Architecture

A renewable vision, a winning design

Mark Czarnecki November 17 1980
Architecture

A renewable vision, a winning design

Mark Czarnecki November 17 1980

A renewable vision, a winning design

Architecture

Robbie (left); Sane: building habitable molehills, not energy-devouring mountains

Mark Czarnecki

Looking up from his desk, the business executive is confronted with a toothy grin from a plump rainbow trout circling the tank just outside his window. Coffee break means donning an overcoat for a stroll through the tulips in the mall garden. And if he’s conservation-conscious, he can take comfort in the knowledge that the leftovers from lunch will end up as dinner for the trout or compost for the tulip bed.

These are just some of the pleasures promised in this month’s winning proposal for the federal government’s Low Energy Building Design Award (LEBDA) competition. Whether this vision will ever materialize is just one issue in an ongoing debate at all levels of government between the renewable-energy faithful and advocates of the current energy policy concentration on rearranging oil and gas consumption priorities. The LEBDA competion should encourage the renewable-energy faithful; not only were the designs economically viable (some even promised below-average initial costs), but the department

of public works (DPW) is also publishing a book detailing the proposals in the hope that increased access to information will stimulate developers to construct habitable molehills instead of energy-devouring mountains.

A first prize of $30,000 in this new competition went to the Toronto architectural firm of Robbie Williams Kassum, whose maverick guiding spirit, Rod Robbie, is an energy conservation

enthusiast of long standing (“our main design principle was that every bit of energy had to be used at least twice”). Practical economics is just one of many concerns reflected in the awardwinning design for the hypothetical 23acre site in downtown Regina. In the introduction of their proposal, Robbie

and partner Arun Sane outlined the role their building might play within the larger context of what has been called “urban biology.” It reads like a Whole Earth Catalog rewrite of Genesis: “There is and ever will be only one biosphere to the earth in which we and all other forms of life can survive.” But Robbie is no grassroots prophet preaching back-to-the-earth doctrines. Strongly opposed to the utopian primitivism of much contemporary thinking on energy-conserving architecture, he accepts that modern man is essentially an urban dweller with powerful technologies at his disposal for placing man

in harmony with the biosphere instead of destroying it. Says Robbie: “In designing such a building you don’t have to end up with something from Star Wars. High technology isn’t necessarily anti-nature.”

Robbie conceives the Regina complex as a “semi-living biological organism” maintaining a balance with its sur-

rounding environment and within itself. The biological dimension is completed by an interior mall that, unlike traditional enclosed malls, would act as a modified exterior climate. In winter, overcoats might be needed to walk through its hydroponic vegetable and decorative gardens and fish hatcheries. Such an area would not only be functional by regulating heat and humidity changes for the surrounding offices and hotel rooms, but would also provide an

environmentally and spiritually satisfying “civic space.” The fish tanks and hydroponic gardens, though not economic at the moment, could meet the complex’s nutritional requirements and an outdoor algae pond, supplied by treated sewage and solid organic waste from the complex, would feed the fish, thereby completing the conserver cycle.

Though large-scale fish tank technology is still developing, the hard-core energy-conserving features of Robbie’s design incorporate both traditional passive heating principles and state-of-theart insulation technologies. All southfacing orientations are either panelled with solar collectors or glazed to obtain maximum benefits from solar heat. Roofing and wall insulation is applied on the outside of the concrete walls so that the structure picks up warmth from the interior climate and acts as a heat sink. Northern and western exposures remain unglazed and are protected by evergreen groves to fend off winter winds.

The public recognition of his design by a jury of peers is gratifying to Robbie, an architect who, according to journalist and former partner Colin Vaughan, “is extremely bright but not fashionable—he’s always a step ahead of the pack.” Controversy has surrounded Robbie ever since he arrived from England in the late ’50s and was promptly blackballed at DPW where a supervisor told him, “We don’t like people who work as fast as you do.” While in private practice, his firm was largely responsible for such prestigious designs as Canada’s pavilion at Expo ’67. He has now formed his own company and taken Sane with him so that they can devote more time to innovative energy-conserving design.

Public acceptance of Robbie’s latest vision largely depends on how profitable the projects appear to private developers. At the moment, incentives for change are not great, despite increasing fuel costs, since these hikes are passed on directly to the lessees and do not figure in the initial capital investment. (Construction costs for Robbie’s design would be slightly above average.) Although the federal government has devised minimum energy conservation guidelines for builders, it is up to each province to incorporate them into its building codes—so far no province has acted on any of the measures, considered by alternate energy advocates to be inadequate anyway. But whatever methods are used, it seems clear that unless the principles underlying energy conservation and the urban biology espoused by Robbie and other concerned designers are embraced wholeheartedly by both public and private sectors, all the gas in Alberta will be just so much wasted hot air.