Reaching New Heights

Over the past decade, downtown Vancouver has undergone significant transformations. The former Expo lands along False Creek continue to be redeveloped, with no fewer than 26 high-rise condominium towers materializing in the last four years. Yaletown is being persistently densified with mixed-use buildings, and a new upscale hotel is scheduled for completion in 2002. And, in the core, tall buildings continue to make regular appearances.

Sited on Burrard Street between the West End and Yaletown, the city’s newest high-rise–One Wall Center–echoes and amplifies two Vancouver trends: high-end residential condominiums aimed at the wealthy, and luxury hotel accommodations targeting the city’s conference and tourism visitors. However, with Busby + Associates of Vancouver as architects, One Wall Centre reflects not only local tendencies, but also notions of modernism, an important set of environmentally-considerate features and an original siting solution.

The building underwent significant changes during its design and construction phases, with height and glazing having been the subjects of debate almost since the initial permit application (see “Up Against the Wall,” CA September 2000). In its completed state, it remains innovative and stands apart from what might be seen as typical for Vancouver. The city has been inundated with 35-storey residential towers that feature six to eight units per floor; One Wall Center rises to 45 storeys and accommodates multiple uses.

Its siting on the downtown core’s highest topographic point is significant: the 137-metre tower dominates the built landscape. From many vantage points, in fact, one third of the structure extends beyond Vancouver’s skyline. The approach to downtown from the southern reaches of Oak Street offers views of a horizon with a single building appearing to protrude some 13 storeys above the rest. Combined with the topography, the uncommonly thin building has dramatically altered the cityscape.

At first glance, the tower appears sited at an odd angle relative to the urban grid. The grid is in fact rotated some 45 degrees from a north-south orientation, and the building is in turn positioned at 45 degrees to the grid, adopting a true north-south alignment. This rupture from its immediate surroundings is reinforced by its placement on the development block: rather than directly confronting the potentially problematic intersection of Nelson and Burrard Streets–the neo-Gothic First Baptist and St. Andrew’s Wesley Churches are on the west side of Burrard–the tower is set back towards Hornby Street. Also, as part of a larger development complex, the tower addresses its Wall Centre companions: two high-rise towers located towards Helmcken Street. The three are connected by above and below ground links.

The building is sited such that it can be approached from Burrard, Hornby or Nelson Streets, depending on which of its various uses is to be accessed. Along Burrard Street, a semi-public park-like space, Volunteer Square, includes small, well-ordered lawns, fountains and outdoor seating covered with custom-designed steel and glass “umbrellas.” The distinctive geometry imposed on the space identifies it as part of Wall Centre, resulting in its feeling slightly more private than public. Landscaping strategies include areas beyond the grass patches that are lined with the same marble tiles used in the earlier project phases, which helps to unify the complex.

Volunteer Square provides pedestrian access to the hotel lobby. On Hornby Street, there is a vehicular entrance to the lower level of the same lobby as well as to the underground parking. The approach is direct and while it does bring visitors close to the front door, the relatively constrained space provided for vehicles may result in problems when the hotel hits peak periods. On Nelson Street, there is a pedestrian entrance to the separate condominium lobby space. A concierge greets visitors, as does a separate bank of elevators to the upper residential units (these elevators are also accessible from the lower parking levels).

The typical floor plate is football-shaped, the core elliptical. The first 25 floors, taken up by the hotel, are organized to maximize views and optimize space. The three floors immediately above the hotel are developed as “vacation ownership” suites and, while varied, they are unified by means of their finishes. The topmost 17 floors comprise the residential condominiums, and are divided into quadrants, providing four units per floor. Some buyers have opted to combine two or more units, both horizontally adjacent and stacked.

The exceptions to the standard floor plates are the hotel lobby and the lower level conference facility that extends beneath the semi-public outdoor square. The conference centre rivals any of the city’s rapidly expanding set of meeting facilities, offering elaborate communications and lighting systems, multiple movable partitions and podiums. The hotel is the first in Canada to provide high speed Internet access in every guest and conference space. Combined with the earlier phases of the convention centre, the whole comprises some 4,000 square metres of meeting rooms, including a 1,000 square metre ballroom.

A restrained selection of materials that could be described as typically West Coast–concrete, glass and wood–succeeds in unifying the condominium-hotel-conference program elements. In part the result of changes during construction, the exterior has come to reflect the various program elements: clear glazing on the upper portion of the tower corresponds to the condominiums, the dark glazing below to the hotel floors. Some off-white glass spandrel panels provide light, but not view, to special areas such as kitchens and washrooms. The elliptical form of the rooftop mechanical room echoes that of the core and is covered in clear finished aluminum panels.

While the exterior finishes distinguish the program elements, the interior finishes work well in unifying them. With the exception of the three floors of “vacation ownership” suites, the core is finished in hemlock veneer (chosen because of hemlock’s rapid regenerative qualities). Throughout, there is consistency in material use: limestone flooring in the lobbies, carpet in other public areas, hemlock-finished millwork and exposed columns as well as strategically-placed exposed surfaces along the core and other areas.

A host of environmentally-considerate features are incorporated in the design, including a high performance three-element glazing system, energy efficient light sources, electrical controls to regulate waste while recovering energy, low water consumption plumbing fixtures, and interior finish materials with low embodied energy. Glazing comprises approximately 95 percent of the gross wall area–a significant design feature that involves an important set of considerations: one-third of the structural silicone curtain wall is comprised of silver coated clear glass, maximizing interior daylighting. Operable windows provide access to natural ventilation.

The orientation of the building (already discussed in terms of urban design strategies) and its shape are important factors in the mechanical design. The architecture and siting resulted in two zones–north and south–and one principle feature is the use of heat pumps to move warm air from the south side to the north side, capitalizing on the building’s orientation. The overall scheme surpasses ASHRAE 90.1 energy requirements by some 10 percent.

To compensate for wind shear, a novel system was developed by the architects, structural engineers and wind performance consultants using two large rooftop water reservoirs–tuned liquid column dampers–as counterweight mechanisms. Located at opposite sides of the building’s roof and oriented at 90 degrees to the building’s axis, the 16 metre long by 4.5 metre wide by 8 metre high U-shaped tanks are filled with water to the bottom level of the U. A damper is installed at a midpoint of the lower U and, along with variable water levels, wave modulation can be adjusted. As the wind pushes a
gainst the building, the sway creates a wave in each tank; the waves correspondingly act as counter forces to the wind. In case of emergency, the water reservoirs can be utilized for fire fighting in the upper portion of the tower, while a fire pump at the bottom feeds standpipe and sprinkler systems in the lower portion.

With a gradual, phased occupancy between May and October 2001, it remains to be seen if the high expectations and optimism associated with the building at its construction start-up will be met. Many of the design features will ensure some measure of success; the balance will rest with the operation of its systems. Beyond its environmental performance, the innovative “vacation ownership” concept combined with luxury condominiums and the hotel facility will demand an aggressive maintenance program, which may help ensure durability and result in the building maintaining its quality of “newness” for a longer time.

The building’s long-term impact on the Vancouver skyline is, for now, unclear. On the one hand, and judging from a new project recently initiated further up Burrard Street, a trend for taller towers seems sparked. However, recent world events may impose a restrained and more conservative approach to the design of tall buildings. What is certain is the project’s significant contribution to more innovative solutions in terms of programmatic uses, architectural innovation and environmental responsibility, raising the stakes in a city of towers.

Daniel Millette is completing an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of British Columbia; his home department is the School of Architecture.

One Wall Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia

Busby + Associates Architects

Client: Wall Financial Corporation

Architect team: Peter Busby (principal), Brian Ellis (associate-in-charge/project architect), Rick Piccolo, Adam Slawinski, Brian Billingsley, Martin Neilsen, Susan Ockwell, Stephan Chevalier, Joanne Heinen, Steve Palmier, Jim Huffman, Clive Eveleigh

Structural: Glotman Simpson

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: Arnold Nemetz & Assoc.

Landscape: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

Interiors: Mitchell Freedland Design

Wind performance: RWDI

Acoustics: Brown Strachan

Traffic: Bunt & Associates

Geotechnical: GeoPacific Consultants

Kitchen: Canow Food Equipment

Contractor: Siemens Development

Area: 41,950 m2

Budget: $80 million (furnishings and equipment not included)

Completion: Summer 2001

Photography: as noted