A construction crew sat on the planters and steps in front of Epcor Tower last week, laughing and eating their lunches in the sunshine as they finished the final granite work on the new downtown building.
If Qualico’s Ken Cantor is right, it’s a sign Edmonton’s first new office tower in 20 years will fit into the fabric of this rundown area on 101st Street between 104th and 105th avenues, creating a beloved public space and transforming the street for the better.
Edmonton residents will soon have a chance to decide if that’s true. The building officially opens Tuesday.
“There’s certainly nothing quite like it in Edmonton,” said Cantor, Qualico commercial manager. “We tried to do most of our modelling from the ground up because that’s the way we experience these buildings. It should be the kind of space where there is a sense of ownership from the public at large.”
The face of Epcor Tower is different from that of many other downtown buildings. It’s set back 20 metres from the road, giving space for planters and two fountains – perhaps shade and a place to rest on a street with few trees.
Pedestrians will also be able to see a large sculpture from Haida artist Dean Drever through the windows. It was lifted with a crane into the building Thursday, but will stay behind curtains until Tuesday’s opening.
The tower has four levels of parking underground over an area three times the size of the building footprint, and architects added a bike room with showers and locker facilities. The building will have a Wild Earth Cafe, a daycare, fitness centre and a restaurant.
But just like Commerce Place – which has been criticized for moving public life inside – the coffee and shops in Epcor Tower are only accessible from within the lobby. A balcony that circles the 28th floor is only open to Epcor employees.
At least one critic says if Qualico wanted to create a loved public space, then a 20-metre setback, two fountains and a statue behind glass isn’t enough.
“If you want to engage, you make a sculpture kids can climb, people can touch,” said Avi Friedman, McGill University professor and author of A Place in Mind.
“There needs to be much, much more. What we are trying to do is create places that are interesting,” he said. “If Edmonton is going to distinguish itself, it needs to be much more innovative in the way buildings work on the ground.”
The new 29-storey tower sits across from a weedy parking lot and the Baccarat Casino, at the edge of downtown, where briefcases give way to shopping carts. As Cantor spoke, police cruisers with lights flashing sat outside the MacDonald rooming house and the Boyle Street drop-in centre.
Qualico owns a strip of property from 101st Street to 97th Street, including the lands behind the proposed new Royal Alberta Museum and the bridge across 97th Street. Eventually, it would like to build two or three more towers on the site and will work with the museum design team Dialog/Ledcor to make sure the area is inviting, he said.
“We didn’t put up fences with barbed wire. We put in water features. What we are doing here is to be a tie to Chinatown and the north end, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Very few good things happen overnight.”
The building cost $250 million to build and stretches 148 metres into the air, making it compete with Manulife as Edmonton’s tallest building. Epcor’s spire and red airplane lights are higher, but Manulife has a higher occupied floor.
The building has green technology. The fresh-air intake runs through a 90-metre tunnel under the four-storey deep parkade. Since the ground stays at a constant 6 C at that level, the air pumped through these shafts slowly warms or cools before being pumped as fresh air through the building.
In heating mode, this system saves 1.5 million kilowatts a year; in cooling mode, it saves 85,000 kilowatts a year. That’s an annual savings of $51,700.
Epcor Tower will be one of several from Canada showcased at the World Sustainable Building Conference in Helsinki this October.
It also collects rainwater in giant cisterns underground, and is double plumbed so rainwater will flush the toilets year round. “We’ll probably save about 60 per cent of our water consumption with that alone.”
It has 250-square-foot balconies on every floor to give office workers access to fresh air, and most of the windows are tripled glazed, which provides enough insulation that the building doesn’t need radiators along the windows. Desk and furniture can sit right up against the edge.
It’s not “bleeding edge,” said Gord Shymko, captain for the Canadian team at the Helsinki conference, and a sustainable building consultant in Calgary for 28 years. “But it’s a good, well-balanced building.”
Small things, like the mechanical systems used to heat and cool the building, are highly efficient. It’s not new technology, but it’s not common either. It’s just that most buildings settle for the lower standard, said Shymko, who selected Epcor Tower for the conference showcase. “We’re constantly fighting that inertia.”
Even with the environmental choices, Qualico’s construction costs were about $250/square foot. “That’s right in the market range,” said Shymko. That’s important, he said. “We need examples of projects that are going to move the market in a real sense.”