One of the largest complexes currently under construction in Downtown Toronto is the Sun Life Financial Tower and Harbour Plaza Residences. Built alongside the Gardiner Expressway where the notorious but not-long-for-this-world spiral ramp to York Street diverges from it—and sporting unmistakable balconies which evoke giant zippers—the development is also one of the most prominent complexes now under construction in the city.

The Sun Life Financial Tower and Harbour Plaza Residences as seen from the westThe Sun Life Financial Tower and Harbour Plaza Residences as seen from the west, image by Craig White

The Menkes Developments project with the prominent One York address is made up of one office tower (the Sun Life Financial Tower), two condominium towers (Harbour Plaza Residences), and the retail podium from which they rise. A recent southerly extension of Toronto's pedestrian PATH network—already open—passes through the retail podium on its way south from the Air Canada Centre to Waterpark Place at Queen's Quay. With the Sun Life office tower preparing to open shortly, the site hosted a Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat tour on August 30.

Mark Garland of LCL Builds welcomes the tour group to the building, image by JamMark Garland of LCL Builds welcomes the tour group to the building, image by James Parakh

Participants started in the lobby of One York, a 35-storey office building slated to open in October. Located on the east side of York Street between the one-way pair of Harbour Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, the Sweeny &Co-designed building fronts a newly widened and landscaped sidewalk with an 18 metre-high tensioned cable glass wall. The lobby, with warm stone walls and floors, is flooded with light.

The new landscaped sidewalk in front of One York, TorontoThe new landscaped sidewalk in front of One York, image by Craig White

Above the podium, One York boasts about 800,000 square feet of leasable space. To be the home of Sun Life Financial and the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, only 26,000 square feet remain available to lease on the 15th floor, and it was this floor where the tour group got a look at how the offices are built out.

Raised floors in One York allow easy reconfiguration of cables and even distribuRaised floors in One York allow easy reconfiguration of cables and even distribution of fresh air, image by Craig White

Floors in the office tower are concrete tiles raised about a foot above the slabs. With one of the tiles removed to show the hardware and depth of the raised area above, the tour group learned of the ease with which offices can be configured with such a system. HVAC air ducting—chilled or warmed by Enwave's Downtown Toronto loop as necessary—is done through the hidden raised floor space (both circular vents can be seen in the floor in the image below, along with perimeter vents by the windows). Meanwhile, communications and power cables can be laid out in any manner necessary, ready to pop up through holes drilled in any tile. Tiles can easily be carpeted.

Full height windows with ventilation at their base at One York, TorontoFull height windows with ventilation at their base, image by Craig White

Windows are full height, with the knee height guards providing more of a visual reassurance for workers than a practical safety necessity. The full height allows natural light to penetrate deep into the core of the building. Floors are over 10 feet from tiles to the ceiling, which is the underside of concrete slab for the next floor. Columns with widely flaring capitals are set well back from the windows.

Walking through the porte cochère to the residential towers, One York, TorontoWalking through the porte cochère to the residential towers, image by Craig White

The complex includes an expansive covered area for vehicular access to parking, truck deliveries, and servicing. With wide openings on both Harbour Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, and high-gloss white tiles cladding, the area is bright despite how deep into the building it stretches. The tour crossed through this area to proceed into the Harbour Plaza Residences side of the complex. The residential towers, now topping out at 63 and 67 storeys, are designed by architectsAlliance.

Joe Francaville briefing the tour about engineering aspects of One York, TorontoJoe Francaville briefing the tour about engineering aspects of the towers, image by Craig White

Having ridden up the construction hoist to the 49th storey of the Harbour Plaza Residences west tower, Joe Francavilla and Mark Mulvenna of Menkes and Adam Feldmann of architectsAlliance spoke to the group about various engineering and architectural aspects of the towers. Very slender for their 735 ft/224 m and 765 ft/233 m heights, the towers boast 500 mm thick concrete shear walls around reinforced concrete elevator cores, and tuned mass dampers at the top to counteract any sway.

Harbour Plaza seen from Union Plaza, across the Gardiner Expressway, TorontoThe complex as seen from Union Plaza, across the Gardiner Expressway to the north, image by Marcus Mitanis

Seen from a distance, the towers' balcony railings appear as solid white bands, and most UrbanToronto members discussing the balconies in our dedicated thread for the development have assumed that the effect was created by a dense frit pattern on glass panels. Frit—a translucent enamel baked onto the glass surface—has become more and more common in Toronto over the last decade. Visible to birds, frit keeps them from flying into the glass. It also provides some privacy for those enjoying their balconies while allowing sightlines through to the city at the same time, and it decreases solar gain in situations where the glass is an insulating surface.

Balcony guards are a powder coated perforated aluminum, One York, TorontoBalcony guards are a powder coated perforated aluminum, image by Craig White

At Harbour Plaza, however, architectsAlliance wanted to try something new, and instead specced a powder coated aluminum grille to be used for balcony guards. Working with Menkes, the architectural firm went on to test several perforation sizes and densities to determine which provided the best combination of through-views for balcony users, and privacy from beyond. They also determined that the holes would not cause the panels individually nor the building as a whole to "sing" in high winds: harmonic resonance from the balconies was not an item the builders were looking to add to the building's feature list.

Balcony guards are a powder coated perforated aluminum, One York, TorontoLooking down at the perforated metal balcony guards of the east tower, image by Craig White

From close up, the perforations and panel joins can be made out. As the distance increases, however, the panels seem to become solid.

HVAC venting for individual suites has been designed in a way to match the balcony detail, and to also disappear. Vents are black powder coated aluminum panels with similar perforations, but which run along the tops of windows. From a distance, they are indistinguishable from the solid frames and mullions of the buildings' exteriors.

Vents are worked into the exterior to match the balconies, One York, TorontoVents are worked into the exterior to match the balconies, but are black, image by Craig White

Work on the west tower has now reached the mechanical penthouse above the 63rd storey, while the east tower is still approaching its top residential level. The towers will be completed in 2017.

View of Harbour Plaza east tower from the west tower, 49th floor, TorontoView of the east tower from the west tower, 49th floor, image by Craig White

Down at ground level, the PATH connection from the north-south link between the Air Canada Centre and Waterpark Place is now being extended with an east-west link to the about-to-open One York office tower. Over the coming couple of years, stores and restaurants will open in the podium and along Harbour Street. UrbanToronto will look to document more milestones as the complex gradually completes. 

If you want more now, our dataBase file, linked below, includes an extensive number of renderings of the complex and quickly accessed information, while our associated Forum threads include many more recent photographs of the site by many contributors, including more photos taken during this tour. You can get in on the conversation in the thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.