Reimagining Urban Waterfronts 

Jelle Therry of West 8 presented their internationally acclaimed work recently week at the National Gallery and for the NCC staff. This dutch landscape design firm has been involved with some of the most interesting urban design and landscape architecture in North America recently. These are some notes I took when Mr. Terry spoke at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab to a group of architects, landscape architects and planners. He presented a series of the firm’s recent projects, providing insights about how the work was developed and the importance of the public realm. 

Toronto Central Waterfront

The inner harbour had some real environmental problems in 2006 when the project began. Pike (the fish) were absent from the water and Toronto street trees weren’t well planted or cared for and typically survived only 5 years. West 8 created a master plan for Toronto’s central waterfront. One of the key problems historically were the ‘pinch points’ where pedestrian movement was constricted by very narrow sidewalk widths along the docks. The now famous curving wood ‘wave decks’ provided an elegant and compelling answer to this problem. 

Wavedecks were the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the fact that if the wavedecks cost $5, then $4 of that amount was spent on improvements to the ecosystems in the harbor; a part of the project that you don’t really see when you visit but is very important to the ecology of the waterfront. Within 5 years the pike was back living along these harbour front locations. 

The promenade was expanded and is now 18 m wide. Below the walking surface, eventually, will be a system for cleaning storm water before it enters the lake. 

Pedestrian bridges have been designed that will be implemented some day. 

The traffic flow along the waterfront has been improved. Cars have been moved to the north  side of the streetcar track. Along 1.7 km of lakefront, the public realm has been completely rehabilitated. 

Property values have improved along queens quay. What was a $200 k condo is now a $350 k condo. Mr. Terry attributes this partly to the infrastructure and public realm improvements along the Quay 

Mr. Terry closed by saying that in Toronto, strong leadership has been the genesis of these ideas. Chris Glasiek and others have really provided a vision for improving Toronto’s public realm.

Madrid Rio

The mayor was looking for re-election and identified the river and getting the public access to it as a campaign winning idea.

The ring road was buried, making way for public space. Trees and paths were added.  Today it’s a zone for playgrounds and for recreation. The royal palace has been reconnected to the river. 

Maxima Park: Utrecht, NL

West 8 did a master plan for this major urban park on the periphery of Utrecht. The park was built in phases, beginning with a bike path around the periphery. The overall build out will take 20 years. 

Jelle says that one key to the success of West 8 is that they are always collaborating with other designers. 

A natural lake has been brought back to the heart of the park. Today people swim and boat on it. 

A concrete pergola creates opportunities for creativity in the park; it acts as something to plant against, and something to create space with. It’s used to make gates. 

Governor’s Island, NY

When West 8 won a competition to  redesign this place, they were very excited to propose a new green space between Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. 

Today the island has a lot of paved area and is in poor condition. 1800 trees are proposed. The landscape is raised to create planting places for these trees, above salt water, both today and in the future. Topography and hills provide views of Manhattan and frame views of the Statue of Liberty.

Some of the most compelling elements of the project are the whimsical ones; a grove of trees supports hammocks, curving and very steep slides provide fun for kids of all ages. 

Health Care And Design Excellence Can Coexist 

When I started working in architecture I remember a mentor telling me not to get involved with healthcare. The logic was that hospitals are generally large bland buildings where design is driven by too many factors that have nothing to do with making good buildings. This is part of the reason I’m so pleased about last week’s announcement that Bridgepoint Active Healtcare, a project I had the privilege of working on, has recieved a Governor General’s Award for Architcture. 

With this recognition and a recent AIA Award, Bridgepoint has joined an elite group of recent North American hospitals and health care facilities that are being recognized for their superior architecture. In the case of Bridgepoint, this means recognition that not only is the building beautiful but it’s design is in the service of patients. 

Thanks to the initial vision of Bridgepoint’s CEO, Marian Walsh, ideas about patient-centered design were carried throughout the project. Light, air, views, healthy interior spaces, and myriad other features all contribute to making a place where patients can really feel better. I’m very pleased the GG Awards’ distinguished jury saw this, and confirmed that Bridgepoint broke the blandness mold that so many healthcare buildings are cast from. 

Images below are from the GG Awards website.

Biophilia: A Way To Build Better Cities

Humans have an evolutionary need to affiliate with nature. This is the premise of a book published in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson, called Biophilia. In my own life I find this to be true, and I’ve often felt frustrated living in larger cities like Chicago, Washington DC, or Toronto where access to nature is hampered by long travel times and congested freeways. 

Permit me a little civic / capital pride in saying that Ottawa, by contrast with some of these cities, has an excellent balance of urban and natural settings within 30 minutes’ drive from its core.

Ottawa from the air. Photo from NCC. 

Skidmore Owings & Merril’s urban designers together with University of Tennessee have put the principles of biophilia, as Mr. Wilson set them out 30 years ago, to work in addressing the challenges of contemporary city building, sustainability, and co-existence with nature. Led by SOM partner and architect Philip Enquist, they have proposed nine principles that are intended to drive urban growth in harmony with nature. I’ve listed them below:

1. Livibility; happy and healthful urban living that creates a sense of place and local identity.

2. Economy; broad based prosperity for the city or region.

3. The food principle; offering access to locally grown fresh edibles.

4. Mobility; providing efficient networks for movement of people, materials, and information.

5. No waste; focuses on designing cities Tom minimize garbage.

6. Safety; ensure streets can be used comfortably by all types of users.

7. Water; protect and enhance natural hydrologic cycles.

8. Resiliency; design cities that are able to withstand extreme weather and adapt to climate change.

9. Energy; power cities with clean, renewable energy and reduce consumption.

Enquist’s Chicago Lakeside Masterplan. Image from SOM.


Buildings For Parkour and Skateboarding

A friend asked me if I could think of any buildings that were designed expressly for parkour and free running. I love this type of challenge, and having grown up skate boarding, I’ve long thought it would be interesting to incorporate ideas about urban outdoor sports directly in a building. 

 Image from weburbanist 
There are a couple other reasons why I like this question: one, it seems like pervading attitudes are that sports like this mostly destroy buildings, and two, one of the fundamentals of sustainability the way I see it is that human health should be a focus of the built environment. In other words, it’s time to re think the relationship between buildings and sport.

Image from weburbanist 
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any great examples of buildings created with parkour or even circuit training routes built in. There are some great examples of buildings being used for parkour, though, as you can see from theses images.

What I was able to find is this great building in Biarritz designed with a skate park on its roof. American architect Stephen Holl created Cite de l’ocean et du surf, a museum, exhibition space, and plaza with the help of Solange Fabiao, a New York based Brazilian artist. 

Image from Ideasgn. 
Another interesting project is this residence that incorporates skateboarding in the interior. 

Casa Pas. Image from Archdaily 
If readers know of examples of other buildings designed to incorporate interesting forms of fitness and sport I’d love to hear about it.

Cross- Laminated Timber Gets Full Marks

In recognition of the enduring interest that cross-laminated timber has generated on this blog, here’s a really top notch project by the Netherland’s Drost + van Veen that pays high homage to that building material. This interpretive centre is beautifully sited and the details and massing are deftly handled. 

Wood construction has the potential to improve the the building industry’s environmental footprint  significantly as it is renewable, can be regrown relatively quickly, and trees consume carbon dioxide as they grow. Interesting, too, that the wood construction industry in North America is feeling new life because of this sustainable building trend.

   Images from Arch Daily.

More information here. And here.

Four Years of

This winter we passed the four year milestone for this blog. I started it  in 2010 with a vague notion about sustainability and that not enough was known about buildings’ energy consumption. It’s certainly been an interesting project for me and we’ve learned (both here on the blog and in the broader world out there) a lot about sustainability, about the built environment, and how the two could and should interrelate. 

Awareness of climate change (or maybe recognition) has grown since 2010 and so has awareness of the built environment’s role in the issue; buildings are known to contribute 40%. While we’d like to flatter ourselves that this blog has had some role in addressing the issue, as you can see by this diagram published recently by Vice, we as a planet have really only succeeded in intensifying the environmental damage so far.

 We won’t solve climate change any time soon, but on a personal level it has been gratifying to see the reception this blog has had. In 2014 we had 2000 views by over 700 individuals which means a lot of people are coming back for a second or third read. It’s encouraging that we’re already half way to 2000 views in May of 2015 too.  

 Our readers are mostly located in the U.S. and Canada but a surprising number are in Brazil. Stories that have gotten the most interest range in topic from sustainable building materials to unique solutions for residential architecture to a post about the Guardian UK’s ‘Overpopulation and Overconsumption’ photo set. 

   I find it interesting how search engines have brought a lot of viewers to the site, which to me means our content is compelling. Social media and site buttons seem to bring a lot of readers too. 


 So a big thank you to our readership and we hope you keep coming back. We’ll be working hard to continue developing  the quality of our content and to keep building the reach of our site. If you have ideas and comments we’d love to hear them.

Tesla’s Less Glamorous But Equally World Changing Product

Yes, I’m talking about the fact Tesla recently unveiled batteries for residential use, a product they call Powerwal. I’ll freely admit to being a huge fan of Tesla’s vehicles; they’re inspiring both from an environmental and design point of view. 

Batteries for houses are much less an object of beauty than are the company’s cars, but this new Tesla product has the potential to radically change the viability of solar and wind power for home, just for example, and is intended to bridge the gap between peak solar (mid day) and peak use (morning and evening). Tesla recently announced it will retail these large capacity relatively low cost batteries at around $3500 USD.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla says the batteries are a “fundamental transformation [in] how energy is delivered across the earth.” It seems that 

Powerwal image from Tesla

How Powerwal batteries bridge the gap between peak electrical demand and peak solar energy availability. Graph from Tesla.

 US utility companies are gearing up for a real challenge by solar, especially when it comes to home solar. So far, unfortunately their response seems mostly defensive.

RAIC Recognizes Innovative Green Buildings

Two buildings that raise the bar from a sustainability and design excellence point of view have been recognized by Canada’s national architecture organization, the RAIC, this year. has been following each of them for different reasons. One is the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at University of British Columbia, possibly North America’s greenest building. CIRS is an internationally recognized research institution dedicated to advancing green building. The other is the Wood Innovation Design Centre (WIDC) which is advancing wood construction to new heights. This building is the champion for wood as a highly sustainable building system. More information about these buildings and others who received innovation awards this year here.

Images from RAIC and Archdaily.


Give Stairways Their Due

It turns out taking the stairs is a good thing. Of course most of us who think about health and fitness know this, but as ULI has recently pointed out in a report aimed at developers, and blogged here, this feature of contemporary buildings has generally been relegated to the back corners of the floor plan.

Part of the issue is cost, of course, because a nice stair is often supported by large amounts of steel or other structure and generally needs better finishes.

ULI’s report is about building healthy places in general, and as the health benefits of regular physical activity are better understood, groups that think about the built environment are trying to figure out what motivates people to use stairs. According to their study it turns out that more visually appealing stairways actually get used more.

Photos show two stairs I worked on, one at Bridgepoint Active Healthcare in Toronto where glazing and high quality finishes including terrazzo make for an elegant public stair. The second image shows a residential stair in Factor 10 house, an EHDD project in Chicago where we won a design competition for this environmentally friendly design. The stair doubles as a solar chimney and light enters at roof level above.

Bridgepoint stair photo: Tom Arban.
Factor 10 photo: Doug Snower.



Sliding House Is Elegant and Innovative

This house shows a simple building idea can simultaneously address climatic issues and be a source of pleasure and delight. One of our favourite things about it is the way the sliding roof provides varying degrees of shade to the interior, leaving room for all kinds of ‘smart’ building ideas.

Blogged recently by Brandon Donnelly of ATC, this project dates to 2009 and is shown best in this video by Wallpaper Magazine. Built in the UK and designed by architects dRMM, it provides a truly unique living experience to its owners.





Photos are stills from the Wallpaper video (link embedded above).