No compromise

Peter Faber installs a cutting-edge upgrade on Toronto’s waterfront.
Patrick Flannery
February 13, 2012
By
Most cities love their waterfront. Vancouver sits like a jewel on the beach between the mountains and the Pacific, placidly looking out over the ocean from a thousand windows. The Thames flows like an artery connecting London, England, to 2,000 years of storied history. New Yorkers bustle back and forth over their rivers, each one delineating a small culture of its own, and have turned their harbour into an international landmark featuring the most famous statue in the world.

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On the other hand, Toronto has always had an uneasy relationship with Lake Ontario. While the lake is the only reason the city is there in the first place, this fact only serves to draw Torontonians’ attention to the city’s old, derisive moniker of Hogtown, affixed when Toronto’s defining characteristic was the crowded livestock pens of Queen’s Quay and St. Lawrence Market.

This stands uncomfortably at odds with the city’s preferred image today of a cosmopolitan centre of finance and culture. It probably wasn’t a conscious rejection of the lake that caused successive generations of Torontonians to allow the land by the waterfront to become dominated by rail yards and warehouses that ultimately became derelict, nor was it a dislike of a view that caused them to allow the construction of an elevated highway and multiple tall buildings that effectively block the entire lake from the sight of anyone at low elevation anywhere in the city. Why these things did happen is complicated, but suffice it to say there are a number of people in Toronto now who wish to reverse these trends. One such group is the Harbourfront Centre, a not-for-profit former Crown corporation that operates a 10-acre cultural and recreational complex on the site of a former dockside storage facility.

Harbourfront Centre’s mission is to present top-flight arts and entertainment, especially by Canadian artists, to make Toronto’s waterfront a cultural destination. Its performance venue is the Enwave Theatre, an icehouse built in 1926 that has been renovated and repurposed down through the years into its present incarnation as a 422-seat, state-of-the-art theatre with three balcony levels and three lobbies. In 1991, the theatre was renovated to add a three-storey glass envelope that surrounds the entire north, west and east sides of the building to provide acoustic insulation, additional lobby space and an esthetic external finish.

The improvement to acoustics, space and esthetics came at the cost of comfort. The glazing and construction chosen allowed for a high level of heat transfer between the interior and exterior and included no sun filters. Even with heavy use of air conditioning, the lobby was uncomfortable most of the time because the outside temperature was inconsistent. The glazing on the sloped section of the envelope was tinted and eliminated some visible light, but was found to do little to mitigate heat radiation.

This was the situation Peter Faber of Brampton, Ont.-based Faber Solariums walked into when he was hired to replace the insulating glass units in the facade. “I was here in the summertime and we were walking through with the air conditioning pumping out,” he remembers. “I said, ‘You are not getting any cold air out of these ducts, these ducts are actually warming up in the heat of the sun.’ We measured. At its worst, with the air conditioning at full blast, it was 42 degrees up there last summer.” The ducts in question were large, exposed steel ducts positioned in the full, unfiltered rays coming through the west side of the glass enclosure.

Having identified that the existing glass envelope was going to need modification, Harbourfront Centre decided to embark on a much more ambitious program than simply updating the insulating glass units. Like many high-minded organizations, it had made a commitment back in 2007 to become a green organization and to reduce its environmental footprint. But when it began to investigate how it could best do that, it made an awkward discovery: by far the greatest impact to the environment Harbourfront Centre makes is through the carbon emissions from people travelling to visit it. The Centre’s technical study found that travel to and from the site accounted for 95 per cent of the emissions that could be associated with it. Any improvements to the operational efficiency of the building would pale to insignificance next to the impact of the Centre successfully fulfilling its mission of drawing more people to Toronto’s waterfront.

With this in mind, the Harbourfront Centre leadership decided that, in addition to improving energy efficiency and sustainability, the renovations would have to carry a powerful environmental message of their own to hopefully encourage visitors to embrace more sustainable habits and thereby mitigate the damage their travel had done. This was not going to be easy.

About the search for options, Randy Sa’d, Harbourfront Centre’s director of strategic development, says, “Having explored the potential for engaging the public, the overwhelming evidence we found suggested the constant finger-pointing and barrage of guilt-evoking pleas that seems to constantly surround us have stalled the environmental movement. In response, Harbourfront Centre has conceived an innovative solution that is not designed to engage the environmentally conscious, but rather seeks to entice those alienated by the endless line of boring facts and unscrupulous greenwashers dominating the conversation.…We are committed to invigorating this conversation with a sense of fun and inspiration that seems to have disappeared. People who rediscover their personal relationship to our environment naturally create a new context through which to consider their response to its needs.”

Harbourfront decided that the best way to communicate the environmental message it wanted was to connect people to Lake Ontario – the lake they live next to and are often barely aware of – through art. The Centre engaged Sarah Hall, an internationally recognized glass artist, to create a striking art glass feature, and Internat Energy Solutions Canada to tackle the technical hurdles.

Hall has won awards from the American Institute of Architects and the Ontario Association of Architects for her large-scale art glass installations, mostly at churches around the world. Hall calls her Enwave Theatre work Waterglass. “The Waterglass project uses glass art and renewable energy to tell a story about creativity and the natural environment throughout the entire building facade,” Hall explains in a Centre press release.

These elements were created with airbrushed, fired enamels on architectural glass then sandblasted. The photographic image gallery on the cover uses screen-printed photographs (Hall went through over 4,000 old photos in the Toronto city archives) and dichroic glass. The result is a sharp, clean image on a background that changes colour depending on the angle of the sun.

Groundbreaking photovoltaics
The sloped western side of the façade holds the 10 photovoltaic panels. They were created as triple-glazed insulating glass units with embedded solar cells. There are 54 standard blue cells per panel, each five inches square and mounted into the existing frames with conduit wiring.

According to Livio Nichilo, CEO and engineering manager of Internat, Enwave Theatre marks the first use anywhere in the world of photovoltaics, art glass and heat mirror coatings combined in one insulating glass unit.

“The biggest challenge in manufacturing these glass units was integrating the heat mirror with the photovoltaics,” Nichilo says. “That has never been done before. With photovoltaic you have to have laminate insulating the solar cells and the connections to the wiring have to be very clean and moisture-free. The way the heat mirror works it has to go through its own heating process to be straightened out so you do not see any ripples or anything. The biggest challenge of the project was making sure the process for the heat mirrors didn’t interfere with the process needed for the photo cells. In that case we had to work with the manufacturers.” Nichilo won’t say just how the manufacturer solved this problem, but says anyone who knows about these things will probably be able to guess how with a little thought.

The artistic colouring on the photovoltaic units does not go over the solar panels, so there is no interference with the panels’ ability to gather sunlight. Some engineers would chafe at the demand to integrate art with a functional part of the building, but Nichilo understood it to be a critical aspect of Harbourfront’s vision for the project. “What we decided to do was to put the photovoltaics only where it made sense,” he says. “When we say where does it make sense we mean where does the building get enough sun exposure so that those panels will be producing at a high efficiency. The west wall where it is sloped was the only part of the building, because of its orientation and what is around it, where it made sense for us to do that.

“The artwork was actually the last part of the puzzle. It came in after we had already decided on the design and decided on the location of the photovoltaic. The artwork was really inspired by that work and by who Harbourfront Centre is. I saw the artwork as a necessary part. While the technical aspects of this might be interesting to you and me, the reality is for 80 per cent of the population it is not. So our goal is to have those technical pieces, have them there, but tell the story and allow Harbourfront Centre to be who they are.

“Each art piece was done separately. The key part was the German partner we used, Glasmalerei Peters Studios, was able to have the artwork once it was created actually melted into the glass. That is not like paint on a glass, it is actually part of the glass. Once that sheet was made, the whole process was the same as any other assembly.”

Faber says the installation was not particularly difficult aside from the increased weight of the fancy IG units. The original facade had been installed using some rather strange, C-shaped exposed fasteners that Faber had never seen before. The sections were held in place with tech screws, which made them quite easy to remove compared to more recent curtain wall systems with cover caps and pressure plates.

Faber says projects like these show the potential for improvement to the interior living environment that is possible through glazing improvements. He says many building owners simply replace old glass with whatever they had before, whereas with an investment in superior insulating products, they can make their property much more valuable. “For me, there is no difference in cost installing an R-2 unit versus an R-10,” Faber says. “This building had a 35 per cent seal failure. It looked nasty. There are other places with the same problem. With a little bit of an upgrade they could end up with something like this that looks kind of cool, actually.”

The new glazing is undergoing testing to find out just how energy efficient it is. Nichilo says their analysis predicts 0.14 to 0.49 solar heat gain coefficient, a 7.14 R-value and 76-watts-per-square-metre electricity production under idea sun conditions.

“For the heat mirror we did a lot of simulations for energy use using Energy Plus,” Nichilo says. “What it allowed us to do was model the building during wintertime and summertime and actually track the sun and make sure we were always getting advantages from the heat mirror and the photovoltaic. One of the things that came out of the analysis was the heat mirror had two advantages. One was that it reduced the heat gains, but two was that it had significant advantages as far as the insulation of the building to keep the heat in during the winter. What we were able to find with the analysis was even though the solar gains were reduced because of the heat mirror in the wintertime, the heat that was being kept in through the insulation outnumbered that. So in the winter there was an overall heat benefit and conditioning benefit from the heat glass. Even though the summertime was the reason for bringing that in, we were able to see that in the winter it produced that advantage for us.”

The Harbourfront Centre’s refusal to compromise esthetics, sustainability or performance in its Enwave Theatre renovation has resulted in a groundbreaking design. Perhaps this will be the shot in the arm Toronto’s waterfront district needs.

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