its broad social and environmental vision of sustainability. It provides an example of a large urban development on a former industrial site that reflects the collective will of the local populace and is aimed at providing employment opportunities in what had become, after the closure of the Angus shops, a depressed area with 20% unemployment. While the building does not attain energy savings on the order of those cited above, it achieved a strong scoring in areas of recycling and re-use of building materials and assemblies.

The first phase of the Technopole was a $10 million renovation of one third of the original locomotive factory, the Locoshop Angus, providing 135,000 ft2 of incubator space for small and medium sized businesses. The factory is divided into units ranging from 3,500 to 15,000 ft2 with offices and research studios on the upper level and light industrial uses on the main floor. A central interior street flooded with natural light from skylights extending the length of the building gives access to the individual spaces and serves as a central organizing spine on both the upper and lower levels. The space also operates as a ventilation flue, with four extraction hoods required for fire safety also used for ventilation, drawing away warm air to reduce cooling loads in summer months.

The original structure of the building has been left exposed, providing a link to its industrial heritage and creating a dramatic counterpoint to the contemporary material palette of the new enclosures of wood, fibreglass and lightweight steel. Translucent corrugated fibreglass panels overlooking the internal street are used to maximize daylight penetration and give a sense of openness in the office spaces. Elements recalling the former use of the building–such as the overhead rails that supported heavy lifting cranes–have been retained, giving texture and character to the expansive interior street.

Much of the brick, concrete and wood from buildings demolished on the site have also found new uses. Old bricks have become paving surfaces for walkways, and salvaged wood has been stockpiled for use in on-site artisan shops. Site remediation included removal of heavily contaminated soil, while areas of low level contamination have been shifted to the west end of the site, forming a landscape berm that shields the site from the noise of adjacent rail tracks and forms a linear park with bicycle paths linked to the extensive cycle routes in the city.

These three projects chosen to represent Canada in Maastricht address a range of issues along the broad spectrum of sustainable building, from the technological to the social, achieving the kind of comprehensive green character that was outlined in the concluding plenary session of the Sustainable Building 2000 conference. In each project economic considerations provided a focus and limitation to the green strategies employed, while at the same time demonstrating that great improvement on standard building practice can be achieved within the fiscal limitations of our competitive construction industry. While additional legislative initiatives are required to encourage sustainable building development, these projects demonstrate that commitment and dedication to environmentally responsible design is the key to a collective move that all players in the building industry must make.

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




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