ARCHITECT gh3 Architects and Landscape Architects, R.V. Anderson Associates Limited
LOCATION Toronto, Ontario

Situated in Toronto, the Storm Water Quality Facility (SWQF) will treat urban runoff from the new West Don Lands development. While the project represents state-of-the-art handling and treatment of storm water, the design for the facility enclosure and site also elevates the spatial role of the infrastructure, evoking other historic infrastructural works–the R.C. Harris Treatment Plant, the Bloor Street Viaduct, and the Hearn Power Station–whose architectural character has helped define Toronto’s identity. The site, on the northeast corner of Lake Shore Boulevard and Cherry Street, will house a facility comprised of four major elements. The first is the storm-water reservoir, a 20-metre-diameter shaft covered by a radial steel grate that acts as an inverted siphon and receives untreated storm water from the surrounding development. Directly above is a discrete pump building perched on the edge of the reservoir. Finally, the most prominent elements of the facility are the storm-water treatment plant itself and the surrounding ground plane of stone paving that provides vehicular access. 

The design for SWQF takes these constituent parts and unifies them into a whole that renders the infrastructural function legible, didactic and aesthetically compelling. By intensively treating storm water, SWQF supports world-leading municipal standards for water quality in the city; by supporting the urban, mixed-use development of the West Don Lands, it contributes to vibrant and sustainable neighbourhoods; and through compelling design, it declares and celebrates the importance of public infrastructure to a thriving city.

The 300-square-metre facility will be a highly visible gateway to the West Don Lands. The client, Waterfront Toronto, wanted a landmark building to fill this crucial role in defining a new and distinctive precinct of the city. Creating this possibility within the site required a design that successfully addressed the intensive character of the surrounding infrastructure, including a railway bed to the north, and the ramps and roadways of Lake Shore Boulevard and the Gardiner Expressway to the south. The faceted, limestone-clad plant is set on a plane of the same material, creating a monolithic composition whose formal abstraction provides a striking counterpoint to the infrastructural complexity around it. Strategically placed glazed apertures within the façade reveal glimpses of the building’s inner workings, and become luminescent highlights within the form at night. Even when seen at high speeds from the Gardiner and Lake Shore, the form and site plinth register as a poetic ellipsis amid the intensity of their surroundings.

Programmatically, the SWQF is a building that tells a story of water. The design of the facility enclosure comes from the idea of a stone well, inverted to manifest as a sculptural form above ground. This modern interpretation of an ancient vernacular is further embellished by etchings on its surface that are transformed by precipitation into a system of rain channels running from roof to wall, to ground plane and shaft–a narrative of the larger system of urban hydrology in which the building is embedded. Additionally, exterior and interior LED luminaires will abstractly register information about the building’s performance. Thus, an infrastructural system that, in another context may have been completely opaque or illegible, here registers transparently and compellingly the work of sustaining a city to its inhabitants.

The fundamental intent of the SWQF is to contribute to a more sustainable model of city-building. In treating urban storm water that would otherwise discharge directly into the surrounding watershed, the facility speaks to a future in which dense urban development and healthy natural ecosystems are integrated and mutually beneficial. At the level of built design, both the facility and landscape utilize a local stone that is light in colour as the predominant exterior finish–a material that will have a low construction footprint, mitigate solar heat gain, and will last well beyond the service life of the facility. The result is a building whose individual performance will match its contribution to the broader project of sustainable development in the West Don Lands.

WF A concise urban insertion, exquisitely polished and set with lapidary precision into the site. It is at once enigmatic and compelling in its simplicity. A beautifully crafted piece that engages both its plaza forecourt and the public in the dialogue about a valued resource.

DN A strong design in the tradition of elevating the architectural role of infrastructural work. In Toronto, this is in keeping with such work as the Hearn Power Station and the R.C. Harris Treatment Plant. It is a strong sculptural piece that simultaneously fits in and stands out in a very intense concrete grey industrial area, framed by a raised expressway, ramps, roadways and a railway bed. The material palette is clean and simple.

PS Starkly formal but intense in its integration of weather, site, and the management of urban hydrology, this project finds delight in the residue of the engineered act. Absent is the glorification of the mechanics of treatment, and very present is the promising and sustained enjoyment of the aural and active event of treating water itself. I am drawn to the pure simplicity of this small performance as it transforms an urban ecological infrastructure from act into art. It is confident, bold, and superbly disciplined in its intentions. Mostly, I have fallen in love here with the promise of re-establishing architecture at the core of an otherwise overly engineered landscape of civic infrastructure that defines our cities.

CLIENT Waterfront Toronto
ARCHITECT TEAM gh3 (design architects): Pat Hanson, Diana Gerrard, Raymond Chow, Louise Clavin. R.V. Anderson Associates Limited (prime infrastructure consultant): Grazyna Krezel.
CONTRACTOR Eastern Construction
FAÇADE ENGINEER Picco Engineering
AREA 3,000 ft2