The Housing Union Building (HUB) at the University of Alberta is one of Edmonton’s more significant architectural landmarks. Designed by Diamond and Myers and completed in 1973, it is a seminal building. Very few buildings in Edmonton built since HUB can measure up to its design quality. This is unfortunate because there has been an extraordinary amount of building since HUB was completed. Last year alone, the number of building permits issued by the city increased 28 percent over the previous year, allowing Edmonton to set a national record. Edmonton architects are as busy as ever, but have not contributed in proportion to the built environment. The frontier “get rich quick” mentality seems to trump any thoughts of building for quality and permanence.

When the University undertook a technical review of HUB, the skylights were identified as a constant maintenance issue that required a long-term resolution. Having been replaced twice already, the skylight design and installation needed revisiting. University architect Len Rodrigues suggested an architectural competition process to honour the original building. “I think it had a lot to do with the reputation that the building has as an architectural icon,” explains Rodrigues, “We wanted to see what the architectural community thought was an appropriate solution.”

The HUB skylight competition, organized by local architect and competition advisor David Murray, was the first architectural competition within the city since the Edmonton City Hall competition in the late 1980s. The unexpected results of the competition were quietly revealed in early February. The jury chose not to award a first prize, stating in its report, “There was no scheme that adequately resolved all the competition challenges. There was no ‘complete’ solution of sufficient merit that the jury could confidently recommend to the University for design development.” Essentially, none of the entries satisfied the aesthetic, technical, and budget criteria set forth in the competition terms of reference.

The jury was composed of Vancouver architect John Patkau, Jetske Sybesma, Chair of the Faculty of Art and Design, and David Bruch, Executive Director of Ancillary Services at the University of Alberta. The budget set out in the competition was $3,800,000. “In our view, the competition had three very strong parameters: maintaining the strong character of the original building, a feasible technical solution and maintaining the budget,” says Patkau.

Patkau remembers HUB from the time when he was practicing in Edmonton: “When I knew HUB, it had clear double dome acrylic skylights and it had more of the bright Alberta sky coming through it which was a beautiful thing. I think for something like that to exist again is very desirable.” He laments the state of present-day Edmonton. “By and large, the city is not looking very good. Everything looks very pragmatic to me.” Things were much different during the early seventies. “Both the Citadel theatre and HUB were the most ambitious buildings in town at the time.” They still seem to be the buildings that new construction must live up to, to be considered relevant.

Ironically, second prize was awarded to Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc. Their scheme rotated the skylight 90 degrees to create a solution that was most true to the original building. Rotating the skylight solved some of the heat gain issues and worked with the bay structure of the existing building. Thermally broken aluminum frames with triple glazing would be placed in modular bays without any leak-prone horizontal mullions. “It was the most successful solution because it used the industrial sort of language that was more sympathetic to the original building,” states Patkau. The lightness of the structural system with tension cables and compression struts would not dominate the ceiling space. Some issues that prevented this scheme from taking the top prize included unresolved drainage and snow buildup, reliance on heat trace, and concerns about meeting the budget. A cost consultant, appointed by the University to review all competition entries, found that the scheme would likely be over the $3.8 million budget based on the information provided.

Third prize was awarded to Sturgess Architecture of Calgary for a fully glazed solution. In this scheme, a double-curved, tubular structure supported a triangulated commercial glazing panel system. The double-curved structure matched the modular bays of HUB and provided an elegant profile. The structural members, however, appeared to be quite significant in size. Photovoltaics were provided as an option to the raked south face of the structure to provide power and to deter heat gain. The jury enjoyed the “lyrical quality” of this entry, although it departed from the original, rational architecture of HUB. The large number of joints in the glazing system would also be a technical concern, as the probability of glass seal failure would increase.

The jury awarded two merit prizes. Both schemes used a faceted structure to provide a roof over the HUB galleria. “The two merit awards were very innovative and brought forth a lot of design vitality, but in the end we weren’t convinced they would create a new synergy with the existing building,” explains Patkau. The existing exterior elevations of HUB do not reveal the beauty that is within. This may have given some architects license to make some bold exterior changes.

Kasian Architecture of Edmonton received a merit prize for a scheme inspired by folding origami. The roof would be segmented into many triangles that would rise and fall to create clerestories and light wells. The jury found that the faceted origami recalled the original canvas interior canopy of the mall. How rainwater would be drained, as well as the complexity of the clerestories and roof planes were technical concerns for this scheme. The presentation graphics for this proposal were very well designed.

In a similar move, Chernoff Architect Inc. of Calgary, winners of the other merit prize, proposed an “ice crystal” skylight protected by an outer glass ribbon canopy. Chernoff hoped to vary light quality by bouncing light off the different panels of glass. This scheme was somewhat costly due to the dual roof systems. A compelling study model of proposed solution was part of the entry, but technical details were not fully resolved.

The remainder of the competition entries fell into two categories. In the first category there are the prosaic “build a proper roof and provide clerestory lighting schemes.” The second category included variations on the sawtooth roof. “You need to treat (the original building) with respect,” states Patkau. The light quality that the skylight provided was key to the success of the original space. Diminishing light levels and deteriorating light quality would probably kill the attraction of students and staff to the building.

Architectural competitions are an opportunity for a wide spectrum of architects to put forward innovative solutions for a design problem. The HUB competition was a success in that it made clear to the client the direction for the most appropriate solution. The competition results tested the University’s underlying assumptions regarding HUB.

Respect for the character of the original building did not stop some bold schemes, but did yield restrained solutions. In terms of providing technically feasible details, there was also a range from the pragmatic to the highly complex from the competition entries. All entries provided cost estimates with their submission. However, some entries attempted to meet the budget while others seemed to ignore it. “The competition was very useful for the University. It was a reality check for the University to see what they could accomplish for the money they have available to spend,” says Patkau. “I’m not convinced that you couldn’t find a solution that would fit the University’s budget.”

Len Rodrigues is responsible for the quality of the University’s buildings and the built environment. Re
garding the competition, Rodrigues states, “it did point to a direction that would maintain the daylight with the intensity that is there.” The University is discussing internally the outcome of the competition, and it will reveal its course of action at a later date. “A real sense of direction was given to the University by the jury…that is the value of the competition results,” says David Murray.

In Quebec, numerous competitions have recently yielded some brilliant results. “Open competitions are one of the reasons why Quebec has one of the more vital architectural communities in Canada,” says Patkau. The Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications has made it mandatory for competitions to be held when grants are in excess of $2 million. Projects like the Chteauguay Municipal Library by atelier TAG and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte et associs architectes have been the result.

The HUB competition has created some food for thought within the architecture community in Edmonton. Many of the competing firms visited the three-day exhibition of panels submitted to the competition. At the very least, it allowed a glimpse of what other architects were thinking, and how they would tackle the problem. This is valuable for the profession, as it provided time to reflect on design and other factors important in the competition. Fortunately, the competition panels will be exhibited again during the RAIC Festival of Architecture in Edmonton, where more dialogue can take place within the profession, and hopefully extend to the public.

Edmonton could benefit from more competitions for significant buildings around the city. And there is hope! The Edmonton Art Gallery announced in late March a two-stage competition for the renovation and addition to its existing building in the heart of Edmonton. Finalists will provide presentations of their process and built work also at the RAIC Festival in May. Furthermore, the City of Edmonton is considering design competitions for streetscape improvements and other important design elements. If successful, there may be desire within the city administration to hold larger competitions for public buildings.

“I think the University of Alberta should really be congratulated for undertaking the competition, as well as the Alberta Association of Architects. It really opens up the gates to young architects and provides people with the chance to create great design,” states Patkau. How does one convince the clients out there to hold competitions? By constantly encouraging them. Edmonton needs all the encouragement it can get.

Shafraaz Kaba works for Manasc Isaac Architects and is a founding member of the Media, Art and Design Exposed (MADE) in Edmonton Society.