Toronto’s Genius Project: Evergreen Brickworks


Evergreen Brickworks, a stellar project from Canada’s Evergreen non-profit, re-imagines a derelict 12-acre brownfield site, which was once a historic brickworks, in the heart of Toronto as a “center for learning on urban ecology.” At a session at the 2011 GreenBuild, Evergreen, an organization that asks people to “imagine your city with nature,” and the team’s architects and energy modellers delved into the details of this model urban redevelopment initiative.

According to Robert Plitt, sustainability manager for Evergreen, the venue was envisioned as a site that could “speak to the broad issues of sustainability in cities.” Given cities have “eliminated natural processes,” what would be better than turning one of the most hard-core brownfields into an environmental learning center, public arts space, ecological landscape demonstration project, and farmer’s market? Evergreen wanted to show that no matter how environmentally degraded, “cities can rest in a foundation of the natural world.” The organization, however, not only had to address the challenges of remediating a brownfield but also learn how to maintain a site on a floodplain.

The Don Valley Brickworks, which provided almost all the bricks for Toronto’s older buildings, shut down by the mid-20th century. Since 1975, it’s been abandoned. Some amazing features of the old site: There are 300-foot brick kiln tunnels, beautiful old machinery, towering spaces, and decades of graffiti. But the site rests within a major floodplain, which gets up to 12 feet of water during hurricanes. It’s also a part of the “world’s largest ravine system” at some 26,000 acres, which underlies parts of Toronto. Given the challenging geological and hydrological conditions of the site, the Toronto government almost denied moving forward with the project, but “leadership across the federal, provincial, and city governments wanted this to happen.”

This historic brownfield redevelopment project was forged out of “hundreds of partnerships,” resulted from “deep community engagement,” and is financed by some $30 million CA in public funds (and another $25 million CA raised through donations). The end result: 16 buildings set within an intriguing landscape, including a 45,000 square feet educational and administrative building, and 12,000 square feet of native plant-laden “ecological demonstration gardens.” The project aims for LEED Platinum, and the goal is to be economically self-sustaining. Fees from event space rental, parking, and other activities are expected to fund a rich set of educational and public art programming. There are also retail stores – with Timberland and other environmentally-minded firms offering goods, along with outposts for well-known environmental education groups like Outward Bound.

DTAH, an interdisciplinary architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design firm, won the design competition to adapt Brickworks. Joe Lobko, who managed the project, said the final team included some 20-25 firms, such as Claude Cormier landscape architecture, ecologists, engineers, and hydrologists. “We wanted to emulate nature and be diverse.”

Lobko said the project rightly focuses on “how to revitalize existing communities.” He argued that there’s no way to get to “zero impact” if we are building brand-new sustainable buildings and communities. Revising the site’s master plan, Lobko’s team decided on organizing around “flows”, those of water, people, and transportation. Before, the brickworks was “like a cork” stopping up the flow. Now, the site is more in synch with existing movements. One way this was illustrated: new north-south native plant-rich greenways through the site that help accomodate all these flows.

The over-arching design concept was “loose fit, light touch.” Adaptable, flexible spaces were created from the existing steel and brick framed structures. Where possible, the graffiti was untouched, keeping the sub-cultural history in place.  “Steel has a long life” so that was kept in place in favor of replacing with other materials. There’s a new skating rink under the steel beams in winter, and cavernous, dramatic spaces for parties within many of the buildings. The ecological landscapes do provide some stormwater benefit, as do “Canada’s largest porous pavement parking lot,” but won’t really help for any major flood event. For that, there are now elaborate flood monitoring and evacuation protocals and systems in place in case of another major flood ravaging the site, including the “shitster,” a cistern that could be reconfigured from collecting rainwater to collecting sewage on site in case of thousands trapped in the facility during a flood.

Michael Leckman, Diamond Schmittt Architects, explained how his firm, as part of the larger project, creatively built upon one of the existing buildings to create the “Center for Green Cities.” In a smart example of adaptive re-use, his firm set a new 5-story building within and above the historic artifact, the old shell. Leckman said he was focused on “hovering, lining, knitting, appending.” By appending, he meant pasting new ideas on old, imagining additions or subtractions, but leaving the original idea intact. The new building will eventually feature solar photovoltaics and thermal systems, an a public art wall with sliding panels that can open and close to accomodate weather changes.

Lastly, Douglas Webber, Halsall Associates, said he broke the mold a bit trying to set the performance benchmarks and determine the energy modelling for this adaptive re-use project. Some ambitious benchmarks were set and met: the building does 50 percent better than ASHRAE. Also, 15 rainwater cisterns collect four million liters of stormwater annually, which is then used for landscape irrigation, washrooms, and cooling towers. However, he said the modeling process wasn’t easy: He first tried using Energy Plus, which he said represents the next generation of energy modeling, but fell back on EQuest, which is simpler but less accurate on some factors. Together, he said, these tools “provided what we needed.” Through his process, he discovered that a cooling system wasn’t actually needed, and 42 percent of energy use goes to ventilation (not heating or cooling). He’s also a big fan of ceiling fans, which reduced reliance on cooling.

See more images of the project and check out a video tour with one of the architects.

Image credit: ASLA 2009 General Design Honor Award. Spadina Wavedeck, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. West 8 + DTAH, Rotterdam and Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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