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Cables with water running down them help humidify and dehumidify the air in Manitoba Hydro's building in Winnipeg, depending on the temperature.

Mario Palumbo/Manitoba Hydro

Red River College just happened to be building an infrastructure testing facility at the same time Manitoba Hydro was planning a new sustainable building in Winnipeg. The technology Hydro wanted to use was so new, they wanted to test out much of it before construction.

So Red River incorporated a prototype of the Hydro building into the construction of the testing facility, the Centre for Applied Research in Sustainable Infrastructure (CARSI).

After it was built, the 22-storey office tower in Winnipeg beat Donald Trump's 98-storey Chicago hotel for the title of 2009's Best Tall Building in the Americas.

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Red River's CARSI tested many different aspects of the heating, cooling, lighting and structural elements of the new building, especially how it would behave in the different extremes of Winnipeg's climate.

"They saved us tens of millions of dollars, based on the things we found out in the CARSI building." says Manitoba Hydro's Tom Akerstream, the manager in charge of the building project.

The modest A-shaped structure has no luxurious amenities or Gehry-like twists. Instead, what impressed the judges at the Council on Tall Buildings was that Manitoba Hydro's new digs raised the bar for sustainability. It did so, in part, by being the first building in North America with truly climate responsive: the building's shell morphs with changes in weather to suck in free energy from the sun and the wind.

Mr. Akerstream is proud that, just over a year since the 2,000 employees moved in, they're using 66-per-cent less than required by the Model National Energy Code for Buildings (MNECB), the federal standard.

One feature that minimizes the energy drain is the high-tech curtain wall, which traps energy from the sun and wind. A curtain wall is a glass and aluminum skin that sits about a metre outside the building's main wall of windows. "Think of it like an overcoat," says Mr. Akerstream. The space in between heats up in the sun, which keeps the building nice and toasty in the winter.

Canadians have been building curtain walls for decades, but this one works in summer, too. "Our building can take off the overcoat and just wear a light t-shirt in the summer," explains Mr. Akerstream. It does so with a weather station that is constantly assessing heat, light, and wind. A computer opens and closes the correct outer-wall windows automatically in warm whether. When there's a breeze to take advantage of, the computer also e-mails employees and asks them to open the interior-wall windows. The computer system even adjusts the blinds so that they are trapping as much solar energy as possible in the winter and deflecting as much as possible in summer.

But the curtain wall isn't the only source of free energy that the building taps in winter. It also uses geothermal heat that rises into its three six-story atria from pipes stuck deep into the earth. The air is warmed further by the sun in the south-facing glass compartments before being circulated through pipes in the concrete floors. It comes out of vents near employees feet and is then sucked across the building and out the solar chimney at the north end.

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That atria also humidify the building in the winter, using 125-ft. tall waterfalls that create steam as they come into contact with the warm air. In the summer, the water is cooled so that it does the opposite and dehumidifies the air.

The building's system allows complete air exchange up to three times an hour.

No wonder it's the most popular feature with employees. "They aren't getting that recycled air," explains the architect, Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB in Toronto. "People can go to meetings in the afternoon without getting that sagging effect from lack of oxygen."

But special design means a special price: $283-million. Jim Love, a sustainable building expert at the University of Calgary, says high costs are what's preventing more climate responsive buildings in Canada. By comparison, the recently-opened Telus office tower in Toronto cost $250-million - 11 per cent less - and contains about 20 per cent more work space. The Telus building is expected to be 25-per-cent more efficient than the MNECB.

But Mr. Akerstream is confident that as energy prices rise, his climate-responsive building will garner more interest. It already saves more than $1-million per year by using less energy. The technology may have been more expensive, but it's expected to pay for itself in 25 years.

There are other savings too, says Mr. Kuwabara. "Manitoba Hydro's biggest expense by far is the cost of its employees," he explains. "By creating a building they want to spend their careers in, it will help them attract and keep the best people in Winnipeg."

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As for the college, not only did students have an opportunity to observe a team of experts from around the world working with sustainable technology, but the partnership with Hydro continues as they study new sustainable technology through a $2.3-million NSERC grant, says Ray Hoemsen, director of Applied Research & Commercialization at Red River.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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