Canadian Architect

Feature

Vancouver Visionary

A series of projects in and around Vancouver showcase the evolution of Peter Busby's work over the 30 years since he founded his practice.

June 2, 2014
by Sean Ruthen

In 1998, Busby + Associates Architects with Robert Lemon Architecture & Preservation retrofitted a downtown newspaper printing press building into the AIBC's headquarters. The architects added a central atrium to provide natural light and ventilation to all three office levels.

In 1998, Busby + Associates Architects with Robert Lemon Architecture & Preservation retrofitted a downtown newspaper printing press building into the AIBC’s headquarters. The architects added a central atrium to provide natural light and ventilation to all three office levels.

TEXT Sean Ruthen
PHOTOS Martin Tessler unless otherwise noted

In the early 1950s, young architects in Vancouver aspired to work for the idealistic, innovative firm of Thompson, Berwick & Pratt, then including among its ranks a young Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom. Half a century later when I was graduating from architecture school, the go-to firm was Busby + Associates Architects, founded by this year’s RAIC Gold Medal winner, Peter Busby.

Busby’s body of work forms one of the greatest inspirations for my generation of Vancouver architects, and his inuence goes far beyond the West Coast. A visionary and pioneer in sustainable design, Busby helped lay the foundation for the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), setting standards for sustainable building design across the country. Likewise, his influence in city development has been far reaching, starting with his work on Vancouver’s view cones in the 1990s and extending to urban planning for Abu Dhabi in 2030. Alongside the macroscale of the city, Busby has also innovated at the microscale of the building detail. His office has long been known for its dedication to materials exploration and for developing intelligent building systems and components.

Brentwood SkyTrain Station, opened in 2002, is widely admired for its elegant use of curved wood-and-steel ribs. Nic Lehoux

Brentwood SkyTrain Station, opened in 2002, is widely admired for its elegant use of curved wood-and-steel ribs. Nic Lehoux

Then, of course, there are the buildings themselves: projects that are icons of Canadian architecture, from the Brentwood SkyTrain station to One Wall Centre. More recent buildings of note include the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC), along with larger urban developments like Dockside Green in Victoria and Marine Gateway in Vancouver. These are all game-changers, buildings that rethink the footprints we leave as we build cities, and that challenge us to improve building construction and operational efciencies. With his latest projects, Busby asks the audacious question: what if a building could give back to the environment, employing low-impact methods of fabrication and ultimately recovering energies that would otherwise be wasted?

Two of Busby’s earliest projects demonstrate his office’s commitment to the city. In 1989, when the District of North Vancouver asked him to design a new municipal headquarters, Peter assessed the soundness of the existing City Hall’s concrete structure and determined it could be incorporated into the design of the new building. By avoiding the demolition of a 1950s building, he significantly reduced the material waste that would have otherwise been part of the project. Across Burrard Inlet in downtown Vancouver, Busby was also responsible for the retrotting of the old Edgett Building into the headquarters for the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (1998). With both projects, Busby’s ofce sensibly reused pieces of the city’s fabric, very much in keeping with the conversion of Francis Rattenbury’s Law Courts building into the Vancouver Art Gallery (Arthur Erickson, 1983) and the transformation of the McCarter & Nairne post ofce into the Sinclair Centre (Richard Henriquez, 1986).

For many architects in the Vancouver area, One Wall Centre (2001) and the Brentwood SkyTrain Station (2002) were design landmarks for the new millennium. One Wall Centre cuts a striking profile on Burrard Street, kitty-corner to Erickson’s Law Courts and directly across from Thompson, Berwick & Pratt’s BC Electric Building (itself a modern wonder when it first opened its doors in 1957). The floor plate of Busby’s tower slips through the city skyline so as to preserve views to the mountains south of the downtown peninsula, as well as to and from the BC Electric Building. With its sleek (and now mono-coloured) curtain wall, it’s one of the most remarkable towers in the downtown skyline.

Conceived as an eco-skyscraper, One Wall Centre was constructed at precisely the time that other sustainability-minded architects, including Busby’s former employer Norman Foster, were investigating the ecological impacts of large buildings. Certain green elements were compromised on the way from the drawing board to the job site, but the 48-storey tower was commendably built with triple-glazed high-performance curtain wall, operable vents to help with summer cooling loads, high-fly-ash-content concrete and finishes with lower embodied energies, along with energy-efficient fixtures. Most importantly, it demonstrated at the time how much a competitive marketplace would be willing to absorb the upcharges associated with sustainable design. In the wake of the many large-scale developments that Busby’s office has completed since then, it’s curious to reflect on the fact that at the completion of its working-drawing phase, One Wall Centre was the largest project Busby’s office had undertaken at that time.

Brentwood SkyTrain Station is the most exquisite of several stations that Busby’s office completed for Metro Vancouver’s rapid-transit Millennium and Canada Lines. It presents an ingenious composite steel and glulam wood structure, made possible by the new BIM software of the time along with the structural wizardry of engineers Fast + Epp. Brentwood Station received multiple awards, giving the firm greater international exposure.

One Wall Centre and the SkyTrain stations formed stepping stones for Busby to tackle larger issues of city-building. The eco-district–a subsequent major project type–was born from these initial projects that sought to make cities smarter and more efficient in the way their myriad systems worked.

CIRS incorporates a greenhouse for processing wastewater

CIRS incorporates a greenhouse for processing wastewater

Inside and outside of work hours, I often found myself in Busby’s buildings. Last month I visited his LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge-targeted VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre (2011) for an AIBC event held in a large multi-functional space. Students and the public at large are welcomed into the CIRS building at UBC (2011). CIRS is conceived as a functioning showcase for virtually every available sustainable building system: grey-and black-water recovery, rainwater and solar energy harvesting, waste heat recovery, and a carbon-neutral structure calculated by balancing higher-energy building components against a wood structure. The opening of CIRS marked the culmination of a 10-year building process by Busby along with Dr. Raymond Cole and Dr. John Robinson.

The buildings comprising Dockside Green are linked to on-site wastewater treatment and a district energy system fuelled by locally sourced wood waste. Vince Klassen

The buildings comprising Dockside Green are linked to on-site wastewater treatment and a district energy system fuelled by locally sourced wood waste. Vince Klassen

Busby’s larger-scale urban interventions while working with the City of Vancouver and developer Concord Pacific on a variety of projects through the 1990s gave him the opportunity to extend his office’s geographic reach. This was especially the case after Busby + Associates Architects merged with Perkins+Will in 2004. The resources of the global firm have allowed Busby to realize community-based sustainable designs for cities in Canada, the United States and the Middle East. In the early 2000s, Busby was invited along with several of Vancouver’s former city planners to assist in producing the 2030 urban structure framework for Abu Dhabi in order to foster sustainable growth in the region. Closer to home, Busby’s ofce has realized city-building projects in the form of Dockside Green in Victoria (Phases 1, 2 and 3 were completed by 2009) and Marine Gateway in Vancouver (under construction), capitalizing on two distinct but parallel strategies for responsible urban growth.

In the case of Dockside Green, Busby with Perkins+Will is creating a 1.3-million-square-foot mixed-use community on a post-industrial site within walking and cycling distance of the city centre. Thanks to a biomass plant providing district energy, Dockside Green will be carbon-neutral in its greenhouse gas production. The community also treats its sewage on site, using the cleaned water for its toilets, irrigation, and the ponds and streams in its landscape. By employing these and other sustainable building systems and strategies, Dockside Green is set to give the old suburban model a run for its money.

Scheduled for completion in 2015, Marine Gateway is the first large-scale mixed-use development at a new transit node in south Vancouver. Perkins+Will

Scheduled for completion in 2015, Marine Gateway is the first large-scale mixed-use development at a new transit node in south Vancouver. Perkins+Will

Situating itself somewhat differently in the spectrum of sustainability, Marine Gateway in Vancouver is one of the first large-scale transit- oriented developments along the Canada Line (see CA, March 2011). Its key feature will be accessibility to public transit, encouraging many of its occupants to forego their reliance upon cars. Currently, 90 percent of all new development in the city is within 500 metres of public transit– so once again, Busby has led the charge on a progressive trend.

Throughout all his projects, Busby deploys a no-nonsense functionalist aesthetic that’s become synonymous with contemporary West Coast architecture. In part, this aesthetic can be traced back to Designlines, the industrial design firm Busby founded in 1987 to complement his architectural practice. The streamlined style is seen in the louvre brackets, glass guards and stainless-steel spider ttings that have become emblematic of his buildings. When applied to sustainable features, this sensibility premised upon clean detailing can result in poetic moments–such as the grid of shadows cast by the rooftop solar panels onto the top floor of CIRS.

Inspired by flower petals, the undulating wood roof culminates in a central oculus. Nic Lehoux

Inspired by flower petals, the undulating wood roof culminates in a central oculus. Nic Lehoux

As architects practicing in Metro Vancouver, we work in a world that has been shaped by Busby’s legacy. Whether parsing a LEED checklist, detailing a glulam beam connection, or edging towards a net-zero carbon structure, Busby’s fingerprints are on our everyday practices, and we are the benefactors of his vision. It is not surprising that Busby chose another visionary, environmentalist David Suzuki, to write the foreword to his 2007 monograph. What best exemplifies Busby, what makes his work most commendable, is his unflagging commitment to a sustainable built environment. His contributions to the profession are of the highest order, as demonstrated over the course of a career that continues to make new advances and sets the bar ever higher. Busby’s work is truly an inspiration, and will continue to be for generations of young architects to come, determined more than ever to help turn the tide on climate change through the conscientious design of our built environments. CA

Sean Ruthen is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.