Green Connection

Information and Communications Technology Building,

University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta

Stantec Architecture Ltd./HOK Canada/Barry Johns Architecture Limited

A striking new addition to the University of Calgary campus, the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Building began as an unlikely exercise in inter-faculty group dynamics. However, in the hands of a skilled consultant team led by Len Rodrigues of Stantec Architecture, Gordon Stratford of HOK and Barry Johns of Barry Johns Architecture, the project evolved into one of the most significant examples of “green” institutional building design carried out to date in Canada.

The process began by bringing representatives of two faculties–Computer Science and Electrical & Mechanical Engineering–together with the consultant team for an intense three-day programming and visioning session. Despite the initial resistance of the two faculties to the idea of cohabitation, a parti for the building emerged by the end of the session. Responding to the site’s key location between the University’s existing engineering and science complexes, the building was treated as a link, conceptually, physically and politically, between the two faculties. Consensus came quickly, and the final building remains remarkably true to early sketches derived during the first 20 minutes of the visioning session. One overarching demand surfaced, however, which would shape the building’s form and systems and drive the consultant team to a much higher level of “green” performance than anyone originally imagined: the faculty members’ insistence on operable windows.

The site’s topographic constraints led to a stunningly simple and appropriate design solution. The entire main floor of the building is configured as a giant ramp 140 metres long rising six metres along its length and forming a direct physical link as it angles between the two existing buildings. Along this route are the main teaching spaces–one 300-seat and two 150-seat lecture halls–as well as the elevators and main staircases, positioned and opened up to the link space to encourage use and provide complete clarity to the circulation. Eventually a large cyber-caf will be opened in the link space to enhance its intended role as a gathering place, not just for this building, but for the entire north end of the U of C campus. Above this link and at approximate right angles to it is the six-storey tower housing office and research spaces shared by the two faculties.

The faculty members’ primary demand for personal access to fresh air was championed by the designers and, perhaps surprisingly, readily embraced by the University, leading the team to push the boundaries of institutional mechanical design. A conventional mechanical approach could not be used. The resulting system exposes the building’s concrete for use as a heat sink, which, through an embedded network of tubing, provides natural cooling by absorbing the heat generated by equipment and people. Because the circulated coolant is provided by the University’s central plant on its return loop, there is no net additional cost; the recycled water is still cool enough to do the job. This system is supplemented by two ventilation stacks, or solar chimneys, which induce convective air movement and provide natural flushing action.

The decision to expose the concrete led quite naturally to the larger design strategy of leaving all of the building’s materials and systems unconcealed. Through careful organization, exposed ducting acts as an ordering element throughout the circulation spaces, and particularly powerfully in the main floor link. The absence of dropped ceilings gives the added advantage of high, airy volumes throughout, and exposes the grid of Unistrut which carries all of the mechanical and electrical elements with maximum flexibility. Thus, a simple request for operable windows informed the entire process and affected the design strategy for virtually every element of the building.

On the exterior, a high standard of curtain wall design and very particular glazing specifications were necessary to support the various other measures. The skin had to be finely tuned with solar absorbing glass to control heat build-up and a mullion grid that allowed for the pattern of strategically placed operable units. That a great amount of design time was spent on the articulation of the skin is evident in the finished elevations. The reflective, filigreed exterior that resulted is in strong contrast to the more raw appearance of the interior. In keeping with the overall attitude to materials, the back pans of the curtain wall are left exposed and reinforce the interior’s technological character.

Each office is equipped with a radiant heating panel built into the exterior wall system that doubles as a light shelf to direct sunlight deeper into the space. The designers’ preferred arrangement of the upper floors would have placed the enclosed offices on the interior, allowing the open research areas direct access to daylight which would then be transmitted to the offices via clerestory and sidelight glazing. Unfortunately, this was one area where convention could not be breached, and for the most part the exterior walls are lined with faculty offices. Despite the use of clerestory glazing, the large areas of light-absorbing concrete results in somewhat gloomy open areas. Relief from this is provided by large windows at the end of every circulation axis, providing abundant sunlight and spectacular views as one moves through the building. Natural light thus consistently provides the plan its legibility. In addition, designing the stair system and elevators as fully glazed elements reinforces this concept. This makes vertical travel an exhilarating experience, visually orienting the users to the campus and the city beyond.

Although the two faculties occupy separate floors, the designers were determined to support some interaction by locating shared lounge facilities at the mid-level and connecting each faculty to this space via its own spiral steel stair. Initially greeted with trepidation and even opposition by faculty and staff, it has proven a successful idea, so much so that it survived a value engineering exercise. The stair fulfills its social agenda by bringing faculty and students together for daily casual interaction and providing space for special functions. The bright red staircases are visible on the outside of the west wall, giving exterior clues as to the unique nature of the middle floor. Turning the tower in plan with respect to the ramping link serves to provide all of the offices with spectacular east and west views and creates two exterior courts in the spaces between. The north-facing court is less successful, but the south-facing court, trapping the sun and terminating the ragged set of open spaces which currently snake through the centre of the campus, has enormous potential. Unfortunately, this is under-realized by a banal landscape design. One assumes this could be rectified in future campus enhancements.

Although the process was aggressively fast-tracked, the coordination a huge undertaking, and extreme care required during construction to ensure a high level of finish on all of the exposed elements, the building was completed both on time and on budget. The use of the main floor as a connecting element resulted in an additional 3,000 square metres of useable space than originally anticipated for the same construction budget. The requirements of the Canadian Building Incentive Program (CBIP) grants for energy efficiency were fully achieved, and the building comes close to the LEED Silver standard–all with a relatively uncomplicated set of building systems and materials utilizing mainly off-the-shelf components.

The University initially requested a building that would be both beautiful and distinctive, and the result lives up to their expectations, providing a stunning counterpoint to the beige blandness of the University of Calgary’s overall architectural character. The slickness of the skin advertises the technolo
gical, innovative nature of its occupant faculties and serves as a landmark to anchor the north end of the campus. The refined exterior, however, belies the raw and gutsy interior much as the sleek housing of a machine conceals its inner workings. Interestingly, it is this dichotomy of inside and outside that draws the most comments from the University community. Those who don’t fully understand the reasons for exposing the materials and systems or appreciate the inherent innovations complain about the building’s lack of finishing, assuming that the budget was prematurely exhausted before the ceiling tiles were ordered. In time, they may come to accept the building for what it is: a carefully designed and technically refined machine for learning, and, as such, fitting as both a metaphor and a home for the faculties it houses.

David Down is a principal of Down + Livesey Architects in Calgary and a regional correspondent for Canadian Architect.

Client: University of Calgary (Barry Kowalsky, Director of Campus Planning)

Architect team: Leonard Rodrigues (principal-in-charge and Design Director, Stantec Architect), Gordon Stratford (principal-in-charge, HOK), Barry Johns(principal-in-charge, Barry Johns Architecture), Richard Williams (project leader, HOK) Tony Santini, Denise Santini, Chad Oberg, Kevin Kretchmer, Angelique de Pennard, Hani Kirollos, Valerie McCracken, Jim Gilliland, Frank Gust

Structural: Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical: Earth Tech (Canada) Inc.

Landscape: Stantec Consulting Ltd.

Interiors: Stantec Architecture Ltd., HOK Canada

Construction manager: Ellis Don Construction Services

Project management: DMC Resources Ltd.

Area: 17,500 m2

Budget: $25 million

Completion: September 2001

Photography: James Dow