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2005 11 10
The Writing is on the Living Wall
imageFor Torontonians accustomed to a diet of new destination buildings -- the ROM's Libeskind Crystal, Frank Gehry's hockey stick AGO and Alsop's floating table top OCA -- it may come as a surprise that architecture's real revolution is not driven by star architects.

The force driving longer-term innovation and change in the architecture profession is the public's growing demand for healthy, livable and energy-efficient buildings. Maybe because of our harsh climate, Canadian firms are leading the response to this demand.

Dr. Alan Darlington designs living, breathing walls. His research-driven company, Air Quality Solutions, is changing our expectations about how the buildings we live and work in influence our long-term health.

In Darlington's case, his living wall installation for the still unbuilt University of Toronto's Engineering Society Atrium is an example of how green technologies are at the forefront of architectural innovation.

Living wall systems capture airborne pollution inside buildings and, through a process known as biofiltering, convert those pollutants into harmless byproducts. Biofiltering employs a combination of plant and microbial processes that do what healthy biosystems do -- they convert one system's waste products into another's nutrients.

As a proof of the system's efficiency, in this project the wall's irrigation runoff flows into large aquariums on the ground floor.

The benefit to those of us who must work in increasingly large and complex buildings is that systems like this make the indoor air we breathe healthier and more energy efficient.

The engineering society's atrium project is, appropriately enough, at the leading edge of environmental design. The planned renovation is not an unpleasant space designed by engineers just to test new theories: It is a place designed to show the beauty that collaborative explorations of new technologies can bring.

Local firm Bortolotto Design Architect teamed with the broad mix of engineering specialists involved in the project to design the interior space. Their task was to create an interior environment as beautiful as it is healthy and functional. To that end, the award-winning Toronto firm led by principal Tania Bortolotto is doing what architects do best -- integrating complex systems and ideas into a delightful, accommodating whole.

The atrium committee, chaired by student Jason Chang, chose Bortolotto for the commission over a short list of some of the city's top architects. According to spokeswoman Johanna Hoffmann, the students selected Bortolotto because they believed a small, innovative firm striving to make its name would be creative in spite of the project's modest size and budget. They were right.

The planned three-storey atrium is part of the University's Sanford Fleming Engineering Building on the downtown campus. Fleming, you may remember, was responsible for, among many other things, the idea of standard time zones.

References to Fleming's work arguably find a place in this potentially dark interior space through the use of two distinct engineered systems. The first system, integrated by engineer Greg Allen's Sustainable EDGE Ltd., brings natural light into the bio-wall and other spaces in the atrium. It does this through fibre-optic bundles connected to sunlight collectors on the roof.
The proposed hybrid solar light system -- it switches to electrical light when needed -- has the benefit of maintaining the occupants' natural circadian rhythms, according to Greg Allen, and sunlight-deprived engineering students pulling 24-hour study sessions may never be the same.

The second system uses virtual reality technologies to project sky images on the ceiling of the atrium. During Toronto's daylight hours, real-time sky scenes are projected. At night, the projected scenes might track, for example, the sunset as it follows later time zones westward around the globe.

According to Bortolotto, the atrium, or virtrium (a hybrid of atrium and virtual), attempts to eliminate the sensory barriers between outside and inside. She explains that in addition to the air, water and lighting systems, there is also an audio component to the project.

A rooftop aeolian or wind harp generates sounds then played in the atrium below. The resulting ambient white noise further animates what could be a dark and dreary space.

In a media-driven world accustomed to the sensational, we have little choice but to use starchitecture to attract international attention to our city. We should not forget though, that real architectural innovation is taking place around us almost invisibly.

However, that architecture, as embraced by the Virtrium Project, will soon radically change the places where we live and work.

This story is cross-published in today's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 11/10 at 03:31 PM

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