Shining star

From its aurora borealis inspired design to complex geometry, $86-million Art Gallery of Alberta offers a new frame of reference for construction and design

The Art Gallery of Alberta is not only different. It will make a difference to Edmonton and Alberta construction for years to come.

"The gallery will present palettes that in the past may have scared off clients," says Bob Walker, VP of the building division (Northern Alberta) for Ledcor Construction Ltd., who was also the project's construction manager. "It has opened the eyes of other clients to the idea that a unique structure can be built here."

It's hard to miss the iconic structure on the northeastern corner of Edmonton's downtown Sir Winston Churchill Square, which opened to the public Jan. 31. The structure is variously described as resembling a giant gift-wrapped present or some huge, fancy hat designed for the Royal Ascot horse races. The immediate attention grabber is the Aurora Borealis, a 190m long sinuous stainless steel ribbon that wanders and rises in the entrance atrium before bursting outdoors through the glazing to a height of 31m, then wraps itself around the building's irregularly shaped southwestern exterior. From inside or outside, it all creates a cascade of kaleidoscopic views that change with shifting sunlight and seasons. In what may seem like the set for a futuristic sci-fi movie, visitors garner an artistic impression well before entering the gallery's six climate-controlled galleries.

Walker's initial link with the project came when the then Edmonton Art Gallery hired Ledcor for constructability evaluations on four entries in an international design competition, won in 2005 by Randall Stout Architects, Inc. of Los Angeles. The firm's principal, Randall Stout, has made his mark through a series of high-profile commissions that include other forward-looking designs, such as the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., and in Chattanooga's Hunter Museum of American Art. These designs don't entirely insulate Stout having worked for seven years with Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, designer of Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, Bilbao's (Spain) Guggenheim Museum, and other acclaimed buildings noted for flowing designs with metal-ribbon cladding.


Walker and his team knew they faced a challenge but thought the Stout design would work even in Edmonton's variable climate with temperature swings of up to 70ºC between summer and winter. It was immediately recognized that it would be difficult to implement the design within the initial $46-million budget.

Some cost-saving modifications were suggested but, to their credit, the clients turned them down, saying: "We want a national icon and we want to maintain the quality we wanted from the start."

Three levels of government provided further funding, and individuals and corporations donated more than $20 million to allow proponents to agree upon an $86-million, firm-price contract with Ledcor. Walker admits that committing to that cost and project completion by early 2010 entailed a "huge leap of faith."

The first order of business was developing environmentally controlled, off-site storage within a modified warehouse near the downtown Grant MacEwan University campus. It allowed transfer of an 8,500-piece collection in storage at the Edmonton Art Gallery's existing 102A Avenue and 99 Street site. Plans called for rebuilding the new gallery on the same site, using part of the existing structure. But the original brutalist-style structure had to be stripped entirely of its 1960s-era "scourge"-asbestos. While the eastern portion remained standing, the entire western third of the old building was razed.

Gallery management remained concerned about being without a home for two or more years. So, a second Ledcor mission was working with the University of Alberta to convert parts of the university's Enterprise Square building on Jasper Avenue into a temporary gallery display space with up-to-date environmental controls. Besides providing the gallery a home away from home, it assures the university's current and future donors and lenders safe storage and display of their art.

All this meant actual construction did not begin until March 2007. But that delay, Walker observes, provided a window to select many specialized suppliers, to line up trades and consultants for an unusually complex undertaking, and, significantly, for detailed design. That meant familiarizing the architects with Edmonton's thaw-freeze cycles.

"We made sure the materials they were providing will withstand the test of time and perform in this climate," Walker says.

For example, that required interconnecting and anchoring patinae zinc and ZEPPS (Zahner Engineered Profiled Panel Systems) manufactured by A. Zahner Co. in Kansas City, Mo.; high-performance glazing, roofing, and railings from Flynn Canada, Ltd. of Mississauga, Ont., and Edmonton; and structural steel from the Edmonton operations of Empire Iron Works Ltd. Given the varied sourcing and the building's complex geometry, the gallery would have been impossible without 3-D Building Information Modelling (BIM). Specifically, using the Rhinoceros NURBS software modelling allowed real-time input and sharing in the design process by all players, who were immediately alerted online to any design conflicts. BIM modelling also meant building without paper blueprints.

"We had to make sure that the trades would be able to use BIM or able to learn it," stresses Walker, adding that the no-blueprint approach furrowed some older brows but "the younger guys thought it was the coolest thing ever."

Says John Mplias, Flynn Canada's senior project manager: "The BIM model governed the project. It was a real representation we could zoom in, rotate, and even slice-and-dice to get a complete understanding of how all of the components had to fit together. This inevitably saved a great deal of time and resources."


NAIT trade's trainees and U of A construction-engineering students toured to explore the new face of construction. For Walker, "BIM is the future. Everyone has to get in on it, including the trades. Those not getting in will fall behind."

Computerized systems assisted scheduling and logistics but could not entirely eliminate challenges of working within a small footprint with a restricted downtown laydown area next to a major east-west thoroughfare. It required just-in-time delivery of many components. Scheduling also had to take into account that the adjacent Churchill Square and City Hall Plaza are frequent venues for concerts and other public events-none receptive to jackhammer bursts or swinging crane loads. While there was access to an off-site laydown, overusing that option would add to lifting and transport costs.

Notwithstanding such drawbacks, the project came together within budget to meet the completion deadline. Walker, whose earlier project management credits included Edmonton's City Hall, the Rexall Place makeover, and Telus Field construction, is no stranger to readying projects for the drop of a puck or a first pitch.

Timing was also critical at the 85,000 sq. ft gallery. Before releasing their precious artwork, owners of national and international touring exhibits had to be certain that the space, security, and surroundings would meet international standards. (Art displayed at the opening was actually worth more than the building.) This is assured through the building's climate controls, which keep temperature and humidity within barrow tolerances. To offset Edmonton's dry climate, humidity can be set at a rainforest-like 50 per cent or higher. During final detailing as the gallery was prepped for opening, a visitor sensed the absence of new construction smells. That's a deliberate result of off-gassing that removed fumes from construction, caulking, chemicals, plywood, and other sources possibly detrimental to artwork.

Collections are on display on three levels in galleries with a total floor area of some 30,000 sq ft. That's about four times the show-space of the former gallery, whose overall area was similar to that of the new building. The difference arises from smarter use of space, which, besides the galleries, encompasses curatorial areas, a cafeteria, education wing, gift shop, 150-seat theatre, and a gallery members' lounge, which "floats" over the lobby, as well as administrative offices, located on the fourth floor.

Behind the scenes, the galleries are designed for constant change and to accommodate ongoing flows of exhibits, which could include installations hanging from heavy-duty ceiling studs, or tonnes of sculpture pressing down on floors.

The gallery did not seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Still, many built-in features, particularly environmental controls, exceed LEED standards. Of the structural steel used on the project, 80 per cent is recycled and most demolition concrete was recycled.

For Empire Iron Works project manager Thor Gaul, the gallery was a fitting pre-retirement curtain-closer after 28 years with the company. Forming and assembling the many curved and vertical elements of the atrium proved particularly challenging for steel fabricators more accustomed to shaping rectangular grids on shop floors. It meant stretching beyond traditional X-Y thinking to accommodate the gallery's prominent Z axis. Gaul also credits success to BIM and access to the architect's electronic drawings. WebEx conferencing let architects, engineers, and contractors continent-wide-while not actually reading from the same paper page-to simultaneously focus on the same whiteboard.

The project also required a tremendous amount of coordination. According to Flynn Canada, the project was like a big jigsaw puzzle. Each material was like a piece of a puzzle. Every bullnose, every panel, etc. had a different identification; no two were alike.

The logistics of moving and getting pieces into place was also challenging. In various instances, panels had to be lifted over glazing and vice versa-"an extremely delicate dance," according to the Flynn Canada. All anchor points on the structural steel were surveyed and had a maximum tolerance of plus/minus one-half inch.

"There was a tremendous amount of teamwork between our Edmonton and Toronto offices," says Art Bundschuh, VP Mid-West Region, Flynn Canada. "It's unique projects such as the [gallery] where the collective talents of our employees are showcased," To which Bundschuh adds with a measure of civic pride: "As a born and raised Edmontonian, I'm excited to see the grandeur and vibrancy the [gallery] brings to our downtown core."

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