Airport redevelopment project taking off
Edmonton's Blatchford project has been plagued by delays, but the heavy equipment is finally at work
It aims to set the bar for carbon-neutral living in Canada and Blatchford, a 217-hectare development on the site of the former Edmonton Airport, has made a promising start; diverting 27,000 tonnes of building materials from landfill during site preparation.
Material included 50 hectares of hard surface consisting of two runways, taxiways, surface parking lots and foundations. The asphalt, concrete and gravel has been processed and sold back to the construction industry.
Twelve airport buildings were also deconstructed and sold off to be reassembled and repurposed elsewhere. Those buildings not recycled as complete units were recycled in their component parts. Fixtures that were aviation-related, such as floodlighting, were purchased by another airport which is undergoing expansion.
Mark Hall, executive director of the redevelopment project, says the deconstruction phase was a huge task but, ultimately, the economics made good sense.
"It actually saved money to recycle buildings and materials as we avoided the cost of transporting material to landfill and paying the tipping fees," he explains. "The deconstruction process was undertaken in two phases and we diverted 92 per cent of all materials from landfill, which was a huge achievement. The volume of material was large and our goal was 80 per cent; we surpassed that.
"In May, we started installing the utilities that support residential development like power, cable, gas, telecommunications, water pipes, sanitation and the district energy system," he continues.
Once the utilities are installed, roads will be laid and landscaping undertaken in preparation for the 175 townhouses and 75 low-rise apartment units over eight hectares that will make up the first phase of the development. The aim is that Blatchford will have higher than average density and as such will have no single-family homes.
The builders who will bring Blatchford to market will be selected in the next couple of months. Mr. Hall says the first residents of Blatchford could be moving into the community as early as winter 2018, and the entire neighbourhood, housing 30,000 residents, built out by 2037.
Progress on the development comes after a controversial delay, during which time the original plan by architects Perkins + Will has been altered dramatically by the city, incurring much criticism. Community-wide geothermal heating and an underground pneumatic garbage-collection system are just two of the features that have been scrapped.
Mr. Hall says geothermal heating was too risky and other features simply weren't feasible on this size of site.
"We weren't able to confirm that underneath Blatchford there actually was thermal energy that we could tap into," he says. "There was a risk we would drill down and not find anything and we weren't willing to take that risk. Some technologies from the original plan were scalable and some were not," he continues.
Geothermal has been replaced with a geo-exchange system which will allow the community to store shared energy beneath a stormwater lake. This will work alongside a sewer heat exchange as part of a district energy sharing system (DESS), which will see residents of Blatchford share energy among buildings. It's not new technology, in fact district energy systems have been around for more than a century, though not as widely adopted in North America as in Europe, due to traditionally lower urban density. In Canada there are currently around 100 such systems in operation. It is expected to reduce overall energy consumption in Blatchford by 15 to 20 per cent.
Mr. Hall says the extra year taken by council was "time well-spent," and "ensures we have the right concept for Blatchford's energy system and a full understanding of what it will take to implement that." He adds that Edmonton's current "soft real estate market" has also been taken into consideration.
"We're always walking a line between being extremely innovative and trying to fit it into a marketplace," he explains. "Real estate is very competitive right now and we have to ensure that we're not designing the community to be unique but to operate in a way that offers residents an appealing opportunity to live a more sustainable lifestyle that isn't available anywhere else.
"We're designing this community in a different way but it's not an experiment. We think it's where the industry and where the market is going with infill redevelopment," he adds.
Mr. Hall hasn't ruled out further changes to the plan over the coming decades. He says having a "fluid approach" is "necessary" with developments built over such a long time frame. His team recently started concept work for the second and third phases which will be built in 2019 and 2020.
"We have a plan and we know what our objectives are but we also know that we have to be able to accommodate change," he says. "In the years ahead, there's going to be changes in transportation technology and building technology and we'll be continually scanning to see what could better achieve council's objective of a carbon-neutral community."
"We've also have the ability to accelerate the pace of construction when the market is stronger," he adds. "But for now we're just happy to be making progress."
As Blatchford moves toward its future, it will continue to honour its past by retaining its airport control tower and incorporating its aviation history — it was the first licensed airfield in Canada — into its street names and parks. Plans are also afoot for a storytelling experience in the form of a digital or walking tour to keep the site's origins alive.
"It's a unique site with a lot of history," Mr. Hall says. "We don't want to lose that in the development."