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December 19, 2009 | Christopher Hume | Toronto Star
"WINNIPEG–Some buildings are useful, others are attractive, occasionally even beautiful. A few might be called interesting. But how many buildings are genuinely important?
In Canada, there's only one that fits the bill – Manitoba Hydro Place. Located in downtown Winnipeg just blocks from the most celebrated corner in the country, Portage and Main, this is the first large office tower in Canada to deal seriously with the complexities of the 21st century.
This is a building that recasts corporate headquarters as a light-filled space shared equally by all employees. Unlike the energy-hog workplaces to which most Canadians are consigned, this one heats, cools and provides fresh air at a fraction of the usual cost.
At the same time, it contributes hugely to the urban fabric of a city that has had its troubles.
The starting point is a new understanding of how people and buildings work. The old hierarchical approach meant only bosses got daylight; now it's available to all. There are the meeting spaces, communal areas large and small furnished with tables and chairs, where employees gather formally and informally to hold meetings and/or eat lunch. Speaking of eating, Hydro decided against a cafeteria to encourage people to eat out, boosting local businesses. And let's not forget the filtered water available throughout the building; it has eliminated entirely the need for bottled water.
"People with allergies love the building," reports Bruce Kuwabara, whose Toronto firm, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, did the design work. "It's outperforming all expectations."
But the big moves are either invisible or below one's attention threshold. For example, the 22-storey complex sits atop 280 five-inch tubes bored 380 feet into an underground aquifer.
"It allows us to store heat," says Hydro's resident genius Tom Gouldsborough. "We recirculate that heat, not the air. We're hitting a 65 per cent drop in energy costs – $1.2 million annually – and we still haven't optimized things. We should hit 70-per-cent-plus soon."
Also unusual for Canada is the building's double-skin system. The two glass walls create a "thermal buffer" while allowing for maximum sunlight and warmth.
Another consequence of these measures and others is what Gouldsborough calls "significant gains in productivity."
Though so green a building would not be rare in Europe, in North America, it's all but unique. But not for long: This is how office towers will be built in the future. The fact is we don't have a choice.
As the history of the building makes clear, however, change begins with the process, not the product. In other words, how you design is as important as what you design.
Along with KPMB, the design team included Smith Carter Architects of Winnipeg and Transsolar, a German firm of energy engineers.
"They wanted a demonstration project," explains architect Kuwabara. "Hydro was looking for everything in one – sustainability, architecture and city-building."
As he also makes clear, it wasn't just a question of having an exceptional client, there also had to be an exceptional team.
"The architect is no longer at the top of the pyramid," he says, "but one member of a team. Integrated design is a formal process. Transsolar was key; what they brought was not only expertise, but also software capable of imaging the innovations we were considering such as geothermal heating and radiant cooling and heating."
By the way, the new headquarters is also an exquisite piece of architecture, a building that would stand out on any skyline, not just Winnipeg's. The tower is divided into asymmetrical sections by a thin glass wall that reaches high above the roofline. Despite the simplicity of the facades, the form goes well beyond the rigid geometry of the conventional corporate tower.
The complex consists of a tower on top of a large transparent podium. A compact public square fills out the site to the south. The ground floor, rented to banks and restaurants, opens to the street. Ironically, perhaps, Hydro Place feels much more integrated into the urban fabric than many existing developments nearby; they are still fighting the city decades later.
The most obvious symbol of Manitoba Hydro's commitment to green technology is an enormous solar chimney that begins where the roof ends. This large glass structure, which might be some sort of carillon, vents used warm air. In so doing, it helps draw fresh air into the building from numerous locations.
Though Hydro's 1,800 employees began moving into their new headquarters a year ago, many are still just arriving. There's a palpable sense of excitement about the place.
Remarkably, the main public space inside, the atrium, is becoming sought after for weddings, dinners and the like.
Though Canada's international reputation has suffered a beating in recent days at the Copenhagen climate conference, a project such as Manitoba Hydro might go some small way to redeeming the Not So Great White North.
Little wonder the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat named Manitoba Hydro the best office tower in North America. The reason was simple: It is the best office tower in North America."
Article by Christopher Hume, Toronto Star, Saturday December 19th, 2009