Architects Build Environmental Features Into Design

Renowned Chicago architect Sara Beardsley of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture was a speaker at the Reimagine Series this spring in both Edmonton and Calgary. She spoke to Alberta Venture about redefining our urban landscapes.

by Colleen Biondi
Photograph by Bluefish

Sara Beardsley

CRITICAL EYE: Architect Sara Beardsley says there is plenty of opportunity for Alberta’s big-city buildings to become modern and efficient

AV: What design would benefit Calgary and Edmonton’s downtowns?
It is a very interesting time in these cities. We are all conscious of environmental issues and reducing carbon emissions; by taking a hard look at our existing buildings and deciding how to improve upon them, we can help with this. If there are buildings with high vacancy rates, revitalization practices can make them more marketable (more esthetically pleasing, more user-friendly); if a building uses excess energy, revitalization can help mitigate this.

I recommend a comprehensive approach. Look at all aspects of the building – from the shell to the mechanics to the site itself – and figure out how the building fits into the city. This information will help guide strategies to uniquely re-imagine that building. >

What LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) principles guide urban design in a cold, northern climate?
Chicago has a similar climate, although not as extreme as in Alberta. One issue that is dear to my heart is the building envelope; how well insulated are the walls and windows? That is a big issue in LEED – you can get significant points in the category of Energy Efficiency related to how well the building is insulated.

There are also points designated for renewable energy such as solar panels. When you put solar panels on a high-rise building, it helps, but the roof is not very big; if you put solar panels on a horizontal building – where the roof platform is large – you can attract more energy from the sun.

Aside from grand signature buildings, are there smaller initiatives that can make a design statement?
Definitely. There are ways to save energy that are pretty much invisible to the building user. A lighting control system, for example, will sense when there is daylight coming into the building and will automatically dim the lights to a level that is good for the work environment. Also there are occupancy sensors (these detect when a building has few people inside) which will adjust the light accordingly.

On the mechanical side, a lot of old buildings have constant volume systems. What you really want are variable volume systems which allow the air to vary according to factors like occupancy or time of day.

Many measures are inexpensive and have short paybacks (switching up light fixtures, putting in control systems). But as you get into more intensive renovations, you can’t think of it as an immediate payback. Instead you should think – what can I gain from revitalizing this building? Could it be more utilized or better occupied?

There is a market for this kind of investment. If you put $50 per square foot into a building with a good shell – but one which could benefit from an interesting new facade or green element – that can pay off. Building a new building might cost up to $400 per square foot, so in these times it is economically wiser to invest in existing buildings.

New York City has a great new policy whereby existing buildings have to track their energy use. Newly renovated buildings have to meet today’s code standards. Most cities do not yet require this; you can have an old building using an inordinate amount of energy where there are no requirements to change. It is simply grandfathered in.

Does a city need a distinctive urban landmark that defines its skyline?
That is very important. It gives the city its identity. Everyone feels a kinship to that city through the buildings and the skyline. In Chicago, whenever a new large building goes up everyone has to talk about it because it changes the skyline and the skyline belongs to everybody. With landmark buildings, people get concerned when you start talking changes, like renaming them or renovating. Although many buildings could benefit from a complete re-imagine of the facade or the architecture, with historically significant buildings another approach might be better. You could keep the existing materiality of the building but retrofit the glass, for example.

What is the most significant advance in urban design over the last 10 years?
A lot of what we talk about at the office is how to make our cities more walkable and more mixed-use. Because if you can live in the city with nice green spaces and can walk to work and have your retail and public transit systems handy, that will cut down on driving and carbon emissions.

Are cities and developers recognizing the need to move away from basic designs to appealing and gathering-place designs?
I think they are. In Chicago you get zoning bonuses for putting a public park on site, for example, or for having a green roof. If a site is zoned for 16 storeys and you introduce some green elements, you are allowed to build on a few more storeys. You also get bonuses for underground parking. Because although it is expensive to put in an underground system, people don’t want to see a bunch of parking lots outside on the street.

In Chicago we have a lot of hard surfaces; we have little shade and few green spaces. So, we look at where we can make a difference. How about making the street more walkable with a bi-level street system with an express bus lane on the lower level and a wider bike lane and walking area and retail on the upper level?

In dense environments, you can integrate green spaces into (or onto) the buildings themselves. A good example is a green roof. This helps with urban heating, since in the city dark-coloured roofs can generate five to 10 degrees more heat in the summer. Although this might be appealing to Albertans (who have cooler summer temperatures), it is not appealing in Chicago summers. Putting in a green space or making a lighter roof can mitigate that. Green roofs also hold storm water better. If there is a big rain event, these kinds of roofs allow the water to gradually go into the sewer system without overburdening it. It can be a positive thing for water infrastructure.

What designs do you like?
I have been up the CN Tower (in Toronto) and I love that for the height of it. I am a tall buildings person, so that explains that. I am looking forward to seeing more Canadian architecture when I am in Alberta.

The John Hancock Tower in Chicago has great structural expressionism. It has exterior bracing that goes up the building and it actually tapers.

I am working on the reconstruction of the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower and the tallest building in North America) in Chicago. It is 1,450 feet tall (110 storeys) with antennas of over 350 feet. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on such an iconic building. I am also working on a super tall building in the Middle East I’m most excited about.

We can have tremendous impact with existing buildings, particularly large ones, in terms of saving energy. For example, with the Willis Tower, every 10 per cent of energy saved is like planting a million trees. People think of cars when they think of pollution, but they don’t think of existing buildings much. In Chicago, old buildings and their out-of-date systems and operations are responsible for 70 per cent of carbon emissions.

What will it take to see the ideas presented at the Reimagine Series accepted more widely?
It will take awareness of how much energy existing buildings consume and how retrofitting is environmentally friendly. The other is the economy and getting finances for these projects. It is difficult to get big reconstruction loans in the U.S. these days. Policy informs practice, so supportive zoning policies need to be more widely available. There need to be some good example buildings out there – the Willis Tower and the Empire State Building are two of these. The Empire State Building has a retrofit plan to save 38 per cent of its energy; it is looking at windows, control systems, lighting. It is a comprehensive program.

What is your key message for architects today?
I want people to think of existing buildings in a new way. There are opportunities to save energy and to create an economically sound investment. Our existing cities are important and need to continue to evolve to be relevant.

Every building is unique. Take the time to get to know the building and what is special about it in order to discover how exactly to approach it. To me, when I need ideas, I’ll walk around cities and look at buildings. That is how I keep fresh. At our firm we think of architecture and sustainability in engineering as one thing, not just as a building but as a living machine.

July 2010 Contents



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