Mixing Chamber

PROJECT Engineering 5 Building, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario
ARCHITECT Perkins+Will Canada
TEXT Gabriel Fain
PHOTOS Lisa Logan
The need to create a distinct image and identity has been a common trend in the design of new academic buildings emerging on university campuses across the country. With one of the top-ranked engineering faculties in Canada, the University of Waterloo is no exception and they have embarked on an ambitious project to expand and transform their aging facilities. The Engineering 5 building designed by Perkins+Will Canada represents the first bold move for the Faculty of Engineering as part of a master plan which will eventually include five new academic buildings.
Engineering 5 manages to distinguish itself with only a few simple gestures. It stands assertively on a raised landscape as the first building outside the existing campus ring road on a new parcel of land specifically designated for the Faculty of Engineering. Its immediate context is rather uninspiring with several old Research in Motion buildings, a single-storey plaza complex, and a research centre designed by Ron Keenberg–all within walking distance. The success of the project is as much about its ability to stitch together disparate parts of the campus into a coherent whole as it is about housing a diverse set of programs within a monolithic volume. The building itself operates on two distinct levels–it is on one hand a showcase for student work, while on the other hand it is a social mixer where communities can be formed between undergraduate, graduate and faculty members.
The Engineering 5 building represents a significant departure from the existing engineering facilities characterized by deep-plan buildings with endless corridors. The new six-storey building accommodates research, teaching and administrative spaces while consolidating previously fragmented departments including Mechanical, Electrical, and Systems Engineering. The strength of the building is the way in which the plan is resolved so as to seamlessly integrate two different types of spaces: the garage-like spaces of the Student Design Centre (SDC) on the lower two levels, and the more generic departmental floors with labs, offices and classrooms on the upper four levels.
The SDC in particular is intended to be the main showpiece for the building and serves to broadcast Waterloo’s award-winning student work to the rest of the campus. It is conceived as an industrial production space with concrete-framed work bays and shops supporting the design, construction and testing of student projects such as alternative fuel vehicles and robotics. Although the SDC does have a major presence in the interior of the building, its exterior public face seems underwhelming as a showcase. This is due in part to the large concrete entrance staircase which dominates the west elevation of the building and a landscape consisting of a stormwater retention pond–both of which create barriers to get up close to the students and their design work.
Despite these drawbacks, the upper levels of the interior of the building offer exceptional working environments. The majority of the interior spaces, in fact, were developed to be highly modular and transformable. Within a regular concrete structural system, interior partitions can be moved to accommodate various uses. Simple and economical materials are used throughout the interior while hints of colour applied on walls lend functional spaces a more human dimension.
At the heart of the building is a large atrium defined by a snake-like feature stair which ties into the social gathering spaces for each of the departments. The space of the atrium is a key component in setting up relationships between students and faculty and gives each department a unique address and visibility within the building. Designed as a cranked tubular truss that spans the length of the atrium, the feature stair is clad in a black acoustic baffle punctuated by linear LED lights. The lights become a motif defining a larger circulation system, tracing a path beyond the building itself through a dramatic curving bridge which links to the rest of the campus fabric. The idea of connectivity is a main theme in the project, as the design anticipates a planned expansion in 2014. Upper-level corridors will form bridges to the Phase 2 building, while a second atrium will create a central pedestrian spine through the campus precinct.
Although not a LEED-certified building, Engineering 5 is designed to a Silver rating. The envelope consists of a prefabricated unitized curtain-wall system with a white ceramic ink pattern. The frit is not only decorative but is strategically applied with varying degrees of density to allow for views and to provide shading. Operable fresh-air vents are also incorporated into each façade module. From a distance, the graphic gives the building its recognizable image. It creates the illusion of a three-dimensional surface consisting of pyramidal projections–a pattern not entirely arbitrary but derived from the interior of the building’s anechoic testing chamber.
The constant play between transparency and opacity allows for multiple readings of the building at various scales and at different times of the day. The elegant skin of the building, however, is disrupted only once by a somewhat misplaced cut-out made on the west façade. Here, the intent was to create an open terrace which offers views of the entire campus. But a large planter and an accessibility ramp take up most of the space, leaving very little room for outdoor seating. Having only been open for less than a year, it will be interesting to see how the engineering students take ownership of these types of spaces in creative ways.
Overall, the building is a good example of clear and economical planning principles given that federal and provincial funding programs allowed for only an eight-month design period. With this type of facility and its planned expansion, there is no question that a new sense of identity will be formed that builds upon the rich academic culture and reputation of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering.  CA

Gabriel Fain recently graduated from the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto where he was awarded the Heather M. Reisman Gold Medal in Design.

Client University of Waterloo
Architect Team Andrew Frontini, David Mitchell, Werner Sommer, John Potter, Aimee Drmic, Larry Silva, Gavin Guthrie, Athir Jamil, Heath Churchill, Elizabeth Livingston, Cameron Turvey, Clara Shipman, Joe Somfay, Perry Edwards
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen (Mike Moffatt)
Mechanical Smith + Andersen (Kevin Farbridge)
Electrical Crossey Engineering (David
Interiors Perkins+Will Canada
Contractor Bondfield Construction (Steve Aquino)
Lighting Crossey Engineering
Costing A.W. Hooker Associates
Life Safety Randal Brown & Associates
Area 175,00 ft2
Budget $48 M
Completion September 2010