Last week's announcement of renewed plans for a Scarborough LRT was met with praise and celebration by residents and transit advocates throughout Toronto. Proposed to terminate at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus (UTSC), the LRT has widely been touted as a way to spur new density and investment in Scarborough, while greatly improving access to the University's eastern campus. A visit to UTSC reveals an institution already in the midst of an historic transformation, with the Environmental Science & Chemistry Centre—opening today—now standing as a particularly eye-catching landmark of the growing campus.

The Environmental Science & Chemistry Building at UTSC, image by Michael Muraz

Designed by Toronto's globally renowned Diamond Schmitt Architects, the $65 million research and teaching facility houses laboratories and offices for the Department of Physical and Environmental Science. In advance of the grand opening, UrbanToronto toured the facility with dsai architect Nigel Tai, learning about the technological innovations that make the building a candidate for LEED Gold Certification. Our tour also reveals the design's more subtle—but perhaps equally impressive—innovations in nurturing a healthy social fabric and an engaged, healthy campus community.

dsai's Nigel Tai discusses the design, image by Stefan Novakovic

The technological innovation is easier to see. From the exterior, the building's gracefully kinetic fins serve to minimize solar heat gain. The high-performance curtain wall also features fritted glazing, further reducing the facility's energy consumption. Tai explains the fins as a simple "manipulation of geometry to allow sunlight to enter without excessively heating the building," while the aesthetic shaping of the variable extrusions lends the building a softer, more organic presence. 

A closer look at the exterior fins, image by Jack Landau

According to Tai, "a visual connection is made between the appearance of this building on the edge of a ravine and its academic pursuits rooted in nature and the environment. You could say nature inspires this highly sustainable building, the building inspires the researchers, the researchers help sustain nature."

The lobby, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

Significant energy savings are realized through a large-scale geo-thermal system. Made up of a series of boreholes that reach more than 600 feet underground, the system utilizes the stable subterranean temperature to passively regulate conditions in the building above—which is topped by a green roof. Geo-thermal energy cools the building in the winter, and heats it in the summer, reducing the strain on the HVAC system.

While still something of a rarity in Canada, the geo-thermal system utilized here is particularly notable for being housed directly below the basement flooroplate—rather than beside it—making for a more spatially efficient layout. 

An illustration of the earth tube and geo-thermal system, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

Along a similar principal, the building also utilizes a system of "earth tubes" to regulate temperatures year-round. Only the second system of its kind in the GTA—following the Earth Rangers Centre in Woodbridge—the six earth tubes provide temperature-regulated fresh air to the administrative wing. Passing underground from exterior ventilation shafts, subterranean conditions warm the air in the winter and cool it in the summer.

The pioneering technology's installation allows for more thorough testing, with the National Research Council set to monitor the system in order to chart its exact energy savings. More precise research into the energy savings could help spur more widespread adoption of the technology, making the installation particularly significant.

Height variation and aesthetic detailing highlight the earth tube ventilation, image by Michael Muraz

The earth tubes are aesthetically highlighted along the exterior and interior of the building—with a red LED light shining prominence on the mechanical installation as it travels beneath the building's entrance. Technology itself becomes a teaching tool when students are invited to actively engage with its impacts. Lending even a subtle aesthetic focus to mechanical elements—which are usually designed to be hidden away—places the technology in a more immediate context, striving to extend its benefits beyond mere energy savings.

An 'earth tube' is highlighted by red LED lights, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

More broadly, the building is designed to be an active hub for the campus community. Unlike many scientific facilities, chemical laboratories are placed directly on the ground floor, with large windows inviting passerby to take interest in the experiments within. On the floors above, lab facilities—and not offices—are granted the building's most attractive southwest views, giving scientists and students a panoramic view of the ravine below. Offices, meanwhile, face the parking lot to the northeast. 

The upper-level labs feature panoramic views of the landscape, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

The open, sociable laboratory spaces are also designed to be flexible and easily reconfigured as needs change, while the teaching labs also each feature a demonstration hood, allowing professors and TAs to more actively engage with their students. 

a view of one of the teaching labs, image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects

The facility is located directly across the street from the school's Instructional Centre, also designed by dsai. Slightly to the north, meanwhile, the Pan Am Aquatic Facility now serves as a recreational hub, bringing another new presence to the growing campus. Over the coming years, the University of Toronto Scarborough is set to continue its ambitious renaissance, with the school's Master Plan envisioning a much-expanded campus (below).

The UTSC Master Plan, image courtesy of UTSC

Leaving the site on a blustery day, walking to the parking lot frames the building behind us in a grey January context."It's a shame you had to see it on a day like this," Diamond Schmitt's Director of Communications, Paul French, tells us, walking to the car. "I wish you could see it in the sun, when the light hits it. It just dances."  

The building on a better day, image by Michael Muraz

A video highlights many aspects of the building's design components.


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Related Companies:  Diamond Schmitt Architects, EllisDon