Screening Modernism

Renovation, Richard Blanshard Building, Victoria, British Columbia
Williams + D’Ambrosio Architects

It is in Victoria where Western Canada’s first large building with a glazed curtain wall was constructed in 1955, heralding a heroic Modernism in this country. The Richard Blanshard Building’s more famous sister, the BC Electric Building in Vancouver, was completed two years later. The Blanshard’s legacy, as an important office building incorporating the latest building technology, continues. Williams + D’Ambrosio (W+D) took on the challenge of updating the life of the building through a variety of building strategies which included adaptive re-use, improving its energy efficiency, conserving building materials (thus recognizing the importance of embodied energy), natural daylighting and recognizing the value of life cycle costing. The development of these issues was assisted by the necessary seismic and building envelope deficiencies that needed to be addressed. In rethinking the 50-year old local Modernist icon, W+D respected the history and intention of the original design. Known originally as the Vancouver Island headquarters of the BC Electric Company, the building is now part of the Pandora Wing of the Richard Blanshard Building. It houses the province’s Ministry of Health offices.

Built in the early 1950s and subjected to a number of partial renovations, the building had seriously deteriorated and required extensive systems and functional modifications. Through many years of neglect, the British Columbia Building Corporation (BCBC) considered many options, with demolition becoming imminent. Because many of its consultants recognized its historic value and the potential for re-use, a strategy was devised to restructure the facility’s program and bring its building systems up to contemporary standards. A comprehensive design strategy focused on the integration of the performance of the exterior cladding with upgraded electrical and mechanical systems.

Completed in 1955 by the Vancouver architecture firm of Sharp & Thompson, Berwick, Pratt, the BC Electric Building was conceived as a showpiece for the province’s burgeoning hydroelectric power industry. Sited on a prominent corner in downtown Victoria, Martin Segger and Douglas Franklin noted in their book, Exploring Victoria’s Architecture that Ron Thom devised the siting and design of the original narrow building, which was located to save a row of mature side trees along Blanshard and provide for a park-like entrance. The original architects, Ned Pratt and Ron Thom, organized the seven storey building as a series of narrow slabs in an east/west direction and set back from Pandora Avenue. The building attempted to optimize daylighting exposure to the north and south. Solar gain and glare from direct sunlight were controlled with aluminum sunshades on the south, east, and west faces. The sunscreens were angled and curved in order to screen direct sunlight while reflecting and diffusing indirect daylight deep into the interior spaces. The aluminum framed curtain wall and sunscreens also celebrated BC’s newly established hydroelectric-powered aluminum manufacturing industry. When Williams + D’Ambrosio studied the optimum placement of the sunscreens through a series of computer calculations, they found that the original shading devices had been designed to within one degree of their optimum placement.

Structurally, the building is an ambitious single-span, reinforced concrete frame with a series of expressed concrete columns running through the glazing system along the perimeter. On the large first floor, a concrete post and beam structure defines the public entry, a landscaped court, and display pavilions.

The total gross floor area of the Pandora Wing is 46,676 square feet (4,336 m2). The building height is 79 feet (24 m). Typical office floors are 37 feet by 182 feet, with a typical gross floor area of around 7,000 feet (650 m2). The narrowness of the floor plate permits daylight to effectively penetrate deep into the offices. The solar shading devices screen the longer side of the building that faces south, thus reducing solar heat gain. As the east and west elevations are difficult to control for heat gain, the width was minimized which works well with the existing site conditions. Heat gain was assisted through the planting of hardy London Plane trees that provide for shade during those wonderfully long-shadowed West Coast afternoons and early evenings.

The implementation of new building controls allows for a system integrating daylight and artificial light, thus optimizing the building’s performance and minimizing its energy consumption. Individual and multiple-zone mechanical systems manage heat gain from solar radiation, light fixtures, equipment and people. The replacement of the building envelope with high-performance triple-glazed units and thermally-broken aluminum framing reduces the energy demand and mechanical wear on the new ventilation and heating systems. The new high-performance triple-glazed low-e curtain wall system has 4 and 2 vertical frame modules with a window system eight feet in height. The four-foot high blind-spandrel sections cover the 36* concrete down-stand beam at the edge of the floor slab. This spandrel section extends 1 above the floor level to cover an upstand concrete curb and avoids the tempering of the vision glass while providing space for utility lines along the perimeter. The new glazed vision panels extend to the 9 ceiling level and to the underside of the dropped beams. The new curtain wall framing is clear anodized aluminum to match the original. To minimize glare, a tinted blue/green glass that closely matches the colour of the original 1954 spandrel glass was chosen. As there was no historical record of the original colours of the back-painted spandrel glass, some investigation ensued in order to determine the original and appropriate “electric blue” used by BC Hydro.

Refurbishment and re-installation of the original aluminum sunscreens was completed during the replacement of the curtain wall. The existing roll-form 1/8* aluminum plate sunscreens were removed, straightened and trued to the original profile curve. The sunscreens were then stripped of the existing coats of paint that rendered the screens both ineffective and unappealing. Since the sunscreens were originally designed to reflect light, the architects specified an automobile paint that was an aluminum mill-finish colour. The use of automobile paint obviously provided excellent properties for exterior use, notwithstanding an attractive warranty. The re-installation of the sunscreens eliminated the lowest of the three bands that was found to be redundant, and which caused complaints from the workers, who found their view had been obstructed. Because some of the brackets and screens had deteriorated through corrosion, remnant materials provided a sufficient amount of material for refurbishment and re-use.

The renovation also included a major seismic upgrading to the original 1954 reinforced concrete structure. Steel strut braces, coupled to a hydraulic piston seismic friction damper system, were one of the first uses of its kind in North America. This dynamic seismic aid was tested in labs in California and installed in selected areas of the building’s faade. The seemingly random placement of the seismic upgrading system was based on computer modeling used in the design process and was in fact strategically placed throughout the building. The system of friction dampers that was used to dissipate energy moving through the building in the event of an earthquake proved ideal for enhancing the older reinforced concrete structure. The addition of new structural steel framing was minimal and so new foundation work was not required.

The installation of photovoltaic solar collector panels was included in a sustainable retrofit strategy. The photovoltaic panels were a demonstration project and were installed in the place of some of the spandrel panels on the south face of the building. They are connected to a monitoring system and po
wer outlet devices and are wired to feed the building’s conventional electrical system. The panels’ efficiency increased due, serendipitously, to the fact that the retrofitted sunscreens reflected sunlight onto its surface. The use of photovoltaic panels on a building that was originally designed to promote the image of a utilities company is noteworthy. The Pandora Wing of the Blanshard Building provides an excellent example of West Coast Modernism and demonstrates how current approaches to sustainable design and seismic upgrading can be incorporated into the re-use of a little-known icon. IC

Subsequent to the completion of the Pandora Wing Project in July 2003, the firm of Williams + D’Ambrosio Architects was dissolved in order for each partner to focus on different areas of architectural practice. Franc D’Ambrosio can be contacted at and Terry Williams can be contacted at

Client: British Columbia Building Corporation (BCBC)

Architect team: Terence J. Williams, Franc D’Ambrosio, Chris Gower, Carrie Smart

Structural: Blohm Vollan Peterson Gallaway

Mechanical: Hirschfield Williams

Electrical: Reid-Crowther

Budget: $4.5 million

Completion: November 2001

Photography: Chris Gower unless otherwise noted