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Cracks in the city of glass Add to ...

Chris Vollan loves his box made of glass in the sky.

From his eighth-storey apartment on the north shore of False Creek in Vancouver, the floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides make him feel as though he is living on a viewing platform above the city.

"It's a huge panorama and it makes my whole place feel bigger," says Mr. Vollan, an engineer who lived in 19 different homes before arriving at Concord Pacific's Cooper's Point tower.

His glass-box lifestyle is shared by many Canadians in urban centres. It was born in Vancouver - or as Douglas Coupland renamed it, "The City of Glass" - in the post-Expo '86 boom years and then popped up in Toronto about a decade ago.

But the ascension of the clear glass tower, first seen in Chicago in the 1950s, is slowing.

Architects and buyers have complained of how boring glass towers have become. Planners and sustainability experts wring their hands about the lack of energy efficiency - glass, after all, is the poorest insulating building material around.

And soon, new codes with heightened environmental standards will force builders to limit the amount of clear glass on the exterior.

"Absolutely there's a shift," says engineer Peter Halsall, whose Toronto company, Halsall Associates Ltd., has built glass buildings, fixed glass buildings and lobbied for modifications to the glass-only building.

Office builders are leading the way, he said, as tenants demand more energy efficiency. Residential builders are following as they are pushed and pulled by a chorus of planners, engineers and the public.

At the city of Toronto's design review panel, there's a conscious effort to encourage architects to move beyond glass.

"Successful cities are made up of many different materials," says panel chair Gordon Stratford, an architect and vice-president at HOK. "If you don't get those different materials, you don't get the richness we love about cities."

In Vancouver, concern about the energy and design problems of glass towers is even stronger. "They are very inefficient," says David Ramslie, the city's sustainable development program manager. Not only does glass transfer heat and cold much more than other materials - making buildings more expensive to cool in the summer and heat in the winter - but builders have typically built glass towers with the same materials on all four sides, even though the impact of the sun is far more severe on the south and west.

Scot Hein, head of the city's urban design studio, has these concerns and more. Glass towers have tended to have a monotonous style because of the limited range of construction methods in the early days. In newer neighbourhoods they quickly became repetitive and boring.

Architects have also been stuck on one particular glass tint - seafoam green - because it is cheaper than clear glass or other tints.





In Vancouver, where the view of the mountains, sea and city is highly valued, maximizing that view was job one for architects and marketers. Glass didn't just allow them to sell standard units for more money - it also allowed them to builder smaller units that didn't feel quite as small.

As well, glass technology continued to advance and developers discovered it was actually the cheapest way to build. For one, glass is cheaper than other materials. Second, it's cheaper and faster to install.

David Pontarini, the Toronto architect working on the new, glassy Shangri-La tower in the city, notes that all-glass means the developer doesn't require two or three trades - the brick people, the steel people, the window people -to co-ordinate. With the new concrete towers, glass can just be clipped on after each floor is poured, allowing the builder to enclose the space almost instantly.



But pressure from buyers, architects, planners, engineers and the public for more variety and less energy consumption is having an impact.

In Vancouver, architects have turned to bold splashes of colour. James Cheng's Spectrum building for Concord, with its large metal bars and frames in primary colours, was one of the first. Others nearby have incorporated big blocks of burnt orange or terracotta, blocks of red, or even bands of metal or stone.

Ultimately, though, the biggest driver of change is likely to be the building code.

Concord Pacific's Toronto buildings now are different from those built in the earliest phase, said senior vice-president Peter Webb. They used to be 65 per cent clear glass, 35 per cent spandrels (exterior sections usually of painted glass with insulation behind). Now it's 50-50, to meet new requirements in the national and provincial building codes.

As well, the company has provided small architectural "eyebrows" over windows. "We know we need to reduce the heat gain so the cooling system isn't burning as much energy," said Mr. Webb.

Vancouver is considering even stricter standards, requiring all buildings in rezonings to meet a strict LEED Gold standard.



Still, no one thinks the glass tower is going away completely. Builders will use more spandrels, look for better types of glass, introduce touches of other materials for variety. But they're not going back in history, says Mr. Pontarini.

"The day of the old stone or brick building is gone."

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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