How Community Engagement Makes Projects Sustainable

May 20 • Architects, Best of 2015, Sustainability • 1481 Views • No Comments on How Community Engagement Makes Projects Sustainable

By Phil Roberts…

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The role of the architect has definitely changed. The architect is no longer the master builder with a mere artistic vision, but has become the master collaborator. The complexity required in the development of buildings, coupled with increased environmental awareness, has fragmented the building process, forcing architects to reconfigure their practices, offering more services beyond producing an aesthetic image.

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Joanne McCallum, Director at McCallum Sather in Hamilton, acknowledges the benefit of the change many architecture firms are going through. Under the umbrella of McCallum Sather, the firm provides architectural, mechanical engineering, interior design, LEED facilitation, and heritage consulting services through their three business units: MSA (architecture), MSE (engineering), and MSI (interiors).

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“In order to achieve sustainable buildings it requires that you work together from the get go,” McCallum explains. With the many renovations projects which they do, McCallum Sather are able to use the multifaceted offerings as a selling point to prospective clients, especially those looking to future proof their buildings.

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However, can buildings really be future proofed? “Yes they can,” affirms McCallum. “What we mean by future proofing is making our buildings much more robust. Not too dependent on the grid, by using the right materials and techniques. Energy efficiency is part of the solution, but not all.” Another part of the solution is community engagement.

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McCallum Sather use their diversity of expertise to offer LEED certification consulting to other architectural firms, a process that is often too onerous for many practices to handle by themselves. “A lot of LEED certification is done by engineering firms,” explains McCallum. “The technical analysis when it comes to energy is why engineering firms do the vast majority of LEED certification. I think it is an important service for an architect to offer because we can provide a holistic approach to sustainability.”

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A breadth of perspective and depth of comprehension is required in any architectural project, particularly those of a larger scale with delicate programming requirements. For the Escarpment Cancer Research Institute in Hamilton, MSA are looking at how they can transform the idea of a place of research. “We took some under utilized spaces where the researchers and staff can engage with the community,” she describes. Today, many healthcare related buildings are being designed to look inviting, shedding their morbid appearance. As a result, hospitals and health research centres are being built as places for community engagement, rather than a collection of imposing buildings.

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Getting the community involved in projects is part of making them sustainable. For example, at the McMaster University for Music and the Mind, audiences who enjoy performances at the theatre are hooked up so that researchers can see how music affects their learning process, brain waves, and heart rate. Synchronisation between performers and how people recognize music is also researched, making the community, musicians, researchers and directors like Dr. Laurel Trainor, all participants in furthering the mandate of the institution. “The potential for research in that community has gone crazy,” says McCallum.

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For the Dundas Museum & Archives, community engagement was achieved by connecting a small, poorly attended, mid-1960’s museum to the 140 year old Pirie House. By making the museum more accessible to the community, DM+A were able to increase its attendance by 185%, which contributed to being recognized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce as the 2014 Business of the Year at the Dundas Community Awards.

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“It proves that design really matters.” proclaims McCallum. “A 1959 museum with no attendance, that was privately funded, and an asset [like the Pirie House], can through design, be made financially viable.” The Pirie House is now used for educational and rental opportunities, making it a popular heritage venue with the community.

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Perhaps the biggest test to the relationship between community involvement and sustainability would be projects involving assets that are underutilized or unused. Many Canadian cities have churches that were once focal points of communities, but have suffered from the decline in churchgoers and the changing values of society. What should be done with these structures which often express the architectural heritage of the community, but lack the tithes and congregation numbers to remain sustainable?

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The Connolly Condominium in Hamilton might be the answer. “The church [James Street Baptist Church] was about to crumble,” explains McCallum. By merging a $80 million, 30-storey condo tower with the church, it enables the latter to the remain as a robust, sustainable, institution, while being more open to the public thanks to an ongoing conservation plan and developer investment. It is important to note that the continued public access allows the building to remain relevant for generations to come within the community.

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A similar revival is also being built in Hamilton involving the Tivoli Vaudeville Theatre and a 106 unit condo tower. “The theatre is a heritage building we brought back. It will be a working theatre again,” explains McCallum. The investment for the condo development provided the finance required to fund the restoration of the front of house of the theatre.

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In all of these projects, what we see is that the architect, as master collaborator, may no longer be the master builder, but has also become a community builder. One who is able to give new life to defunct assets and design projects which create new opportunities for community engagement.

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