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The Atrium Building

The skyline of Victoria is home to a striking new piece of architecture that appears, from some angles, to be modern sculpture – The Atrium Building.

Precast technology played a large role in accomplishing the seven-floor, 18,600 square meter (200,000-square-foot) structure - mechanically, technically and aesthetically- but pure logistics also played a large role for the developer. “We were fast-tracking this project,” explains Lorne Gavinchuk, Development Manager for Jawl Properties, “digging for foundations and blasting rock while we were still designing.”

For Franc D’ambrosio, Principal with D’ambrosio Architecture + Urbanism, precast provided advantages on a number of fronts. “We used it in unitized curtainwall panels — which is a fairly unique thing to do, especially in Canada,” he notes, “which allowed for a number of materials to be developed as a unit, then prefabricated, brought to the site and hung. We chose concrete because we could get the colour that we wanted, and further, we chose Lafarge’s Ductal® product, which we could make very thin and relatively light to preassemble as panels; we were also able to customize the casting itself.”

The weight issue looms large in Victoria, which has one of the highest seismic ratings in Canada; higher even, than Vancouver. “The ability to control the manufacture and assembly of a wall in a factory setting is very beneficial,” emphasizes D’ambrosio, “especially in a high-seismic area, because we’re not swinging big slabs of marble or concrete through the air to pin them to a wall; we were able to do all of that under strict quality control in a [precast manufacturing] factory, and then raise them into place.”

The high-tech aspect of the Ductal® precast meant that the walls could be significantly thinner, giving designers more interior space to create a perimeter plenum for the displacement ventilation used in the building. “Normally,” explains D’ambrosio, “displacement ventilation would be done under the floors, and in this temperate Victoria climate, the ROI wouldn’t be worth it, but the thin Ductal® skin of this building allowed us to be able to do it without using floor area.”

While the results for owner and designer are nothing short of stunning, the process was not without challenges for precast contractor Lafarge. “It was kind of interesting because we had never incorporated precast into a glass curtainwall,” says Don Zakariasen, Director of Marketing for Concrete Products, Lafarge Western Canada. “This posed some challenges for us because we have to work within the tolerances of the curtainwall system; your precision has to be at least twice what it would be for typical precast.”

That process might have been slightly easier had the panels been simple rectangles, but being an atrium building, there are lots of curves on it. “That’s another aspect where the precast worked really well,” says Zakariasen, “because we made those panels curved instead of taking flat panels and making a series of facets. There are a number different radii to it, so we custom made those and that reduced the number of joints within the curtainwall system, which obviously helps with sealing, allowing the whole thing to perform better.”

Perhaps the most challenging bit of technology on the project involved creating an aesthetic that appears lower-tech. “We actually had a devil of a time because you’re dealing with something nebulous,” Zakariasen explains, “so it was really hard for us to get a feel for what the architect wanted, so finally, we actually set up what I think was an ingenious way to do it. We set up clay beds, and got the architect to come from Victoria to our plant, roll up his sleeves, and actually work with the clay to carve the exact profile that he was looking for.”

Zakariasen says that the technique was something that an artist would do rather than something created electronically. “Architects are really artists, and it’s always a challenge to recreate the look that they want to have in a cost-effective manner. When the architect worked with the clay himself and got the look that he wanted,” he says, “we used that as the plug for our mould and just pulled our moulds off of that carving.”

Ultimately, what Jawl Properties was looking for was a piece of art. “(Precast) gave my architect the freedom to express his artistic vision,” emphasizes Gavinchuk, “and precast gave us the flexibility to develop a building that would be unique; the lines of the building are just amazing, and we’ll be looking at it again for future projects.”

OWNER: Jawl Properties Ltd
ARCHITECT: D’Ambrosio architecture + urbanism
CONTRACTOR: Campbell Construction
PRECASTER: Lafarge Construction Materials

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