OAA Wrapping Up Headquarters Renewal as Climate Crisis takes Centre Stage

With Global Climate Strikes taking place around the world on September 20 and 27, the OAA remains well aware of the critical effect of the built environment—and those who design, construct and operate buildings—on the climate crisis emergency. As the regulator of the profession in the province, the OAA continues to not only talk about the leadership role architects must play, but also demonstrate first-hand how existing buildings should and can be addressed in order to minimize environmental impacts and help ensure a sustainable future.

Located in Toronto’s Don Mills neighbourhood, the OAA Headquarters is more than offices and meetings spaces—it is also the public and physical embodiment of an architect's skill and aspirations to the community. Therefore, it was crucial its Renew+Refresh renovation project be responsible in its approach to sustainable design. The major work of that project is now completed, with the installation of additional photovoltaic panels from Morgan Solar soon to begin over the second-floor terrace.

Those new PVs join existing solar panels and a list of other active and passive technologies intended to offset the building’s energy use with energy creation, ultimately offering “free” electricity and hot water. A number of products and systems have been chosen for optimizing the building’s performance and improving the interior environment for OAA staff and Ontario architects using the space for meetings and events. These include high-efficiency occupancy lighting, displacement ventilation, geothermal heating, enhanced insulation, flexible work spaces and View proprietary dynamic glass that changes its tint with the sun. In this next phase, the building operations will continue to be monitored and fine-tuned to ensure the OAA HQ remains on target for maintaining zero net carbon.

“Once we decided to retrofit the OAA HQ, both operating and embedded energy guided our decisions to ensure the building’s life cycle performance would be environmentally sustainable,” explains OAA President Kathleen Kurtin. “The OAA Building Committee worked closely with the other members of the project team to ensure our objectives were met.”

Why renew rather than rebuild?
The OAA Headquarters was designed by architect Ruth Cawker, winner of a 1989 province-wide design competition. It had been built to the R2000 standard, which was better than the norm at the time. This was validated by its initial airtightness test, and with a roof structure that anticipated the addition of solar panels at a later date—the OAA has taken a leadership role throughout the life of the building.

After serving the Association and its members for more than 25 years, the building began requiring extensive maintenance. Further, its energy use was significantly above average for a new low-rise office of its kind due to its outdated mechanical system, which reheated cooled air—even in the summer. After OAA Council carefully reviewed the options of revitalizing the current building or looking for a new one, it decided the costs and environmental impacts of moving would outweigh any advantages. More importantly, by replacing outdated systems with current energy-efficient systems, the OAA could achieve zero operating carbon use.

Given the current climate crisis, buildings need to last for longer than a few decades; they have to adapt and improve with time. Therefore, OAA Council approved the carbon neutral operating approach and directed the consultant team, lead by architect David Fujiwara, to proceed with design development and contract documents, based on achieving zero net carbon performance.

As a general policy, the OAA has committed to the 2030 Challenge, which aims to take the building sector to zero carbon emissions by setting performance targets for all new buildings and major renovations. Next year, that target will be 70 per cent of the baseline levels achieved in 2003; by 2030, the target will be 100 per cent reduction.

Rather than meet the 70 per cent rate, the OAA decided to take a leadership position and go for the full 100 per cent a decade early. The goal was to provide a strong example that architects could use in their own work and outreach with clients. OAA Council also felt that the carbon neutral renovation had education value for the public, members and students.

“Retrofitting existing building stock is critical to meeting the global GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction goals,” says Sheena Sharp, architect and chair of the OAA Building Committee. “With new designs and technology, energy-efficient buildings are easy to achieve, but most of the buildings in our province are older structures that need to be addressed if we’re going to meet the targets.”

However, it is not solely about technology. With the new interior layout, the OAA has doubled the capacity of the building, effectively getting twice as much out of the carbon it was consuming.

Having steadily grown over the last 25 years, the OAA now supports more than 35 member committees, all dedicated to improving practice, protecting the public, promoting design excellence and increasing awareness; the OAA also supports students and intern architects, as well as regulates complaints and discipline. The layout of the building needed to change to optimize the use of space. Through the renovation, the capacity for employees and the number of meeting rooms were doubled. Additionally, state-of-the-art technology was brought in to better host web-based meetings and foster distance collaboration, and layout flexibility was included so that the spaces could expand or contract to host events.

Ontario architects continue to visit and make use of the building, including a recent screening of the film, This Changes Everything—the Avi Lewis-directed documentary based on Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, which was hosted by the OAA’s Sustainable Built Environments Committee (SBEC). An official public opening is now being planned for May to coincide with the 2020 OAA Conference as well as Doors Open. The event will not only welcome the local community and broader public to see the new spaces, but also serve to educate the public how architectural thinking and clever design can lower carbon emissions, which is crucial during our current climate crisis.

To learn more about the OAA Headquarters and the Renew+Refresh project, click here.

To access climate-related tools and resources curated by SBEC, click here.