Toronto region watershed restoration organization’s green new headquarters reuses and reconnects their existing site

One of the most active restoration economy organizations in the Canadian province of Ontario is the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). I (Storm Cunningham) got to know them when I keynoted their Partners in Project Green conference some years ago, and have tracked their many excellent watershed restoration-related activities ever since.

Toronto’s topography is rather unique, in that the eastern half of the city is riven with ravines. Inspired by TRCA’s role in regenerating the ecology and water quality of these ravine systems, ZAS Architects—in a joint venture with Bucholz McEvoy Architects—designed the organization’s new headquarters into one of the most energy efficient mid-rise commercial buildings in North America.

The ravine edge of the site is integrated into the project landscape design and thereby brings the ravine ecology “into” the building. The landscape integrates active transportation entry points, including connections to bike trails in the ravine.

Making the new building even greener is that fact that they created it on their existing site, and retained their old, two-story headquarters building.

In addition to providing TRCA with a new light-filled, welcoming, and flexible workplace, unique to the organization’s vision was the holistic and “wood first” approach.

From the elevator core to the exterior cladding, the building uses a mass timber structure and will be built almost entirely out of wood, a significant change from the typical steel and concrete used in most commercial builds.

Cedar wood cladding on the exterior is sourced from Ontario and references the heritage buildings in the adjacent Black Creek Pioneer Village, some that date back 150 years.

Amplifying the important conservation work of TRCA at multiple touch points, the exposed mass timber structure, wood staircase and elevator core, provides a strong biophilic work environment and acts as a repeated visual reminder of the building’s connection to the natural environment.

The architecture of TRCA’s new office responds sensitively to the ravine context while expressing the mission of the organization. An Urban Woodland will be included as a new public space adjacent to the main entrance of the building where visitors and employees can gather to enjoy the landscape.

Sitting adjacent to the Black Creek ravine system, the building’s geometry follows the natural topography creating terraces that move with the ravine edge. At each level, views from the south-facing façade pull the ravine edge visually into the core of the project, providing opportunities for employees and visitors to engage with the natural landscape.

We envisioned TRCA’s new workplace as one that will inspire, motivate and support the culture of its employees, who are champions of the local environment. We approached the design as an opportunity to reimagine the TRCA’s relationship with Black Creek Ravine, of which TRCA is a guardian,” says Peter Duckworth Pilkington, Principal, ZAS.

In addition to the use of wood and an energy efficient building envelope, other sustainable design features include a green roof, rainwater harvesting, low impact landscape development, and solar chimneys which will generate five per cent of the building’s electricity.

Using a combination of low carbon electrical power from Ontario’s grid, geothermal energy and roof mounted solar panels, the project is targeting Net Carbon Zero, LEED® Platinum V4, Toronto Green Standard Level 2, and WELL Silver certifications. When compared to traditional office buildings of this size, carbon emissions along with operating costs are projected to be reduced by up to 50 per cent.

TRCA’s new predominantly plant-based workplace will become a living model for TRCA to show their partners and visitors how projects can be built sensitively and responsibly next to ravine landscapes.

The atria on the ground floor with large skylights allow daylight to penetrate deeply into the building, highlighting the project’s biophilic design. Building on this theme, the design combines cutting-edge sustainability technologies with traditional techniques.

In addition to providing visitors with enhanced views of the Black Creek ravine from public meeting rooms, a major focal point for the employee and visitor experience are four water walls in the main atrium.

Encased in glass and extending to the height of the building, the water walls serve a dual function, symbolizing TRCA’s role of safeguarding the GTA’s watersheds while also being an integral part of the building’s HVAC system. Making a part of the building’s mechanical system visible was an unusual but very intentional choice.

Through the water wall feature, we’re making the building’s life support systems that are usually hidden infrastructure visible and tangible. Making the invisible, visible when it comes to energy use, serves as a very real reminder of the impact our daily lives and decisions have on the planet every day,” says Duckworth Pilkington.

While a high-tech HVAC system and an automated exterior blind system manages the building’s heating and cooling, occupants will be engaged to become active participants, much like they are active stewards of resource management for the community. Under the right exterior conditions staff will be alerted by the building’s automation system through their personal devices, to either open or close windows to ensure the building is using energy most efficiently.

The sustainability approach is not a default approach; it’s been a holistic approach so that the whole building works as an ensemble from the use of mass timber to the ‘water walls’. ZAS and the design team have been very successful providing a place where both TRCA staff and visitors are able to experience and understand TRCA’s mandate in a building that is functional, cost-effective, innovative and provides a healthy place for collaboration,” says Jed Braithwaite, Manager of Contract Services & Asset Maintenance Property, TRCA.

TRCA’s new office design was an organizational priority to both improve the efficiency and environmental impact of their workspace, while also improving employee wellness and their connection to the organization’s mandate. The holistic approach came together through an extensive collaborative process between ZAS, Bucholz McEvoy Architects, and TRCA employees.

TRCA broke ground on their new administrative office in January of 2020. The mass timber structure will be in place by the end of September this year with occupancy in September 2022.

Renderings courtesy of ZAS Architects.

See TRCA website.

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