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The green roofs of Vancouver

November 1st, 2009 / By: / Case Studies, Exteriors, Feature

The city’s new convention center brings together waterfront and city

There are green roofs and then there are green roofs. The new Vancouver Civic Centre West (VCCW), completed last April, boasts a Goliath of a green roof that covers a whopping six acres making it the largest in Canada and the largest nonindustrial living roof in North America. Comprising two tiers, one of which is accessible to the public, the green roof is planted with more than 400,000 indigenous plants and grasses—most of which will seasonally replant themselves, creating a natural habitat for birds, bees, butterflies, insects and small mammals. The roof also supports four hives, each of which is home to 60,000 bees whose honey is used by the Centre’s kitchen. The living roof was also designed to serve as an insulator against summer heat gain and winter heat loss. Its configuration is sloping and fractured simulating natural landforms. Its angled sections are interspersed with glazing that allows visitors to view the living roof from the interior. The VCCW also extends over the water creating tidal zones underneath that flush daily with the rise and fall of the tide.

The VCCW is a key—and final—piece of the Vancouver’s large, comprehensive waterfront development plan. Its site was the last waterfront real estate not yet part of the city’s public realm. More than 15 years in the design and making, the building is the result of a multidisciplinary design team led by Mark Reddington of Seattle-based LMN Architects in collaboration with Vancouver-based Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership and DA Architects & Planners. Explaining the design process, Reddington states, “We needed to define how the city actually meets the water and how the building could incorporate that and still be part of the public realm. It’s where the water meets the land. The Convention Centre plays a huge role in Vancouver’s waterfront space yet it still needs to function as a convention center.” LMN and the city have applied for LEED Canada Gold. In 2010 it is also serving as the international broadcast and media center for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, housing more than 7,000 media personnel who will broadcast globally.

To create a comprehensive and sustainable building design, Reddington and his team expanded the typical convention center agenda to include the adjacent public parkland, the rehabilitation of the surrounding natural waterfront habitat, incorporation of the spectacular mountain and marine views, and an integrated green roof, all in a holistic and multidisciplinary approach. In addition to horticulturalists, the design team included marine biologists who developed restoration plans for 60m of shoreline and 457m of marine habitat. “We needed to understand how all of the different systems of the city, the land, the water intersect,” states Reddington. “The basic idea was how to make it really part of the landscape and still function as a major part of the city.”

Not surprisingly, water plays a big role in the buildings design and living roof. An integrated irrigation system keeps the rainwater on the roof for as long as possible. Excess rainwater runs into drainage channels and is reused to irrigate it. The building’s black water treatment system processes sewage for other uses and provides about 80% of the gray water needed for toilets and irrigation of the living roof. In drought conditions, the building can harvest sewage water from the city. A desalination plant draws water from the harbor and processes it to supply additional nonpotable water demands. A seawater heat pump system takes advantage of the constant temperature of adjacent seawater for irrigation of the living roof.

One of the design questions was how the building was to visually and materially relate to the earlier Vancouver Convention Centre East (also called Canada Place), which was built in the late 1980s. The latter has a notable tension fabric roof. The conclusion was not to compete with or dilute this aesthetically unique element of the existing east building. Reddington believes that the complex benefits from the juxtaposition of the two aesthetically different buildings.

The VCCW project encompasses 108,000m2, 36,000 of which is walkways, bikeways, public open space and plazas. One end of the 4,950m2 ballroom is floor-to-ceiling glass, affording spectacular views of the water and mountains beyond. Acoustic wall panels are made of fabric and ring the perimeter of the expansive space. “The wall of glass is one of the most dramatic things about the design. It’s the most dramatic setting for a convention center in the world,” says Reddington. Local materials were used throughout, including hemlock-clad walls and Douglas fir slat ceilings harvested from Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Indoor air quality is high due to a natural ventilation system.

For Reddington it was rewarding to see the building finally open to the public. “For so many years it was a set of ideas, issues and plans,” he says. When it finally opened it became part of the city.” Indeed it did. The weekend of the grand opening, more than 65,000 people came through its doors, claiming it as theirs, christening it as part of Vancouver’s community life.

“We’d like to think of the Convention Centre West as part of citymaking, not building-making,” adds Reddington. “Using ideas of sustainability and urbanism, we are making the world in a responsible, more progressive way.”

Mason Riddle is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture.

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