Innovative Design for a Changing World


Most recently, the company achieved a platinum LEED certification for one of its recent projects in Nova Scotia, the first of its kind in all of the Atlantic Provinces. We spoke with Principal Carl Blanchaer and Associate Principal Richard Myers about this successful enterprise, and what the future holds for the skylines of cities across the globe.

Nova Scotia Power’s new waterfront office building in downtown Halifax bears the honour of being Atlantic Canada’s first platinum LEED certified building. The clinchers for the design are the innovative energy saving techniques integrated within the project. Mr. Blanchaer explains that the building employs chilled beam technology and achieves greater energy efficiency by “using the harbour water to heat and cool the building.” He explains, “originally there were two three-foot diameter pipes that come into the building from Halifax harbour which cooled the coal fired generators generating electricity.” It was a natural fit for WZMH to draw water from the harbour for heating and cooling.

“When we are getting the LEED rating we are always looking at points,” he explains. “For energy points we are talking about a maximum of fifteen, and for the chilled beam technology we got two additional points. With the Harbour water we got another one. This is what pushed us over the top in terms of the Platinum rating.” Chilled beam technology uses an induction unit that provides cool or heated water depending on the season. The unit is located in the ceiling and induces air circulation past the piping that cools and heats the air within the office space. Compared to traditional HVAC technology, it decouples the ventilation air from the energy used to cool or heat space, making it an energy saver.

The methods WZMH employed in the NS Power building are not frequently used in Canada, but are fairly common in Europe. Describing the project, Mr. Blanchaer explains, “this building was made in the 60s and it has induction units beneath the windows. So, it’s similar to [traditional induction technology] except the units are in the ceiling instead of the wall. WZMH is the first company to install this technology in Canada.” The project also received an interior design award from the ARIDO organization for restoration and adaptive re-use in the workplace. The project has thus far been the recipient of the Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor’s Design Awards Medal of Excellence, 2012 and the Canadian Green Building Award, 2013 (sponsored by SAB Magazine and Canadian Green Building Council).

The new waterfront building has changed the very culture of the corporation. An atrium penetrates through one direction while a multi-levelled galleria adorns the other. There is a huge amount of visibility as people walk from one workspace to another. The transparency has led to a sense of collegiality amongst the building’s users and has fostered better communication. “This was our intention,” explains Mr. Blanchaer. “In fact we worked on a number of projects where we have developed concepts of how to bring people together within the organization. We have done two facilities for IBM in the past where that whole sense of informal interaction has been a huge motivator for how spaces are organized within the building.”

WZMH has an extensive portfolio of local and nationally acclaimed LEED projects. Other examples in its portfolio include the Bay Adelaide Centre in Toronto, which measures approximately 1.35 million square feet, one of the largest LEED gold buildings in Canada. Centennial Place is a two-tower project in Calgary at 1.4 million square feet. Currently underway is a major overhaul at 222 Jarvis St., also in Toronto, on target for LEED Gold certification. Two other projects in Toronto will span two million square feet of LEED Platinum designation, one of which at the RBC Waterpark Place, and the other at 100 Adelaide St West. Asked how it is possible to determine a LEED status ahead of time, the team explains, “we are targeting LEED Platinum for these two buildings. Every time we have targeted a certification level, we have achieved it, so we are optimistic.”

In order to obtain a LEED platinum certification certain extras have to be included to maximize energy efficiency. The increase to capital cost is minimal at one to two percent, but the investment yields a healthy return on that increase for building tenants; operating costs go down because the buildings are more energy efficient.

Expansion into Overseas Markets

WZMH entered the Chinese market in the early 90s, with most of its work based in Shanghai. The company has some significant projects in one block of the Pudong area, the most impressive being the iconic Shanghai Securities Exchange. In the early days of the new millennium, however, conditions changed; the rules were modified to restrict the role of international consultants to certain early project stages.

China also became a much more competitive market, leading WZMH to slow down its activity in the region. Six months ago, however, it entered a competition for huge master plan developments for the country’s largest phone carrier, China Mobile, including a major data centre.

The company has also been active in the Middle East. One of its building sites is a renovation of a Ritz Carlton hotel in Cairo’s famous Tahrir Square. “It was a very difficult renovation due to the political issues,” explains Mr. Blanchaer. “We are currently on hold there, but have done a number of projects in Egypt: The Four Seasons Hotel Nile Plaza, and currently initiating construction adjacent to the Valley of Kings in Luxor. We also have a major project in Abu Dhabi at 3.5 million square feet that is having its official opening in the fall. It’s two towers with a connecting bridge, which is the highest connecting bridge in the world. It’s called Nation Towers.”

Sophisticated Innovation

Thanks in part to advances in computer technology, many new possibilities have opened up for design consultants. Drawing and documenting using 3D models enables consultants to design complex curves and structures that are not perpendicular to the Earth. Contractors can then use 3D modeling to help build the complex structures that have become the contemporary norm. Contractors and owners used to complain about complexities, but these innovative designs have since become industry standard. “There is no question that there is a premium to do that, and there is also a desire for various reasons to make an iconic statement. Owners are willing to pay extra.”

It has also become apparent that tenants are increasingly keen to have exterior living spaces. While it can be somewhat of a challenge to find room to provide this terrace space, being able to step out and have some fresh air is a desirable amenity for any prospective home-seeker. WZMH has found innovative ways to meet this demand, as exemplified by its project at 100 Adelaide St. in Toronto, with its Atrium on the fortieth floor and exterior terrace space at the top of the building. A more modest example can be seen back at the NS Power building; adjacent to the Atrium is a balcony on each floor so that people can step from the climate controlled spaces and smell the sea air, taking a break from their hermetically sealed workspace.

The balance between the aesthetic and the practical has become increasingly relevant for contemporary architects. “I would say relative to a decade ago, clients in general are much more sophisticated. They want something more than just regular rectangular boxes. They know that they are more cost efficient and effective, but they want something that makes a statement about who they are in the case of office buildings that attracts people to them.

“I think there is also a role to play in terms of the urban context. When you build a tall building it should be spectacular. It should be significant on the skyline of the city.” Making a statement through the building is now a major consideration in China as well, “every time we went to China, that was the first thing they asked us – to build something that will become a landmark.”

Integrating meaningful design with the practical needs of certain clients can be challenging at times, but it’s a challenge WZMH is more than equipped to meet. The company is currently working on a project for the Communications Security Establishment Canada, which is responsible for the electronic arm of federal security services. The ostensibly secret facility will be hard to hide because it is projected to span 1 million square feet. The building poses a number of architectural challenges, such as a 3D curve of glass on one face of the building. Inside will be a multi-storey Atrium with columns extending in many different directions. The design is based on the site’s wooded surroundings, and integrates tree houses within a man-made forest.

From a geometrical and form point of view the building is very complex. “They wanted something that was very unique in terms of work environment and very attractive from a recruitment point of view. It’s challenging from a delivery point of view, the execution of the building form. The project is well along and it’s going to be fabulous! Our biggest regret is that because it’s a secret building a lot of people are never going to see it, at least not the wonderful spaces inside.” It was the largest construction site in North America and had some interesting security protocols. High-level security checks were done in a separate office in an undisclosed location for all staff consultants and contractors involved in the project.

Reflecting on the elements that have elevated the company within the profession, Carl and Richard suggest that, “One of the things is our endurance. We just celebrated our fiftieth anniversary two years ago, which very few firms can claim. We have maintained client relations over that period of time. We are renovating buildings that we have done 30 to 40 years ago which is pretty remarkable.”

Currently the team is welcoming its fifth generation of workers and is well positioned to ensure the ongoing success of the firm. The company’s internal culture was crafted by its founding fathers and heavily rooted in the development industry, but also in the desire to bring good quality design to private sector buildings, later expanding into the public sector.

“One of the things that has allowed us to endure is our constant diversification. Twenty years ago WZMH was known for its commercial buildings, primarily the banks in downtown Toronto and Calgary. But we have expanded quite a bit into different sectors.” WZMH is now among the nation’s leaders in data centre design, gaming projects (such as Casino Rama and the Windsor Casino), and courthouse design, among other specializations. Currently it is very much involved in condo and residential master planning. The company is consistently exploring new horizons: “We are also branching out into new areas like transportation, where we see a lot of growth coming over the next several years.”

New advancements in computer technology and 3D imaging have given firms like WZMH opportunities to produce eye-popping spectacles of design. The firm is on the forefront of a design revolution, having endured where many other architectural firms have failed. The reputation it has earned has made WZMH among the most sought-after designers in its fields, and its LEED specialty, based on innovative design and green technology, has put the company in an enviable position. It will be fascinating to see what the team comes up with next.

June 21, 2018, 11:30 PM EDT

A Proactive Approach to Resolving a Longstanding Debate

About forty skilled Central and South American workers from Ecuador, Peru, Columbia and Costa Rica came to British Columbia, Canada as temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 2006. This story incited Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) call for reforms to Canada’s TFW program (TFWP) and the International Mobility Program (IMP). LiUNA, a powerful voice within the construction industry with over half a million members – 110,000 of whom are in Canada – has been the only Canadian union to address the issue.