Master Builders

Heading north along Burrard Bridge into downtown Vancouver, it is hard not to notice the condos growing like weeds along South False Creek. Nobody wants to repeat the failures of this city’s last major building boom (leaky condos, anyone?) but as buildings get ever more technically complex, how can architects ensure that history will not repeat itself? Nestled under the east side of the bridge we can find one answer to this problem. Behind Bing Thom’s office, a small laboratory of building has been set up in the parking lot. During a visit to the office there was not one but three building mock-ups undergoing testing on this site: a curtain wall for the proposed Hotel Georgia tower, the metal cladding system for the podium of the Central City project in Surrey, and an interior mock-up of a new theatre for Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

Mock-ups are an integral component of the design philosophy of the office; Bing Thom Architects see themselves as part of the “master builder” tradition. They take an active interest in the process of construction and have good relationships with local building trades. For smaller projects, mock-ups are outlined in the specifications, but for larger buildings, potentially problematic areas are taken out of the full contract when tendered. The contractors and clients instead agree to a fixed price for the area in question which is worked out in a design/ build process to get the best possible results at a reasonable cost. This way the general contractor has no reason to include a large price buffer for a part of the project that may seem more complicated than it is in reality, which could inflate the project’s cost and potentially compromise the design intent. The complex roof structures in the Surrey Central City project were completed through a design/build process with Structure-Craft, as was the acoustic canopy built by George Third for the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Clients come to Bing Thom Architects because they are willing to push the envelope architecturally. Full-scale mock-ups reduce the risk–financial and aesthetic–of buildings that are innovative. The recently completed Aberdeen Centre, a shopping mall and entertainment centre in Richmond, is but one successful example of this. Its most striking feature is an undulating wall of glass in a mixture of transparencies and candy-coloured hues, first tested in the same spot where the Hotel Georgia curtain wall now stands. The purpose of this “pixel” wall was to replace the typical mall’s opaque exterior with a construct that could visually connect the building’s interior life with the surrounding street activity to enhance the notion that the Aberdeen Centre is but one part of a rich community. The end result is a resounding success.

Besides aesthetics, BTA test numerous other criteria in their architectural mock-ups from material properties and weathering to building technologies and acoustics. The office distinguishes between the less scientifically controlled experiments of mock-ups left out in the elements and the ones built and tested in a laboratory setting. For Central City–a 1.7 million ft2 mixed-use development consisting of shopping mall, university, and office space–a two-storey bay of the curtain wall was built and tested under lab conditions, but the metal cladding system of panels incorporating zinc, pickled stainless steel, and titanium was developed in their parking lot. I asked why they did not build their mock-ups directly on site. Michael Heeney, one of the firm’s executive directors, explained to me the benefits of keeping the mock-ups in the office’s backyard: due to their close proximity, the designers could tweak and play with the forms and keep a steady eye on how they performed under various conditions.

The curtain wall mock-up for the Hotel Georgia project has already stood up to some record-breaking days of rainfall in Vancouver last winter. The clients and architects can now rest assured that this glazing system is able to weather any storm. If the glazing were to exhibit any signs of streaking, the design could be modified at this stage to provide drip lines where necessary. The Georgia mock-up consists of one bay each of a glazing system by different manufacturers erected by two competing contractors. At a quick glance the bays look identical, but closer inspection reveals the subtle differences in glass colour, caulking, and the relationship between framing and glass specified by the architects. Two types of glass with very different price points were tested in the mock-up. As samples they were visibly distinct, but on a full-scale application viewed outdoors the two appear virtually identical. The decision to run with the cheaper of the two will now result in a 10 percent savings, along with the confidence that the aesthetics have not been sacrificed in the process. Also, the mock-up will ensure that there will be no problems later due to misunderstandings with the planners, eliminating a potential fiasco over glazing that has given the Wall Centre in Vancouver its unintentional banding.

The purpose of full-scale mock-ups is not only for research and development of building materials and processes, but also for clients to see at full scale what they could only guess at with a small architectural model or computer renderings. In the case of the Arena Stage project, the client and architects felt it was absolutely necessary to mock up the interior space. The project in Washington, DC ties together two existing theatres with a third intended as an incubator for progressive playwrights to develop new work. The new theatre by Bing Thom Architects throws out the notion of a neutral black box and proposes instead a place with its own unique character. Since this was a new approach to theatre design, nobody wanted any ambiguity as to the specifics of this character. The mock-up was also integral for acoustical testing because the nested spiral walls, tilted at four degrees, create an elliptical room, a shape that is inherently problematic from an acoustic perspective. To make the wall less acoustically present, it is built up of wood strips strapped horizontally to the wall in a wave-like pattern that allows sound to travel through and around to alleviate the hot spots that would adversely affect the audience’s experience. The acoustic sound consultant from Chicago set up his speakers in BTA’s parking lot to test the wall. He found a few glaring sound problems that were able to be resolved at a later stage in the design.

For the project in DC, it would have proved difficult to get local trades to build the mock-ups, so the architects at Bing Thom traded their monitors and mouses for saws and hammers to build it themselves. This process gave the architects a complete understanding of the construction they proposed. They were able to determine the ease with which this seemingly complicated assembly could be built. For the warp and weave of the wall, the architects tested the parameters of how much curve you could expect to get from wetting and flexing wood into place. The more costly and time-consuming process of steam-bending could have been specified on their drawings without having given it any more thought, but Bing Thom Architects try to push the envelope with the budget as well as the architecture to give their clients the most value possible. For this reason, BTA are constantly searching for ways to simplify building construction of their formally complex projects. In the case of the theatre wall, the sequence of construction was also a consideration; the flexed wood was to be painted or stained in various colours. This would be easier to achieve before the wood is set into place, but when water is later applied would it streak? To answer this question, they built a mock-up of the mock-up and tested various stains and sequences. From what I have seen, I suspect that the architectural models at Bing Thom Architects continue to grow and improve until they finally move onto site as finished buildings.

The design evolution at Bing Thom Architects does no
t stop with the completion of a building; new concepts are sometimes developed over a series of projects in the office. The timber and steel roof structure used in the modestly sized Vancouver Aquarium addition (see CA, November 2002) gave the architects the confidence and knowledge to expand the scale of it for Surrey’s Central City, and now the roof has grown even larger for the Arena Stage project. This proves that innovation even in small buildings can foster expertise in specific areas of building technology for an architectural firm. With their commitment to research and development of building materials, forms, and construction processes, Bing Thom Architects truly deserve the title of “master builders.”

Helena Grdadolnik, M.Arch., MRAIC, teaches Design History at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She can be reached at

All photos courtesy of Bing Thom Architects.