Calling Card: STGM Head Office, Quebec City, Quebec
PROJECT STGM Head Office, Quebec City, Quebec
ARCHITECT STGM Architects
TEXT Olivier Vallerand
PHOTOS Stéphane Groleau unless otherwise noted
An architecture firm’s office is often more than just another project. When done well, it is a calling card for an approach—an encapsulation of the firm’s philosophy, and a preview of what clients can expect for their own future buildings.
Quebec City firm St-Gelais Montminy + Associés Architectes (STGM) seized this opportunity recently with a new office that reflects their commitment to environmental sustainability. STGM’s former office was a cramped space, in a generic 1980s suburban office building in the residential borough of Charlesbourg. Its new purpose-built headquarters is spacious and striking: a contemporary two-storey structure in a formerly commercial and industrial zone of the borough of Beauport. It sits on a former service station lot, adjacent to an in-development eco-district.
The move positions the firm as a participant in the long-discussed transformation of a neglected neighbourhood into a model sustainable community. Moreover, the architects used the opportunity to design the province’s first private sector LEED-NC Platinum building. While keeping sustainability in mind at every scale, the design prioritizes the team’s comfort. The building’s success testifies to the compatibility and complementarity of both objectives.
The site itself is a statement of the firm’s dedication to sustainability: a five-minute drive from Quebec City’s downtown core, it is also next to a planned bus rapid transit terminus and a well-used bike path. The building allows STGM to bring together its affiliated firms and to share resources with them. This includes mechanical and electrical engineers Ambioner and interior designers IDEA, both of whom the firm collaborated with to create an efficient and integrated design.
These urban-level advantages are paired with careful site planning that limits asphalt surfaces and includes an electrical car outlet, reserved parking spaces for car-sharing, indoor bike storage, showers for active commuters, and two water retention basins. One of the basins, located on the west side of the building, ensures that nothing will get built on that edge and thus allows the firm to maintain sunlight input on their solar wall. These decisions set a progressive example for the planned urban revitalisation of the neighbourhood.
Inside, nearly every aspect of the design has been shaped by eco-friendly structural and material decisions. For example, white-painted doubled wood trusses define the character of the second floor studio, occupied by the architecture team. This lightweight structure was designed in reaction to the site’s low-bearing-capacity soil, making use of the firm’s experience with economical structures on other projects. With its doubled trusses and columns, the structure frees up long spans for the studio.
The four-foot-wide modules include room for a large number of operable windows, used in the shoulder seasons for natural ventilation. Heating and cooling loads are taken up by a high-efficiency aerothermal system that lowers energy consumption by an estimated 51%. The system includes a heat exchange system connected to a solar wall (a black cavity wall that collects and pre-heats air, accounting for 24% of the heating) and a non-insulated room at the back of the building. In this room, condensers are kept in a controlled environment that allows the system to more efficiently work with tempered air. Fresh air is heated by used air from the building, supplemented with a natural gas furnace in case of extreme cold. The furnace also acts as a backup for the entire system.
To conserve water, rainfall is diverted from storm drains and collected for flushing toilets. Six skylights in the studio and stairwells, along with plenty of large windows, provide natural lighting. An automatically adjusting LED system supplements daylight on cloudy days and in the evenings. The carpet pattern—based on the lighting diagram—playfully animates the resulting bright spaces.
The use of wood is not limited to the structure. In search of durable but lightweight materials, the architects clad the building with a simple composition of natural wood boards and black fibre cement panels that blend in with the solar wall. (Made of recycled material, the fibre cement panels frame the sides where building codes prevented the use of wood.) Inside, reused wood appears throughout the building: stairs are made of recycled beams from the contractor’s lumber yard, while the walls fronting partners’ offices feature salvaged wood siding, from 19th century houses in the nearby Beauce region. The team used a clear oil-and-resin based natural finish on both interior and exterior wood, and is currently monitoring how it ages and weathers.
Finding reused materials was one of the challenges of the project, according to design partner Stéphan Langevin. Kitchen cabinet frames and chairs were refurbished and brought from the previous office to cut down on construction waste—even though this was as expensive as purchasing new versions. Locally made furniture completes the fit-out.
The natural materials and light-coloured finishes create a calm ambience that helps employees to focus. In contrast, a less successful decision is the use of well-known quotes from architects and philosophers in a bold graphic that adorns the stairwells. These differ too sharply from the understated design of the rest of the building—which already speaks for itself about the essentials of sustainable, thoughtful architecture.
While not all of the implemented solutions are clearly visible to visitors, the building as a whole becomes an educational tool, demonstrating how a sustainable office building can be created with a relatively low budget. The result has the potential to impact clients’ decisions, as they directly experience the advantages of environmentally integrated construction, along with witnessing the design team’s pride for the design and their comfort within it. Conference groups visiting Quebec City have also toured the building.
The success of STGM’s office design shows that relatively small gestures and collaborative efforts can yield a building that is both intuitive to inhabit and easy on the environment. Like most architects, Langevin is not surprised: the new office confirms lessons learned on client projects, showing that building sustainably is well worth the extra effort. As he puts it, “there’s no reason not to do it.” Whereas many sustainable buildings are celebrated for their state-of-the-art systems, here the strategies are low-tech and, even with the sophisticated mechanical set-up, characterized by a less-is-more attitude.
If the building stands out in its current context—with a pizzeria parking lot to one side and the loading docks for a one-storey semi-industrial warehouse to the other—it is only because expected transformations to the neighbourhood are taking longer than wished for. After a few false starts, the adjacent eco-district now seems on the verge of getting off the ground. The final result may not be as radical as other eco-districts around the world. But a big step for environmentally sustainable
developments in Quebec will be made if the area’s new occupants take their cue from STGM’s lead, creating buildings as efficiently and intelligently designed as STGM’s new home.
Olivier Vallerand is an architect with 1x1x1 Laboratory. He also teaches at the School of Architecture at Université Laval.
CLIENT STGM Architects | ARCHITECT TEAM Stéphan Langevin, Michel Gingras, Guillaume Robin, Chantale Galibois, Raymond Boucher, Alex Guérin, Maxime Arcand, Valérie Gagné, Danielle Hébert-Boutin | STRUCTURAL Alco Group / BPR Tetratech | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Ambioner | CIVIL Roche | LANDSCAPE STGM / Les Urbainculteurs | INTERIORS STGM + IDEA | CONTRACTOR CEH Inc. | Graphic Design Publigriffe | LIGHTING Photolux Design | AREA 1000 m2 | BUDGET $2.7 M | COMPLETION September 2014