Vivian Manasc, co-founder and senior principal, Manasc Isaac Architects. Photo: Aaron Parker

Sustainability drives Vivian Manasc's transformation of a downtown Edmonton eyesore

Associated Engineering Plaza, located on a prime piece of downtown real estate at the intersection of 109th Street and Jasper Avenue, has long held the dubious distinction of being one of Edmonton’s uglier buildings. Former newspaper columnist (and current city councillor) Scott McKeen once even blamed the building’s brutalist blandness for stopping traffic and causing his hair to fall out, among other sins. He suggested its uninspired exterior could be attributed to architecture students working only with beige fingerpaint.

WSP Place, on the other hand, should leave traffic in the area flowing smoothly—unless drivers start slowing down to admire the stylish addition to the city’s downtown (no word yet on McKeen’s hairline, though). It may even make locals forget that Associated Engineering Plaza is still buried somewhere inside. This is no new building, but rather a complete redesign of the old structure.

Vivian Manasc agrees that the building was never among the more attractive architectural avatars of downtown Edmonton, even if she is not inclined to express herself in the same colourful terms as McKeen. The co-founder and senior principal of Manasc Isaac Architects was brought in by building owner ProCura to breathe new life into the dated facility, built during the 1970s. However, the project is about far more than aesthetics. WSP Place—a finalist in Alberta Construction Magazine's 2016 Top Projects Awards—boasts a high-performance curtain wall and numerous other features designed to greatly improve its environmental performance in addition to polishing up its appearance.

For Manasc, this is precisely the sort of challenge her architectural career has been built upon. Her keen interest in sustainable construction is widely known, and in recent years her firm has developed a niche for itself reimagining existing buildings for a new era of environmental responsibility. She spoke to Alberta Construction Magazine editor Joseph Caouette on the WSP Place redevelopment and why existing buildings are crucial to any discussion of sustainability.

ACM: What were some of the major sustainability issues in WSP Place that needed to be addressed?

Manasc: The first one was energy. We wanted to cut the energy use in half by improving the thermal performance of the envelope. Of course, along with heat loss comes an uncomfortable building, so we also wanted to make the building more comfortable for the occupants. By creating a better building envelope—a better insulated and more transparent envelope—we could create a building that’s more enjoyable to be inside. Making it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer is the objective. In addition, we’re adding solar panels on the roof to reduce purchased electricity use. We’re also going to be integrating a combined heat and power unit.

ACM: What are the overall energy savings of the project?

Manasc: We modelled it to be about 54 per cent energy savings. In addition to that we have a lot more daylight. Obviously, this depends on how sunny it is, but we anticipate that around the perimeter the electric lights won’t have to be on for much of the year. There will be sufficient daylight because we’re replacing the old dark glass with new, much clearer glass. You get much better light quality. And the new windows are all triple-glazed, so that means it will be warmer around the edge. You won’t feel that cold draft you feel with an old double-glazed window.

ACM: How important is it to get everyone, including the owners and the subcontractors, cooperating on a project like this?

Manasc: It’s critical, because we did the entire renovation in a fully occupied building. That’s one of the keys to doing a healthy reimagine project. We had to plan the logistics of the construction and design very carefully, because you have to make sure all the systems are still running. We had to make sure that the tenants moved their desks away from the windows so we could hoard in the area around the exterior wall and be able to proceed with the construction without interrupting their work. During some of the noisier parts of the project, we limited construction to after 5 p.m.

ACM: Have you added to the building’s lifespan?

Manasc: This building is now good as new. We’ve probably added 50 years to its life. Not that it was going to fall down, but it was just not going to be an attractive property for people to occupy. As new buildings come on stream and create alternatives for tenants, these older buildings really do have to compete.

ACM: Are there common problems with many of these older office buildings in Alberta?

Manasc: Tons. The most common thing is that they have precast concrete on the outside, and precast concrete is not especially well insulated and well sealed. Those buildings do tend to be a bit drafty and uncomfortable, and they’re also not very attractive. It’s a question of finding ways to both make them look better and make them perform better, and to do that at a price you can afford. It’s an interesting challenge. For example, on WSP Place we removed about half of the precast concrete. The other half we left in place and covered, insulated and put new cladding over it. It was a mix-and-match kind of strategy.

The windows from the 1970s are also really poor quality, generally speaking. Whether they’re strip windows or whether they’re curtain wall, they tend to be pretty leaky. You couldn’t dramatically improve the performance of the envelope without changing out the windows and the curtain wall.

ACM: How significant is the opportunity to improve environmental performance in these older buildings?

Manasc: On any given tower from the 1970s, you could cut energy use in half without even really trying that hard. If you have a good team that really knows how to reimagine a building, you could do even better than that.

ACM: Edmonton and Calgary are both going to have a glut of new office space coming online in their downtowns over the next few years. Are you seeing more interest in these reimagining projects as a result?

Manasc: Absolutely. The new buildings are drawing some of the better tenants, which means that the older buildings have to be upgraded to compete. And there’s a great opportunity for those older buildings because the time is right. Those buildings are all in the 25- to 30-year age range when they’re ready to be recapitalized anyway. As that opportunity arises, there’s a chance to make better building envelopes, smaller mechanical systems, more energy efficient buildings and ultimately healthier buildings for people.

ACM: Do you have anything to add on the topic of sustainability?

Manasc: I think the big future of sustainable building is to reimagine the existing building stock. That’s really what we’ve talked about for years in our studio—you can design as good a new building as you possibly can, but it doesn’t make a dent in the world until you start to reimagine existing buildings. From a global perspective, we need to dramatically reimagine the existing building stock in order to drive down our carbon footprint.

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