Originally published on Torontoist on January 29, 2016.
At first glance, the six silvery stacks that grace the plaza outside University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC)’s Environmental Science & Chemistry Building look like a public art project, or perhaps a salute to Daleks. Whatever these stacks resemble in the minds of attendees at today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, they act as the exterior face of concrete shafts known as “Earth Tubes,” which play a key role in the building’s innovative, energy-efficient design.
Exterior view of Earth Tubes.
A glass pane in the building’s east entrance summarizes how the Earth Tubes work:
The latent heat of the earth and ultraviolet light contribute to the energy efficiency of the Environmental Science and Chemistry Building. Air travels through the “Earth Tubes” two metres underground, drawing warmth from the earth in winter and transferring warmth back to the earth in summer, while the exposure to ultraviolet light sanitizes it. In winter, air enters the building already warm; in summer the tubes return warmth back into the earth, cooling the air. This process reduces demands on the ventilation system all year round.
The Earth Tubes emerge in the basement.
The tubes emerge via a basement corridor, resembling tunnels out of a science fiction movie. They are tucked behind the main mechanical room, where other geothermal pipes run deep underneath the basement instead of being placed beside the building. The purified, temperate air is then circulated around the building, eventually being vented out via the labs. Sustainable technology like Earth Tubes is aiding UTSC’s application for LEED Gold Standard status.
Looking down from the fifth floor.
Instead of sticking researchers in the basement or other hidden areas, the labs are located on the south side of the building, facing the Highland Creek ravine. It is hoped that glimpsing nature will spark inspiration. Plans call for the entire building to be surrounded by a more pleasing environment, with an adjacent parking lot slated to become green space and the current alignment of Military Trail beside it to become a pedestrian zone. Outside, the lab side is covered in a series of metal fins which, depending on the angle, resemble waves and will offer a cool shadow during the summer.
Looking across the ground floor teaching labs.
The labs also offer flexibility for the needs of each project or any future development within the building. Ceilings are unfinished, while lab equipment is not permanently attached to the floor. Each floor’s suite of labs is relatively open concept, to allow for fluctuations in project head counts and to foster collaborations between research teams. First-year courses are taught on ground level, with each “classroom” able to view labs across the floor, which may come in handy if assistance is needed during emergencies (these labs went into service earlier this month). On the higher floors, signs of researchers at work are everywhere, with molecular diagrams and the occasional joke written on whiteboards and glass meeting room walls. Among the projects being worked on is a machine to scan bodies for bacteria, disease, drugs, and other objects akin to Star Trek’s tricorders.
The backup diesel generator.
The building even boasts a penthouse—a mechanical penthouse, where the main backup emergency diesel generator is stored. Given a history of brownouts from the city’s power grid, and the potential ruin that awaits research projects if the juice is off for seconds (as was the case during the 2013 ice storm), it was critical a strong backup power source was installed onsite. Under a worst-case scenario, the diesel generator could power the building for one to three days.
Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects and built over two years, the Environmental Science & Chemistry Building is one of the first completed portions of the current UTSC master plan. Besides reconfiguring routes across campus, will include new academic buildings which whose architecture will serve as a contrast with its original brutalist style, a parking deck, and a hotel/conference centre near the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.