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Field Test: Future Buildings Laboratory, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec

A new building at Concordia University’s Loyola Campus is designed to test building envelope components in year-round, outdoor conditions.

The Future Buildings Laboratory is currently enclosed with semi-transparent photovoltaic curtain walls and building integrated photovoltaic/thermal collector panels. Photo by Shawn Moss

PROJECT Future Buildings Laboratory, Concordia University, Loyola Campus, Montreal, Quebec

ARCHITECT Smith Vigeant architectes

As an architect working for Concordia University’s facilities management department, my projects include the renovation of classrooms or offices where our department, along with external professionals, are the experts. In the case of a recent project though, the architects were the learners.

Concordia University’s newest—and smallest—pavilion, designed by Smith Vigeant architectes, may look like a building. But this research facility is essentially an instrument designed to test building envelopes and efficiency under real-weather operating conditions.

The pavilion was created for the University’s Centre for Zero Energy Building Studies (CZEBS), part of the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science’s Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering department, and was informed by the CZEBS’s researchers. That group is directed by one of the world’s foremost experts in solar buildings, Dr. Andreas Athienitis; the construction project was led by Dr. Hua Ge, an expert in field-testing building envelopes. The pavilion is designed, among other things, to test building-integrated photovoltaics, motorized shading devices, hybrid renewables, urban wind energy, and smart nanogrids. It brings these technologies out of the lab, and into the field, allowing researchers and students to experiment with these technologies and serving as a demonstration of what is possible as we develop advanced concepts for carbon-neutral buildings.

60 percent of the building’s walls can be removed and replaced with other assemblies; the building also is designed to test electric vehicles as a means to store extra solar or wind power. Image by Smith Vigeant architectes

To perform this kind of research, the house-sized pavilion incorporates large removable sections of exterior wall and roof—approximately 60 percent of its walls, including two corners, can be removed. This allows the performance and efficiency of various wall and roof assemblies to be assessed, along with their effects on occupant comfort in the corresponding enclosed spaces. Sensors embedded at various points throughout the wall composition allow data to be collected. The exterior envelope components will be changed every one or two years, depending on the research. Our research turned up only a single precedent for this unusual program—the Energy Flex House in Denmark by Henning Larsen Architects, which does not have removable walls or roof sections—and seeing it successfully realized required a number of unique details.

Plan. Drawing by Smith Vigeant architectes

The facility is situated on the northern edge of Concordia’s Loyola campus, and is clad in pine to harmonize with a nearby residential neighbourhood. But its appearance will change over time—a portion of the pine-clad wall can be swapped out with any number of envelopes, from a brick cavity wall, to glazing studded with photovoltaics. Vertical steel C-channels frame the openings into which the wall test panels can be inserted, and double as a support for future shading
devices. The channels are aligned with structural columns which are set back from the slab edge to allow wall thicknesses varying from 50 mm to 570 mm to be tested. Earlier in the design process, these openings were thought of as windows or doors which would slide or swing into place. Due to the need to monitor the temperature and humidity performance of the envelopes being tested, however, it was decided to treat the openings as sections of wall, accepting that membranes and caulking will have to be redone with every change in wall composition. The way the building is framed allows for such changes.

The facility faces south to optimize solar exposure, and contains four south-facing bays, each delineating a room within. This configuration can also change, with multiple rooms combining to create larger spaces. The only fixed walls on the interior enclose the mechanical and electrical rooms to the north, providing lateral bracing. Three of the bays are currently enclosed with semi-transparent photovoltaic (STPV) curtain walls developed by CZEBS researchers in collaboration with industry partners. The last bay is enclosed by spandrel panels, with building integrated photovoltaic/thermal collector (BIPV/T) panels installed on the exterior of them—an experiment that aims to recuperate the heat generated in the cavity between the spandrel and BIPV/T panels to pre-heat the fresh air supply.

Plan Detail. Drawing by Smith Vigeant architectes

A steel structure on the roof was built to support future photovoltaic panels, and equipped with masts that will host a weather station and wind turbine. The roof slopes at 45° on the south side to maximize solar exposure. A shallower 14° incline on the north side facilitates rooftop access, and allows for double height spaces within. Those double-height spaces are capped with a skylight, in order for researchers to test and quantify the effects of passive cooling.

Planned additions also include an electrical vehicle (EV) charging station. The building’s large access ramp is equipped with a removable handrail, allowing it to double as a pathway for a small electrical vehicle—so that researchers can test certain aspects of the relationship between building and automobile, such as using the EV as storage for excess electricity generated from photovoltaics or from the wind turbine.

One of the main challenges of the project was to persuade the general contractor and builders that this was not a house, and that it had to be built in ways that were unconventional. Smith Vigeant and our team spent close to a year in design, and conveying design intent to the builders was often an arduous process.

This experimental building was a challenge to design and build—but also a learning process in itself. We believe that our efforts will pay off, and this highly adaptable “building to test buildings” will help shape and improve our future constructed world.

Shawn Moss, LEED AP, is an architect and project manager with Concordia University’s Facilities Management department.

CLIENT Concordia University, Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science – Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering | ARCHITECT TEAM Stéphan Vigeant, Cecilia Chen, Roxane Routhier-Audet, Salsabil Maaroufi, Eric Lalonde, Sabrina Charbonneau | STRUCTURAL Poincaré experts-conseils (Paul-Henry Boutros) | MECHANICAL Pageau Morel et associés (Daniel Picard, Marc-Antoine Jean) | ELECTRICAL Pageau Morel et associés (Jérôme Rivard, Abdel Kader) | LANDSCAPE Smith Vigeant architectes | INTERIORS Smith Vigeant architectes | CONTRACTOR Construction Doverco | PROJECT MANAGEMENT Concordia University, Facilities Management | CIVIL FNX-INNOV (Jade Bossé Bélanger) | CODE GLT+ | SIGNAGE SAIC | ACOUSTICS Davidson acoustique & insonorisation | SITE SURVEY Arsenault Lemay arpenteurs-géomètres & FNX-INNOV | DEMOLITION CONTRACTOR Démoliton Panzini | AREA 125 m2 | BUDGET $1.3 M | COMPLETION June 2021

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