Creating a regenerative building in the GTA

York Region pursues Ontario's first Living Building Challenge certification
Monday, July 14, 2014
By Craig Applegath

Developers and designers of York Region’s new Forest Stewardship and Education Centre aim to join a select group of just six properties worldwide to be fully certified through the Living Building Challenge. The project, which is also envisioned as LEED Platinum, is the final element of one of North America’s most successful forest regeneration initiatives.

Settlement in the area north of Toronto and some ill-suited agricultural practices caused significant soil erosion to the original forest in the 1800s. Known as the Hollidge Tract, the then York County purchased the lands in 1924. The first facility on the site near today’s Town of Whitchurch-Stouffville was built in the 1940s.

The replacement now under construction is, at 4,000 square feet, relatively small in size, but meant to function like the forest — thriving only on the energy and water that nature provides, while helping to restore the surrounding landscape. Once completed, the centre is expected to be Ontario’s first Living Building Challenge project.

A sustainable vision

York Region, the staff of the Forest Stewardship and Education Centre and the design consultant, DIALOG envisioned the building as a powerful teaching tool and living laboratory. Every aspect of the design is calibrated to coexist with or contribute to the local and regional ecosystems. For example, the building uses non-toxic construction materials, gathers all of its energy from the sun and purifies the water it uses before returning it to the site.

The site will be carbon positive and carbon neutral, sequestering more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the forest over the next year alone than required to build the project.

High performance and carbon neutrality

Targets for high levels of sustainability within budget guided the development and design team from the beginning. These include:

  • An extremely high-performance building envelope to reduce heating and cooling loads, which includes highly insulated walls (R40) and roof (R60) combined with triple-pane, argon-filled glazing;
  • To further limit envelope loads, window-to-wall ratio was limited to below 30 per cent with the majority of window area located for optimal daylighting;
  • An east-west orientation, south-facing glazing and large overhangs to maximize passive solar design;
  • Energy reduction strategies include continuous dimming of lighting systems in suitable areas, heat recovery ventilation, LED lighting and electrical equipment targeting lowest possible power use;
  • The building will achieve net-zero water, using captured rainwater to supply toilets and urinals as well as a biological filtration device to treat all wastewater on-site;
  • The building staff will be engaged to achieve energy goals and green operations; and
  • A 35 kilowatt (kW) solar panel array mounted on the roof will provide renewable energy, projected to generate 38 megawatt-hours (MWh) of clean energy annually.

Cross-laminated timber, glulam beam structural components and wood interior finishes will be used for their renewable and sustainable qualities. Additionally, a touchscreen in the lobby will provide visitors with real-time interactive energy data.

Energy consumption no greater than 40,000 kWh annually will be necessary to achieve net-zero energy. The design team and building users worked through planning, design and operational issues in a series of interactive sessions. Once the building is completed, the client and commissioning team will conduct an energy workshop to ensure staff understand the building and the operations necessary to meet target energy use.

A powerful impact on the region

The project is targeted for completion in early 2015 and will provide a powerful teaching tool for the region. It is one in only a handful of Canadian projects participating in the Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC).

The organization describes LBC as a philosophy, advocacy tool and certification program that defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in today’s built environment. Given its focus on actual performance, LBC may be considered the world’s most difficult in terms of green design.

The York Regional Forest Stewardship and Education Centre is designed to demonstrate global leadership around forest ecology and responsible forest management. Upon its completion next spring, this facility is poised to deliver on these goals, optimizing the opportunities for learning, visibly integrating nature and straightforward sustainable building practices, and perhaps providing inspiration for a community.

Craig Applegath is an architect, urban designer, principal and founding partner with DIALOG, the designers of the York Regional Forest Stewardship and Education Centre

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