Toronto’s green architecture revival

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By Bruce Nagy

“He shoots, he scores! The Leafs win the Cup!” cried the announcer. The crowd at the Scotiabank Arena (formerly Air Canada Centre) was shrieking with joy. Players were leaping and hugging. Joe Fiction, the HVAC technician, was dancing on the table until he heard the less celebratory suggestion from his wife: “Quit dreaming and come to bed.” Joe got down and switched off the PlayStation. “She’s right,” he thought. “I’m dreaming. The Leafs are like the Titanic. They look great at first, then end up at the bottom of the Atlantic.”

Even with John Tavares, a rebuilt Toronto hockey team might never sip from Lord Stanley’s gaudy hardware. Joe awoke the next day and consoled himself with the knowledge that in his daily work he was part of a more promising Toronto building project – the city’s skyline.

The square boxes and glass towers of the 80s and 90s are gradually being accented by other kinds of structures, unusual buildings, architecture that is creative, even striking. And Joe and other technicians are working with new HVAC trends on some of these iconic structures.

Modern high-rise trends

There are several modern high-rise condominium trends employed at River City, a four-phase 1100-unit project designed by Saucier & Perrotte Architects and built by Bluescape Construction Management. The first two phases were attractive. River City 3 is a work of art, nestled at the mouth of the Don River like a chest with some drawers left casually open at various distances. The design impressed the judges and it captured a BILD Architecture Award in 2014. River City and other recent projects are garnering international admiration for Toronto’s design renaissance.

At 29 storeys, River City 3 is a typical downtown project with 332 tiny, expensive condo units wedged onto a parcel of land that might be less than an acre. Some of its features would have been atypical a few years ago, but with a continuing focus on energy savings, they’re becoming condo best practices.

The Smith & Andersen (consulting engineers) mechanical design uses a hydronic system, fan coils in suites and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) in bathroom ceilings. ERVs run continuously at a low level with a switch that allows residents to notch it up if needed. The four-pipe system means they control and pay for their own energy and can make adjustments 12 months of the year; like in the spring when the Leafs are losing to the Habs, and everyone must cool down.

HVAC and architecture

Higher ceilings help would-be buyers imagine living in less than 700 square feet, so the ductwork is left exposed, but must look good inside and out. “We created a custom designed grille for six different kinds of exterior cladding, including panels, curtain wall, window wall, board faced concrete and soffit,” reported Bluescape managing director Tim Otten. “Each suite has one exhaust and one intake. Externally we wanted to disguise where it was in the façade.”

“The bulkheads are rectangular boxes, so we custom built the grilles to fit. It’s just a slot about two by 24 inches, said Bluescape Project Manager Dan Coté. “You can hardly see it on the outside.”

The building achieved a LEED Gold rating by optimizing the envelope and equipment sizes. “Sustainability features include high efficiency condensing boilers, high-efficiency chillers, ECM motors, sophisticated controls,” reported David Rulff, a performance analyst with WSP Global, who collaborated with Smith & Andersen on system commissioning. “We’ve met Tier II of the Toronto Green standard, and have included green roofs, low flow plumbing, LED lights and ensuite ERVs.” They even installed energy-saving combo washer/dryers (not popular with some residents).

The building’s four Enerpro EPA hydronic heating boilers are 95 to 99 percent efficient – with vertical tube stainless steel heat exchangers – and two million BTUs with a turndown ratio of 10:1. Two Raypak X-Therm Series ultra-high efficiency water heaters are rated at 97 percent, with modulation up to 12.5:1 turndown and built-in cascading for four boilers.

“There are green roofs on the seventh, tenth and thirteenth floors,” says Otten. “They have drought-resistant, low maintenance plantings. We’ve they have been luckier than some developers, whose low maintenance plants have become brown roofs. Green roofs retain water longer and keep it out of storm sewers. They reduce the heat island effect.” “We’ve saved about 40 percent on energy,” said Rulff. “It’s a beautiful building, an interesting project and ambitious energy targets. Rare to find, and we’re happy to help them meet their goals.”

Geothermal heating, cooling

Another Toronto condo building is even greener, both in terms of energy-saving systems and its leafy design. The Plant, a new multi-story retail-office-residential project in trendy Liberty Village uses geothermal.

The Plant is ‘move up’ luxury housing in the middle of a sea of starter condos owned by GenXers and Millennials in the Queen West part of the city. The building’s theme is urban agriculture, so in addition to sustainable HVAC it offers self-watering aeroponic plant stands on terraces, kitchen carts for organic compost, seedling germination, a greenhouse, herb kitchen, communal vegetable garden, green roof, and so on.

One of the project’s technical innovations also applies to a handful of other condo projects for which geothermal systems were installed by Tim Weber’s company, Diverso Energy. “We integrate snowmelt systems for underground parking ramps with the geo. They’re cooling-dominant buildings and the snowmelt rejects heat into the ground, adding cooling capacity.”

Unique financing

Weber has decades of geothermal experience, yet the most innovative part of his story is not technical. It’s about the financial model. Weber spent years trying to sell geothermal in both Canada and the U.S. “In America, they had a three-year payback, tax credits, huge utility savings and I still couldn’t sell it, until I finally understood developer challenges. Usually, they’re fighting to meet schedules, capital budgets, marketing models and afraid to try something new. Then I show up and ask them to invest in geothermal!”

Weber found a different way. Diverso partnered with Montreal’s Eolectric, a pioneer in renewable energy, to finance, build, maintain and operate a building’s geothermal system for 30 years, after which the condo ownership boards can choose to buy them. The third-party aspect eliminates technical uncertainties and saves about a half a million dollars in capital costs for the developer. It is a utility model, like a gas or electric company. Diverso even handles accounts and billing.

One project in Richmond Hill, Ont. – Westwood Gardens – consists of 370 condo units in two high rise towers. It’s aimed at first-time Millennial purchasers. Under tighter mortgage rules, volatile fossil fuel HVAC adds to maintenance fees, which lenders consider. Diverso offers 30 years of heating and cooling, fueled by relatively stable electricity at 70 percent less cost.

The developer loved it because the Millennials could get financing more easily and units sold fast. Now they’re doing the same with a 564-unit project. “We’re putting geothermal under condo buildings all over the city,” remarked Weber.

While architecture becomes more artistic and sustainable in Toronto, it’s also being developed using financial creativity and marketing chutzpah.

The city’s architectural reputation is good therapy for Joe Fiction, who is afraid to watch hockey this fall. Sports fans in other cities even occasionally take time out from hating Toronto to allow a twinge of sympathy to creep in, for the decades of dashed hopes suffered by Leaf supporters.

The moment is short-lived, however, and then they justifiably return to cynical thoughts about both the Leafs and Toronto’s architecture. Let’s not forget, after all, that Toronto is the only place in the world that could have turned a shrine-like Maple Leaf Gardens into a grocery store.

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