The last add-on to Bank of Canada’s downtown Ottawa complex may have been ahead of its time. In the 1970s, Canadian architect Arthur Erickson bookended a limestone building dating back to the 1930s with mirrored glass towers bridged by an atrium. They featured many of the trappings of the contemporary office: biophilic design, open concepts and outdoor views.
Despite their foreshadowing of current workplace trends, the central bank’s headquarters were in need of an update when they recently underwent a sweeping modernization — just as any facility would be after 50 years without significant intervention. The atrium, for all its greenery and water features, was underused; open concepts had been sacrificed to private offices; and window seats came with thermal comfort issues. Not to mention, technology had transformed the workplace.
Beyond modernization, there were other issues that demanded attention, such as exhausted major equipment to replace and important new standards to meet.
“The requirements for a safe and efficient workplace have evolved considerably since [the 1970s], as have the security requirements for a G7 central bank,” Rebecca Spence, media relations consultant, Bank of Canada, said via email. “Renewing the head office was also an opportunity to make it more energy efficient, cost effective and environmentally sustainable.”
Inserting an invisible second skin into the mirrored glass towers was a core component of the energy-saving, heritage-sensitive intervention at the 835,000-square-foot Bank of Canada complex. The project, completed last year at a construction cost of $460 million, also saw the atrium revamped and open concepts reinstated to support a collaborative workplace culture. Plus, a relocation of Canada’s Currency Museum reclaimed unused space and helped satisfy modern security requirements.
The wide scope of the project brought together three Perkins+Will offices. Its Ottawa and Toronto teams combined forces on the renovation, while its Chicago team, whose portfolio included work for the Bank of America, took the lead on the interiors.
Invisibly improving thermal comfort
Thermal discomfort is one of the most common sources of complaints fielded by facility managers in office environments.
Prior to their modernization, the Bank of Canada’s headquarters were not immune from this. Employees would simultaneously report that it was too hot or too cold, depending on their location on the floorplan.
Andrew Frontini, principal at Perkins+Will’s Toronto office, explained that the curtain walls of the mirrored glass towers were essentially acting like a magnet for heat in the sun and like a sieve for heat in the shade — an effect that was most pronounced during Ottawa’s cold winters.
“It [takes] a lot of energy to move heat and cooling around the floor, and because the floorplates had been subdivided over time, and because the advent of the digital workplace adds to much larger heat loads, the existing systems, which had been modified in a piecemeal way, were having a really hard time keeping up with occupant comfort,” he said.
The impetus to introduce new systems without interfering with the original architecture produced a novel solution: the addition of a glass layer, inset one-and-a-half feet from the existing envelope. Frontini said introducing a dropped ceiling might have addressed the capacity of the crowded duct raceways, but it would have altered the look and feel of the space, characterized as it was by an exposed structure and concrete trees and slabs.
“Before that space heats up inside the workplace, the air in the buffer zone has been heated up and then been removed,” he said, “so it allowed us to lower the heating and cooling loads in the space proper, and that meant we could look at using a radiant panel, which was tucked up into the structural coffers of the tree columns, where it’s very discrete.”
The radiant panels occupied roughly one-third of the 30-inch structural cell, which left room for high-efficiency lighting and sprinkler heads.
In addition to reducing thermal comfort complaints, the dynamic buffer zone improved the energy efficiency of the complex, Spence confirmed.
Supporting a collaborative culture
The modernization also saw the open concepts of the original architecture revived in an effort to promote a collaborative work culture, which is seen as a tool for recruiting the best and brightest.
“We perform unique roles that are critical to safeguarding and promotion of Canada’s economic and financial welfare and we need top-level executives, frontier researchers, highly specialized and skilled professionals, cutting-edge knowledge and expertise, and innovators,” said Spence.
The institution’s roughly 1,700 employees were invited to provide input into the selection of ergonomic furniture and floor layouts. Most of the private offices, which had poor utilization rates, were replaced with a range of spaces outfitted with modular furniture and sit-to-stand desks and tailored to a variety of activities, including both collaborative and quiet work.
Conference and meeting rooms that had been allocated across floors have been collected around the 12-storey winter garden atrium in behind the circa-1930s building. Frontini said this strategy was aimed at bringing together employees working within the two towers who might not otherwise have cause to cross paths, as was the main-floor location of services such as a help desk and IT support.
Working with landscape architect DTAH, Perkins+Will refurbished the atrium, removing an expansive reflecting pool that had been causing maintenance headaches, adding seating, and replacing and restoring plantings.
”While it’s [the atrium] no longer open to the public, it’s very much more open and very much more integrated into the life of the Bank and ultimately becomes a functional space that’s going to serve the Bank’s needs for the next 50 years,” said Frontini.
Meeting modern security requirements
Before the modernization occurred, visitors used the atrium to access Canada’s Currency Museum, which was previously located in the circa-1930s building.
“Modern-day security requirements are such that the general public will no longer have unrestricted access to our atrium,” Spence explained. “However, as part of the renewal, the Bank invested significantly in public spaces.”
Canada’s Currency Museum, now known as the Bank of Canada Museum, found its new home in the plaza in front of the complex. The challenge, said Frontini, was to create a standalone facility that wouldn’t overshadow or be overshadowed by the original architecture. A former shipping and receiving area located below grade provided a place to integrate the facility into the landscape.
“We thought, what if it appears to lift up at the corners, and then it creates an opening so that you can descend below the plaza, and light can be drawn in, and you can see down into the museum below from the street,” Frontini recalled.
The plaza redesign — another collaborative effort by Perkins+Will and DTAH — also introduced landscaping and sloped seating atop a trio of angular pavilions, one of which doubles as the roof of the museum.
These are among the few visible signs outside the complex of the sweeping modernization that has taken place inside, and that was intentional. Spence cited the heritage of the institution’s headquarters as a compelling factor in the decision to stay and renovate rather than go and relocate, which made it important to temper the modernization with preservation.
“The look and feel of the exterior have been carefully maintained, with the Bank making every effort to restore and preserve important external façades,” said Spence. “The result is that, from the exterior, the Bank facility looks virtually identical to 2013, when renovations began.”
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.
Pictured above: The atrium becomes a space for knowledge sharing and collaboration.