A new lease on life

Unoccupied since 1989, Edmonton's art deco style Federal Building gets a massive makeover

Built in the 1950s for what would be $340 million today, Edmonton's Federal Building was an impressive sight when government employees moved in. Designed in the 1930s-World War II interrupted the project-it includes a lobby with six types of marble and is considered a stellar example of the art deco style.

"I'm told its one of the best representations of art deco design in Canada," says Cam Munro, senior sustainable innovation specialist at Clark Builders. Clark Builders is the prime contractor on the renovation project.

The 10-storey building has been empty since 1989, it's beauty hidden and its space wasted. Now, Alberta Infrastructure is giving the Federal Building a more than $150-million makeover, returning it to its former splendour and showcasing Alberta's commitment to sustainability. (The entire project also includes construction of a parkade and area known as Centennial Plaza, estimated at around $110 million, according to Alberta Finance and Enterprise.)

The Federal Building is being designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification standards, meaning it will use 40-50 per cent less energy than a building that meets code, produce fewer emissions, use less water and be a healthier place for the people that work there.

"That does add an element of complexity that normally wouldn't be there," says Paul Verhesen, president of Clark Builders. "In heritage projects in the past, the first premise for design and construction was the historical designation and the second was practical: Get it built."

Head Start

On this project, maintaining history and getting the building finished must be done while keeping sustainability top of mind. But there are some advantages to starting with a building designed in the 1930s. "The building inherently has maybe 10-12 points because of the way it was designed," Munro says.

Daylighting is one example. Incorporating natural daylight so that energy use through lighting can be reduced is a key factor in the LEED program. It was also important when the building was designed and constructed, for a different reason.

"They didn't have energy-efficient lights that would give as much light," Munro says. "They built with a small floor plate so you would get the natural daylight to come in and filter deep into the building."

There are more than 1,680 windows in the building and the offices from the third floor up are along the exterior walls. Originally, transom windows above the office doors spilled light into the single corridors that run down each floor. Glass blocks on staircases at either end of the building brought daylight into those spaces.

Those features will remain. Other elements that would have gotten the building a few points will be replaced. For instance, each office had its own radiator under the window allowing the user of the space to control the temperature-a LEED principle.

The radiators also threw off a lot of heat that was then retained by the thick wall of Tyndall stone that makes up the exterior of the building. Although the building envelope had no insulation, the Tyndall stone acted like a heat sink, heating up so well that it radiated heat back into the building.

While efficient for its time, the radiator system isn't so by today's standards. After the renovation, the Federal Building will boast highly energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. Thermal research shows that the heating system won't have quite the same effect on the Tyndall stone, so insulation will be put into the envelope. But, says Munro, it won't have as high an R-value as one would expect because of the thermal mass of the stone.

Breathe Easy

Occupants will breathe significantly better air in the revamped building. When it was constructed, the building had the required ventilation system of the time-operable windows.

The windows are being replaced with low-emissivity, argon-filled windows and will no longer be operable. Instead, fresh air will be continuously pumped into the building. A heat wheel recovery system will use the heat of exhaust air to warm air coming into the building during winter-outside air will be chilled the same way in the summer-to reduce energy use for heating and cooling.

Air quality will be maintained through the use of things like no- or low-VOC (volatile organic chemical) finishes, recyclable carpets that don't off-gas, and separate ventilation systems in rooms where chemicals such as photocopier toner are used.

Because this is a heritage project and a LEED Gold project, sustainability and look are important when choosing finishes. The original plaster, which contained asbestos and has already been removed, will be replaced with mould-resistant drywall, an inert material that won't off-gas.

"After it's finished, I would be able to tell the difference," Munro says. "You won't be able to, unless you have a longstanding plaster-drywall history."

Back in the 1950s, there wasn't a lot of office equipment that the average civil servant had to plug in so each office had just one electrical outlet. An upgrade of the electrical system, which will include energy-efficient lighting, will give new occupants needed power as efficiently as possible.

As demolition of areas of the project progresses, Clark Builders is arranging for very few trips to the landfill. To date, approximately 97 per cent of demolition and construction waste material has been recycled. Alberta Infrastructure may reuse the oak wood trim and doors that were in the building, either in this building or in another project. Wood that couldn't be salvaged is recycled to be used for fuel.

The clay block walls have gone to the City of Edmonton to be used for under-roadway granular crush fill. Metal, glass and drywall will continue to be reused and recycled.

Clark Builders is also racking up LEED points during the demolition and construction process by carefully monitoring and maintaining air quality. Activities such as choosing to work with low-VOC materials, isolating work areas to prevent contamination and daily housekeeping help keep the air in the building safe for those working in it today and those who will occupy it in the future.

"This has been a challenging project, but it's been successful and rewarding," Verhesen observes. "As Albertans, we're going to be very proud because it is going to be a fabulous facility."

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