Skip to main content
rob magazine

On March 15, architect and sustainability guru William McDonough delivered a lecture on green design for a sellout crowd of 350 at the Calgary Hyatt Regency. Before an increasingly hushed audience, McDonough described the headquarters he'd built for both Nike and the Gap, the factories he'd designed for Ford and Herman Miller. The Ford plant was topped by the world's largest "green" roof; the Herman Miller factory had paid for itself after three months,in productivity changes alone. The workplace, McDonough asserted, was the proper place to begin thinking about "the value proposition for executives to do the right thing." He moved on to a current client, Google, which, as he spoke, was covering its Silicon Valley offices and parking lots with solar panels. The best minds in high tech were choosing to pay about $500,000 more for their electricity every year, McDonough said, out of a deep concern not for natural resources but for human ones. "The average employee at Google produces revenue of a million dollars a year," he explained. The extra power cost is more than paid for each time a talented person comes on board simply to be with a "cool solar-powered company." Google, McDonough says, "has a different kind of mental model of what a value is."

The Hyatt was an auspicious venue for such talk. It sits across the street from the site of possibly the boldest green construction project ever commissioned by a Canadian business: the Bow Building, the headquarters-to-be of homegrown natural-gas titan EnCana Corp. The Bow Building will boast 58 storeys, almost two million square feet of office space, a price tag verging on a billion dollars and, come 2011, the tallest tower in Canada west of Toronto. "This will be the best of the best buildings in Calgary," says EnCana executive vice-president John Brannan, who was a leader on the project's early phases. His is actually one of the more measured superlatives the building has already inspired, well in advance of ground being broken (indeed, even before plans have been finalized). The high hopes extend beyond the building itself to the troubled downtown it aims to help transform.

The Bow's design is by Foster and Partners, the A-list international firm overseen by sustainable-architecture pioneer Sir Norman Foster, whose landmark buildings include the Swiss Re Building in London and the rejuvenated Reichstag in Berlin. The Bow is tricked out with a standard suite of Sir Norman's green features, from its efficient sub-floor air conditioning to its lattice-like "diagrid" skin (which reduces the use of structural steel, whose energy-intensive manufacture is anything but green). The building is configured as a wide-mawed horseshoe yawning to the southwest. The shape does much more than give the building an excuse to borrow its name from the river that rolls by a few blocks north. The bow-like contour also reduces wind resistance, maximizes the number of offices receiving natural light and allows for the building's most striking interior feature: a series of "sky gardens"--three atriums just behind that southwest-facing façade, each about 20 storeys high. Apart from providing informal meeting places, the atriums will work in tandem with state-of-the-art ventilation to serve as a critical buffer zone between the harsh prairie climate and the offices within. On cold days, the ample southern Alberta sun will warm the atriums, and on warm summer days the hot air will be expelled before reaching the building's core. The buffer zone's more temperate air can then be cycled through the offices themselves, reducing heating and cooling requirements.

All told, the Bow tower's light energy footprint is expected to save EnCana 30% on HQ operating costs. "That's a substantial amount of money," Brannan notes. "It's the environmentally correct thing to do, but it was also financially the correct thing to do." Which raises the question of how a fossil-fuel king came to commission a monument to ecological enlightenment in the first place.

The Bow originated with the most workaday of concerns: EnCana's staff was scattered throughout five buildings, and this in a city centre with a vacancy rate stuck under 1%. Some 58% of the entire country's downtown new office construction is happening in Calgary, but many of those buildings are fully leased long before they're finished. So the only way for EnCana to get everyone under one roof was to build.

As luck would have it, there was a sizable parcel of land available--two jointly held city blocks--just across Centre Street from the Petro-Canada towers. The south block was occupied mainly by a pair of decrepit prewar hotels, which, if salvaged and designated as Municipal Historic Resources, could earn the company the right from city hall to build higher on the north block--a main tower tall enough to host the entire Calgary staff. Already the project began to take on symbolic weight: There was no premium commercial space on this side of Centre, and nothing had ever been built anywhere in the city that approached the height EnCana was now able to consider. It would be tall enough, indeed, to overshadow the tallest spire of Petro-Canada's "Red Square," a delicious commentary on the power shift in the oil patch since the 1980s.

It wasn't a rhetorical flourish, however, that convinced EnCana to seek out innovative designs for its new home, but rather a thorny boom-town reality: Calgary's labour pool was as tight as its office space. Everyone paid well these days, so what else could a company do to attract and secure top talent? With that question in mind, the company began to entertain proposals for the design of its new headquarters. It also surveyed its staff to see what they'd like to see in their workplace. A picture emerged of something much grander than a stack of offices: an eco-friendly landmark, a destination, a downtown hub, "an energetic urban village."

The latter was the phrase used by EnCana CEO Randy Eresman in the October, 2006, announcement that Foster and Partners, easily the least business-as-usual firm on the short list, had won the commission. The contest wasn't even close--mainly because of details which, sustainability aside, promised to create the same sort of value that Google's solar panels have. With an eye toward passive-solar design, for example, Foster's plan calls for windows looking out on the atriums and the mountains beyond for as many as 95% of the offices. "I think for new engineers and junior employees, the fact that you've got a windowed office is a retention piece," Brannan says.

Employees won't be looking out just any pane of glass. They'll be able to regulate the temperature of their workplace by taking advantage of a cutting-edge trend in sustainable office design--they'll open the window.

Calgarians are a proud lot,boosterish even, but the city's architecture has never given them much to brag about. If they're being honest with themselves, they'll admit the city's only truly distinctive building is a hockey rink that's shaped like a cowboy's saddle. But the problem is bigger: For a city of its growing consequence, Calgary's downtown is just plain mediocre. The disjointed core of the city features a pedestrian mall (Stephen Avenue) that had some traffic returned to it a few years back because there wasn't enough evening strolling going on. The last major inner-city revitalization involved the construction of a riverside "market" (Eau Claire) that turned out to be more of a second-rate, underused shopping mall. And so, if you're one of those talented young engineers drawn to Calgary by the energy boom, it'll likely occur to you before long that the most distinctive physical feature of the landscape in which you spend eight hours or more every weekday is that second-floor labyrinth of enclosed bridges, retail concourses, food courts and mezzanines known as "the Plus-Fifteens." The Plus-Fifteen network snakes its way through the downtown core for 11 blocks east to west and 13 blocks north to south. It has become so central to the city's working life that even on a pleasant spring noon hour, after long months of forced hibernation, the cubicled masses head not for the sidewalks but for the artificially lit, climate-controlled pathways of the Plus-Fifteens.

No wonder, then, that EnCana's employees encouraged their management to create not just a building but an "urban village," to add public space and cultural amenities, and generally create a place that served some purpose beyond work. And no surprise, either, that the Bow has engendered such giddy excitement. There is a sense--almost palpable, like the heavy sky just before a chinook howls through to thaw a February deep-freeze--that Calgary needs the Bow. "This is a unique opportunity for this city to be redefined, not only in a local sense but in a national sense, in an international sense," says Bruce Graham, CEO of Calgary Economic Development, who served as a liaison between EnCana and city hall during the early planning on the Bow. "If people start talking about 'Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary,' as opposed to leaving it off at just Vancouver, that in itself is what we're achieving here."

It's hoped that the Bow will become the epicentre of a vibrant boulevard running from the base of the dowdy old Calgary Tower to the Bow River itself. And that it will link up the cultural district around Olympic Plaza with the commercial core farther west. And, why not, establish a beachhead for the revitalization of the city's troubled east end. A great deal of this expectation is built not upon the Bow itself but upon the wide public plaza planned for its base and the elaborate mid-rise complex to be built across the street, which will include the restoration of two derelict hotels--the St. Regis (1913) as a funky new boutique hotel and the York (1930) as a historic veneer fronting seven storeys of brand-new retail and cultural space, potentially to include the National Portrait Gallery.

As for the Bow itself, EnCana will occupy the entire tower, although it won't own it--it sold the project to H&R Real Estate Investment Trust shortly after unveiling the design, in exchange for a 25-year lease at bargain rates.

Sustainable design means more than energy efficiency and windows with hinges. It describes a built environment that merges with its natural landscape, an architecture that embraces (and enhances) its surroundings. And so, if the Bow complex is to fulfill its hype, it will do so at street level, where some of its most dramatic and potentially transformative design details reside. Well-ventilated rooms with world-class views will benefit EnCana employees alone, but the value proposition for pretty much everyone else starts on the sidewalk. Fittingly, then, that's where I met architect Jeremy Sturgess, who is serving as Foster's local partner responsible for urban design and master planning.

Sturgess had been toying with fantastical drawings of the two blocks of Centre Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues for a couple of years before EnCana came along, so no one else in town sees things quite the way he does when he stands on the grimy corner of Centre and Sixth. That cracked asphalt parking lot? Think elegant public plaza. The boarded-up York with its intricate art-deco friezes? "I'm sure they're out of a catalogue," he quips. But still they're about the only art-deco friezes left in this young city, and they will be reassembled alongside a brand-new recessed arcade at street level that doubles the sidewalk's width to the dimensions preferred by enlightened urban designers. The seven-storey Bow annex the sidewalk will front has been meticulously designed in the same vein as Sir Norman's Great Court at the British Museum, to let tons of sunlight pass through to the plaza on the other side of the street. Sturgess points out that there'll be space up there on the roof for an al fresco café like the one at the Tate Modern, and is that really too far-fetched at this point?

Sturgess is 57, his goatee flecked with grey, but there is boyish excitement in his voice when he tries to sum up what the Bow has already meant. "Just having been a fly on the wall in the decision-making process since almost the start of this project has been--to say an opportunity of a lifetime or a career actually doesn't say enough, you know?" He tries to elaborate: "I don't think people really understand what they're getting yet."

Sturgess is a man who has been swimming upstream in Calgary's building trade far too long for us to dismiss his words as hyperbole. This, after all, is an architect who spent the first couple of decades in his career building singular postmodern homes--more than a hundred of them over the years--in a city littered with cookie-cutter McMansions. (Critic Adele Freedman called one of his homes from 1994 a "permanent protest piece.") More recently, Sturgess turned the crater left by the demolition of the Calgary General Hospital into an award-winning mixed-use neighbourhood, the Bridges. And he was the architect of record for perhaps the most pointed pre-Bow symbol of a city ready to reimagine itself: the resurrection of the stately Grand Theatre, which rose from the ashes of its incarnation as an indoor driving range to become, once again, the inner city's most elegant playhouse.

Sturgess notes that downtown Calgary has two invaluable resources going for it. The first is that it has a cohesive core, hemmed in by the Bow River to the north and the Canadian Pacific tracks to the south. The second--at least as important--is the work of a pair of tireless downtown alderwomen, Druh Farrell and Madeleine King, both first elected in 2001. In Sturgess's estimation, Farrell and King have stood Calgary's planning department on its head and brought "some serious intellectual thought" to city council.

The day I drop by Farrell's office to find out about the view of the Bow from city hall, she's just come from a five-hour debate, one instalment in the city's five-year battle to launch a curbside recycling program. She's as excited as anyone about the imminent arrival of Sir Norman's work upon the prairie, but no one spends that kind of time swimming upstream over recycling without emerging as a pragmatist. She readily concedes that there are business-as-usual slabs going up all over town under the authority of old permits; that it's hard to mobilize lasting political support in a boom/bust cycle in which who knows how many current residents don't see their address as anything like permanent; that it can be tough to nurture a verdant cityscape in a place where most of the old buildings were demolished years ago.

Still, Farrell insists that steering Calgary's growth is now a different game than the lazy old one that saw those lousy permits issued. Mammoth developments with 20-year build-outs, she notes, no longer zip through council in 15 minutes. There's an urban design review board, and a bold Centre City Plan nearing completion. New municipal buildings are now obliged to gain silver certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (the most widely employed benchmark of sustainable architecture), and there's a wind farm nearing completion southeast of the city that will begin supplying public buildings with three-quarters of their electricity any day now. (Calgary's LRT system has been wind-powered for years.) And, barring unforeseen derailments, downtown office towers will soon draw their heat and power from a single state-of-the-art district energy plant, bringing at least a tinge of green to even the most retrograde of the city's glass-box monstrosities. For all of these reasons and others besides, Calgary earned an environmental award from the London-based World Leadership Forum in 2006. All of which, Farrell suggests, just might be the start of a sea change--"a wave," she calls it.

I hear similar optimism--cautious and unsentimental--from Brian Sinclair, dean of the University of Calgary's Faculty of Environmental Design, who organized the William McDonough lecture. If he'd been able to find a larger venue, he tells me, he could've easily sold twice as many tickets. "When that many people want to come and hear Bill McDonough talk about green buildings and living a different sort of way than we have for the last couple of centuries--that's really a good thing."

Sinclair returned to Calgary in 2003 after 15 years of what he called "self-imposed exile." He found some surprising new currents flowing through the once-staid capital of the oil patch. It wasn't just the boom --there was nothing new about a boom; Calgary was built on booms. No, it was a new sophistication, a growing awareness that a city, if it aspired to greatness, had to become more than the sum of its parts, and to do so it had to think about how it wanted to evolve. "I think the arrival of the Bow Building heralds a different kind of city," he says.

Scholars will argue that the difference between architecture and mere construction is symbolism. There is an intent, with architecture, to say something. In 2011, the most distinctive building on Calgary's skyline will be a sort of monument to the idea of sustainability, and it will hoist the corporate banner of an organization dedicated wholly to the unsustainable practice of mining nonrenewable resources and turning them, ultimately, into greenhouse-gas emissions. It might be simply a contradiction, but it could also be a signpost at a crossroads, acknowledging a past nearing its expiry date and pointing enthusiastically toward a necessary future. Will it be boom town, then, or sustainable city? The answer, of course, won't be determined by one office tower. But it might well start with one.

*****

MESSAGE IN A BUILDING

What a great HQ says about the company it keeps

Toronto-Dominion Centre (1967) Toronto

Considered to be architect Mies van der Rohe's crowning achievement, the cluster of six, slate-black buildings are standouts on Bay Street. Many of the architect's personal touches are preserved, including the yellow flowers on service counters. When other banks relished their stony history, TD put its stake in a monolithic future.

Wal-Mart Home Office (1970) Bentonville, Arkansas

An unassuming box in an unassuming middle-American suburb. Even the words "home office" are in keeping with Sam Walton's down-home brand of capitalism. What does it say about Wal-Mart? That elevators and office ficus have little effect on lawnmower sales.

GM Renaissance Center (1977) Detroit

In the late '70s, the RenCen's seven interconnected spires towered over the Detroit skyline as a testament to the city's dominance in the auto sector. At 73 storeys, the Detroit Marriott (centre spire) remains the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the western hemisphere, but GM's logo atop seems more a tribute to yesterday than tomorrow.

Bank of China (1990) Hong Kong

The I.M. Pei-designed Bank of China tower held the title of tallest skyscraper outside of the U.S. for less than four years. But height wasn't the point. The structure's exposed supports suggest bamboo shoots, which signify enterprise and growth.

U2 Tower (2008) Dublin, Ireland

The U2 Tower will rise 35 storeys over the River Liffey, making it the tallest building in Dublin

Its twisting shape was inspired by Sweden's famous Turning Torso skyscraper, but what does it say about U2? Perhaps that Bono needs an even higher perch from which to lecture world leaders.

David Fielding

CORRECTION

"A caption on page 51 of our June issue ("It Takes a Tower", on EnCana's Bow Building in Calgary) misidentified the person in the accompanying photo. It is David Jefferies, managing project architect for the Bow Building and a principal at Zeidler Partnership Architects. Additionally, the story neglected to mention that Zeidler Partnership is the Canadian project architect and architect of record working with Foster and Partners for the Bow Building. "

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story