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Solar ‘wings’ to top off zero carbon project

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by Don Wall

Kevin Stelzer, principal at B+H Architects, is frank in describing the challenge of designing one of Canada’s first large-scale institutional buildings to qualify to meet the Canada Green Building Council’s (CaGBC) new Zero Carbon Building Standard.
A joint venture design partnership of B+H Architects and mcCallumSather is working with owner Mohawk College and contractor EllisDon in the design and construction of Mohawk’s Joyce Centre on the Fennell Campus in Hamilton, Ont.
A joint venture design partnership of B+H Architects and mcCallumSather is working with owner Mohawk College and contractor EllisDon in the design and construction of Mohawk’s Joyce Centre on the Fennell Campus in Hamilton, Ont. - Photo: B+H AND mcCALLU MSATHER

Stelzer's firm is currently working with joint venture design partner mcCallumSather on the new Joyce Centre for Partnership and Innovation at Mohawk College's Fennell Campus in Hamilton, Ont. The contractor is EllisDon.

It's tough going, said Stelzer in a recent interview — thrilling and fun, but very tough going.

"We have to re-run our energy calculations over and over and over," he said. "Every change in the design and every value engineering proposal by the contractor we have to plug that into our model and re-run it. It is very, very arduous we found. The rigour and discipline around that energy performance is above and beyond our previous methodologies."

Stelzer's constant collaborator is Mohawk's chief building and facilities officer Tony Cupido, who also acknowledges the tremendous technical pressure of steering one of 16 pilot projects announced by the CaGBC when the new zero carbon standard was unveiled in late May.

"You can't run and hide from the net zero term, you have to make it work," said Cupido. "You can't say it's net zero without being able to demonstrate that through all the models and then through the performance."

The $54-million, five-storey, 96,000-square-foot Joyce Centre is slated for completion next spring, in time for classes the following fall. The structure is destined to become instantly iconic, suggest Stelzer and Cupido, with massive twin "wings" hosting photovoltaic panels perched on the roof.

Student spaces will include solar-powered labs, workshops, open study spaces and a lecture theatre, but given the unique nature of the building, and the educational programming that it will enable, the project team is designing its mechanical and electrical spaces and even roof access to become part of the learning environment. The building itself thus becomes a teaching tool, said Cupido.

"We think students will be able to be engaged in this building in a different way and truly understand the performance of a building," Cupido said. "With access to systems and output data, it will help them understand how the building works."

Mohawk facilities administrators had been thinking of sustainability as they planned the building years back, said Cupido, and securing a $20-million federal Strategic Infrastructure Fund grant last year enabled the college to focus on zero carbon.

"We decided as an organization to set a net zero target. It was a lofty target, but it helped us provide leadership by example for industry, for our students," he said.

Adhering to a budget is always paramount, Stelzer said, but in the case of this special project, the "energy budget" was also top of mind. All decisions have to be made with energy repercussions considered.

"If we are going to achieve our budget, we have to go to all the participants and stakeholders and say, 'you're allowed this much energy to use,'" he explained. "When you have an energy budget, people can ask for their Laser 3000 10-ton press, but we say, do you really need that in this building? Well if you do, we will have to work around it, or you have to give up some energy somewhere else."

Given that the relatively small footprint of the building limited potential energy production through solar and geothermal systems, Cupido said, the decision was made to focus on the other half of the equation — energy preservation.

"There is an overarching desire to do this the right way, and the right way is a very efficient building, and then minimizing the renewable energy piece," he said.

Stelzer said the design team charged with creating efficiencies started off revisiting established sustainability philosophies such as thermal autonomy, proposed in California by Loisos and Ubbelohde, which involves first designing a "comfortable building."

Then "we just top it up with mechanical systems in its moments of true discomfort," he said.

Then came a raft of modern ideas, materials and processes. The Mohawk building uses leading-edge variable refrigerant flow heat pumps, Stelzer said, a high-performing precast insulated curtainwall that is new on the market, ultra-modern control strategies to ensure the lowest possible energy consumption 24/7 and rubber gaskets with frames that are not interlocked, he explained, to prevent flanking, which is when heat moves between aluminum frames.

"We developed this system in conjunction with industry leaders. The contractor can clip it into place and the building becomes weather protected and we achieve our overall energy simulation goal," said Stelzer. "So that was different because it was relatively new.

"I love that kind of stuff and I find that very interesting. 3-D thermal simulations are pretty sophisticated, so I think we can get there."

But his team was conscious that energy not become the only concern, said Stelzer.

"The building still has to be delightful, and light-filled and durable, and we still have to focus on the program," he said. "Those things that every building deserves."

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