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The George Brown building ‘has a glowing effect out over the water and I’m told by sailor friends of ours that they can actually be out on the other side of the island and still see the building coming in. So we’re a beacon out over the lake,’ Ms. Comeau adds. (Tom Arban Photography)
The George Brown building ‘has a glowing effect out over the water and I’m told by sailor friends of ours that they can actually be out on the other side of the island and still see the building coming in. So we’re a beacon out over the lake,’ Ms. Comeau adds. (Tom Arban Photography)

Redevelopment

George Brown Campus pumps new energy into Toronto's waterfront Add to ...

After the sun sets, the new George Brown Waterfront Health Sciences Campus sits like a shining beacon over the waters of Lake Ontario in Toronto. From afar, it glows.

Its walls seem transparent. It doesn’t hide its open spaces. It’s intended to be welcoming, collaborative, inclusive.

With more than 3,000 students descending upon it every day, the campus has pumped energy into a lakefront that once was seedy and shunned, as bleak as the back of an old radio. Not any more.

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The college campus is one of the important first steps toward transforming the Toronto waterfront, but the metamorphosis is not just about removing tonnes of contaminated soil and making the site pretty. It’s about revitalizing a neighbourhood and creating light and life.

Last year, the campus won the Neighbourhood Scale section of the Canadian Urban Institute’s Brownfield Awards, for inserting itself into the community in an important way. The collaborative health-care centre teaches nursing, dental, health and wellness and health services management. Members of the public may access the entire eight floors of the building – climbing enormous, cascading staircases, not just to revel in the views, but to have their teeth cleaned, their blood pressure checked and mobility problems assessed.

The physical footprint of the campus even creates an effective laboratory for students from other George Brown campuses. Construction technology students can learn about the tricks and challenges inherent in building atop shifting sands and high water tables.

In Toronto, anything south of Front Street is basically “geotechnically unsound,” explains John Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Waterfront Toronto. “When you think of building north of King Street, the land has been there for 10,000 years and it’s all compacted and has good bearing capacity.”

In contrast, waterfront buildings, built on landfill, require extra expense to bring in infrastructure such as water, sewer, gas and hydro lines. Beyond individual properties, Waterfront Toronto also has to deal with old infrastructure, propping up and rebuilding delicate 100-year-old pipes.

A river used to run through the land on which the new George Brown campus sits – 30 to 40 per cent of the building’s substructure is below the water level of the lake. Still, motorists can drive blithely into a three-level underground parking garage with expansive aisles, all rooted on bedrock.

After removing the contaminated soil, construction crews had to build what George Brown president Anne Sado calls a “bathtub” first. Retaining walls went up, and the whole area was skimmed with a 100-per-cent waterproof membrane, and then outfitted with insulation.

Terry Comeau, the executive director of the waterfront campus development project for the college, and an experienced architect herself, says the building ended up having a well-supported five-foot concrete wall.

The process delivered hurdles galore. “We had geysers coming up from the bottom of the hole during construction,” Ms. Comeau says.

Yet the 330,000-square-foot, $175-million building opened for business last September after only 17 months of construction.

“It’s one of those projects that really stands out in somebody’s career from a process perspective,” says Michael Moxam, design director of Stantec Architecture Ltd., which teamed up with KPMB (Kuwabara Payne McKenna and Blumberg) to work on the George Brown campus.

The architects had a front-row seat for a major revitalization plan. In the mind of Bruce Kuwabara and Mr. Moxam, the George Brown campus design is not about itself; it sets a high standard for waterfront development that will take place over the next 20 years.

“It’s a coup for George Brown,” Mr. Kuwabara says. “They got great value in that building.”

Snaring the campus was also a coup for Waterfront Toronto, Mr. Moxam says. The organization wanted to revitalize the area in non-summer months, and an educational institution fit the bill, particularly with a rush of youth from September to March.

“We talked to every college president within a 50-mile radius,” Mr. Campbell said. “Most of them were enthralled with the idea, but a satellite campus has its own costs.” George Brown is different: Its campuses dot the city, with its main campus only a 10-minute walk away.

Inside, the building is a tribute to sustainability and flexibility, all part of the vision of Waterfront Toronto, which requires buildings on its lands to attain a gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status.

Mr. Kuwabara said he hadn’t counted on one of the interior benefits of the fritted glass chosen to shield the building from heat and to ward off migratory birds. It has created a sense of “daydreaming and dreaminess,” he says.“You don’t think of it as being kind of a serene thing.”

Massive, low-iron, extra-clear windows on the east side of the building, overlooking Sherbourne Common park, let in a jolt of light in the morning. “The sunrise is stunning,” Mr. Moxam says.

One of the last pieces of the LEED puzzle is transportation. More than 90 per cent of students use transit to get to the campus. Potentially hobbled by the delay of a city plan to add light-rail transit along Queen’s Quay to the north, the campus was able to secure bus service directly from Union Station to the front door of the site.

Mr. Kuwabara is pleased. “I was worried that link would fail, and therefore there would be complaints about the building and the program for the wrong reasons.”

The campus establishes George Brown as a vital contributor to the waterfront community. “I like being part of the urban fibre,” Ms. Sado says. “It’s part of who we are. We’ve always talked about being woven into the social, economical and cultural fabric of Toronto. As a college, we’re moving toward a level of responsibility to the public.”

Bright and green

Among the many green building features at the George Brown Waterfront Health Sciences Campus:

– Rooms with sensors that turn off lights and audiovisual equipment and drop heating levels when people leave and shut the door.

– Automated blinds that drop during the heat of the day.

– Carpet squares made of reclaimed materials with low chemical emissions, easily replaced when worn, recyclable at the end of their usefulness.

– Natural woods, removable concrete tiles for easy access to pipes and electrical conduits.

– Windows made with low-iron transparent glass – not green glass – to allow natural light.

– Libraries geared to paperless operation. (Only about 10,000 volumes are stored in-house.)

– Flexible, movable office walls, which allow better circulation of air and heat.

– A green roof deck.

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