Office of the future

Office of the future

September 23, 2009
It was a classic “win-win” situation. Manitoba Hydro wanted its new $278 million downtown Winnipeg headquarters to be the most energy-efficient building in North America. As it was conceiving the project, the Centre for Applied Research in Sustainable Infrastructure (CARSI), at Winnipeg’s Red River College, was launching a facility for testing state-of-the-art building practices.

The two forged a partnership, allowing Manitoba Hydro to try new technologies and materials before constructing its 22-storey office complex. In the process, CARSI gained a valuable long-term client and gave its students hands-on experience.

In planning its headquarters, Manitoba Hydro wanted to use a “curtain wall” technology never before attempted in North America. The exterior of the office tower’s two main facades would be encased in a double pane of glass, with a one-metre space between the two panes. This design reduces a building’s heating and cooling needs in extreme temperatures, optimizes ventilation and provides office workers with maximum exposure to natural daylight, while reducing the need for artificial lighting. But because this system is climate-sensitive, Manitoba Hydro wanted to test it over four seasons before ordering the 9,290 square metres of glass required.

In 2006, the original design of CARSI was altered to include a smaller version of the curtain wall on the building’s east end. A 185-square-metre “living lab” was built behind the exterior where, over the next two years, researchers tested a variety of building materials and systems, including carpets, paints, cubicles, acoustics and ventilation, to see which would best complement the office tower’s energy balance — and how the components would work together.

A key concern was artificial lighting. “When you have 5,000 fixtures, you don’t want to get the layout wrong,” says Tom Akerstream, Manitoba Hydro’s technical coordinator on the project. “You need to know how much sunlight you’ll get and how those lights will respond.”

The new headquarters, fully opened this fall, houses 2,000 employees. Aiming for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, the structure is 66 percent more energy-efficient than a comparable conventional building.

Ray Hoemsen, director of Applied Research & Commercialization at Red River College, sees this project as part of a larger effort to build up local expertise in sustainable architecture and new technologies. “Our students are getting training they can later apply to other buildings,” he says. “We’re also trying to specialize in cold-climate performance, so there’s definitely the potential to develop exportable technologies.”