New ETFO office in Toronto

New ETFO office sets bar for sustainability

Ontario teachers earn top marks with Toronto’s first purpose-built LEED Platinum building
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
By Michelle Ervin

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s (ETFO) new Toronto headquarters is the low-rise, low-impact building that almost wasn’t. And after overcoming both zoning hurdles and a tight construction deadline, the new ETFO office made history on Feb. 25, 2014, when it obtained LEED Platinum certification, the first purpose-built facility in the city to do so.

Located at 136 Isabella St., the building faced some serious challenges before it officially opened in June 2013, most notably from neighbours living in the nearby Victorian row houses who were vehemently opposed to an office building being erected in their residential community. But after working with the City, the ETFO was able to get the site rezoned for commercial use.

KPMB Architects eventually won over neighbours with a design that was sympathetic to the facility’s surroundings, while also addressed their practical concerns. It incorporated dark, terra cotta-coloured cement-fibre panels, echoing traditional brick masonry on the façade. Partner-in-charge Shirley Blumberg says that it also featured stepped down massing that respected a 45-degree angular plane, mitigating potential privacy and shadow impacts.

But one of the most notable aspects to the building is its sustainable features, one of the most central to its accreditation being its geothermal heating and cooling systems. And it is through these systems that a Canadian first was accomplished.

A first in geothermal heating and cooling

ETFO first vice-president Susan Swackhammer explains that the project was on a tight deadline, as they had to ensure that the new building was ready for occupancy by the time the ETFO’s then lease at the corner of Dundas Street West and University Avenue expired. This prompted a novel approach to the building’s geothermal heating and cooling.

Sosio Porretta, project director at Bird Construction, says that normally, drilling the 84, 450-metre-deep holes for the geo-exchange installation would require 30 to 40 feet of shaft. This would have added anywhere from two to four months to the front end of construction.

Instead, using new technology, the holes at the ETFO building were drilled from the underground parking structure after much of the building had been constructed. This enabled other trades to work concurrently with the installation of the geo-exchange.

The implications of the successful application of this new technology, which was developed by Vancouver’s Fenix Energy, may be significant.

“It opens up (geothermal installations) to existing buildings, if they’re able to somehow get into low areas, whether existing office buildings or residential buildings, they can drill these things just like we did, even though the building was up and other work was going on,” Porretta says.

In fact, Fenix Energy developed and designed its low-head room drilling solution to be able to retrofit high-rise commercial real estate with geothermal installations, says Adrian Ryan, the company’s co-founder and vice-president of engineering.

“It’s a closed-loop system that enables us to get down into the building and keep it reasonably clean — it’s not white-lab-coat clean, but we’re not creating a mud pool in the basement,” he says.

The ETFO’s new office aims to reduce energy usage by at least 60 per cent over the Model National Energy Code for Buildings. But if KPMB’s previous work at the LEED Platinum-certified Manitoba Hydro Place is any precedent, the ETFO office can expect to exceed that target.

Working towards green design

KPMB Architects design partner Bruce Kuwabara says that he is a little jaded by the discourse around sustainable building in Canada. (By his estimation, the country is 20 years behind Europe in the field.) So when Kuwabara made his pitch to the ETFO on building a model of sustainability, he says that he essentially told them, “If not you, the teachers, who teach in the public school system, who have a long-term ownership position on this piece of real estate and this building, then who can really lead the way forward?”

The teachers of the federation agreed. They had decided early on that they would pursue LEED at their new facility, Swackhammer says. They subsequently decided to pursue LEED Platinum.

“It was sort of a grassroots movement of our members saying, ‘We’re teachers, we have an obligation to care about the environment, to not only say we care about it but to show that we care about it’,” she says.

Further sustainable features of the ETFO’s new facility include low-flow fixtures, which result in water savings amplified by rainwater harvested from the building’s green roofs and stored in a below-grade cistern. The harvested rainwater is used to flush toilets, as well as water some of the landscaping via a high-efficiency irrigation system.

A sustainable building that doesn’t forget about its occupants

Sustainable measures did not come at the expense of occupant comfort. In fact, some did double duty to enhance the user experience.

The air distribution system, which employs raised floors and dropped ceilings, is designed in a way so that air is never recycled. Swackhammer attributes this feature to the noticeable difference in her afternoon energy levels compared to when she was in the federation’s previous facility. And she was even able to stop taking her allergy medication.

Plus, automatic blinds, which operate by sensor in response to daylight levels, help to regulate building temperature. Green lights in the hallways indicate when it is not too hot, cold or windy outside, telling occupants that they can open office windows. This gives everyone some freedom to adjust their surroundings for comfort.

Also, thanks to the stepped massing of the building, occupants are able to walk out onto wood decks that promote connections to the outdoors on every floor, Kuwabara says.

While the office was designed to serve as a model of sustainability, it still needed to serve the day-to-day functions of the federation.

The 121,000-square-foot facility is organized into east and west wings off a central atrium that spans four storeys. Not only is the atrium is important to the ventilation system, but Kuwabara explains that it also brings daylight into the building. Offices on the perimeters of the upper floors are broken up by smaller ‘neighbourhood’ meeting spaces, and the ground floor is flexibly designed to accommodate larger on-site meetings of the 76,000-member federation.

“We have teachers coming in for various things: committees, conferences and all that kind of stuff,” Swackhammer says. “Everybody is very proud; they look around and they talk about wanting to bring their class here.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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