Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Garden in the Sky in the Heart of Vancouver
KERRY GOLD Special to Globe and Mail Update
Published Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 4:43PM EST

Until now, downtown Vancouver was known for branch offices, not company headquarters – but that might be about to change for good.

The Telus Garden building, set for completion by 2014, should act as a catalyst to attract more head offices away from the suburbs and industrial parks and towards the downtown core.

“Our goal is to make it something that is an icon, and that will be a model and example that others look up to,” explains Andrea Goertz, a Calgary-based senior vice-president at Telus Corp. “We see it as an exquisite jewel box, a destination, a place that people are going to want to walk by and come visit often.”

The decision to build a flashy national headquarters to replace the old Telus building on Richards St. was bolstered by the success of new Telus offices in Toronto and Ottawa. The city recently gave the green light to rezoning requirements for the project, which means construction will likely begin at the end of February.

Architect Gregory Henriquez and Westbank Corp. developer Ian Gillespie, the team behind the Woodward’s Building, have joined forces again to build Telus Garden – the first major office space to be built downtown since 2007, when more than 10 stories were added to the Bentall V building on Burrard Street.

While there has been much talk of a handful of new office buildings breaking ground in the next couple of years, Mr. Henriquez doesn’t believe they will all soon see the light of day. There simply aren’t enough tenants to go around, he says.

“Eventually, those buildings will all happen,” says Mr. Henriquez. “But for the next while, you will probably only see two go ahead. Ours is one of them, because Telus is the anchor.”

The team behind the massive headquarters, set to occupy a city block between Robson, Seymour, Georgia and Richards, has lofty aims.

The $750-million plan is to build a total of one million square feet, comprised of a 22-storey office tower and a 46-storey residential tower. For the office tower, there are plans for three interior sky gardens high up, cantilevered out over the street, as well as a public plaza at street level. There will be 450 residential units and cutting-edge green technology, such as a geothermal heat exchange that taps heat from the existing hub of Telus circuits.

The streetscape will be transformed. The White Spot restaurant at the corner of Georgia and Seymour will be demolished. The parkade on Georgia will also disappear to make way for the office tower. The old Kingston hotel and restaurant will remain, surrounded by the complex.

Mr. Henriquez explains that the building will feature an “organic wood structure entrance canopy.” And, in Henriquez fashion, there are trees everywhere.

“I have the tree gene,” explains Mr. Henriquez, whose architect father, Richard, famously put a tree on top of his residential tower, Eugenia Place, long before it was accepted practice to do so.

“I think trees and roof gardens and landscaped urban agriculture – all these things are very much a part of the normal landscape in cities now,” Mr. Henriquez adds.

The architect explains that overall, he wants to break the repetitive monotony of so many major developments in Vancouver, such as those found around Coal Harbour and False Creek. Instead, he wants to create something idiosyncratic and considered, the product of a city with a history and a story to tell.

“Vancouver is an instant city,” says Mr. Henriquez, with a snap of his fingers. “There’s a repetition to all of that stuff that’s very cookie cutter. It lacks the idiosyncratic nature of those cities that have evolved over a larger period of time. It’s not the fault of the architecture – it’s the fault of the speed of development.”

One obstacle to setting up shop in the heart of Vancouver is the city’s high cost of living. Mr. Henriquez and Mr. Gillespie have both been outspoken proponents of affordable housing as a necessity of urban life. They believe the downtown population could easily double, and affordable housing should be part of the equation.

“Why move from Seattle when your people can’t afford to live here?” asks Mr. Gillespie. “If you try to transfer some guy from Winnipeg, how is he going to manage that?”

Telus Garden should help shift some of the density toward the eastern side of the downtown peninsula, he says. Telus is contributing 450 residences and a half -million square feet of office space, and is situated near all transit lines.

“The downtown peninsula will start shifting – it has to shift that way.”

Building the green way

One of Telus Garden’s most ambitious aims is to raise the local bar on building technologies.

The goal is to use 30 per cent less energy than a conventional development of the same size. The Garden’s 46-storey residential tower will be built to the latest LEED gold certification, and the 22-storey office tower to new 2009 platinum standards, one of only a few in North America, according to Ian Gillespie.

“We can do LEED gold in our sleep,” says Mr. Gillespie. “Any developer who is not doing LEED gold as the minimum is pretty outdated. The issue is how you get from gold to platinum — that’s what separates you from pack.”

The improvements include an office tower with windows that actually open. The project will obtain energy from solar panels and hot water heat from a geothermal exchange, utilizing captured heat from the enormous hub of telecommunications circuits. The system will transfer excess heat from one building to another as required, and it will capture rainwater for toilets and garden irrigation. There will be charging stations for electric cars and bicycle storage facilities.

Mr. Gillespie says that while these may sound like lofty goals, elsewhere in the world, such high standards are already being applied.

“If you look at most or every office building built in the last 25 years in this city, from a systems and architecture perspective, they are almost identical — they are effectively warehousing,” he says. “They are the bare minimum required. Compare them to some new office buildings being built in Germany, Japan or Korea for that matter and you will see. We are light years behind.”