A model for urban intensification: EcoCite-on-the-Canal a six-storey lightweight steel frame structu

EcoCité-on-the-Canal, currently under construction is Ottawa, is one of Canada’s most exciting new green buildings.  It is an elegantly designed 25-unit loft style condominium that incorporates an astonishing number of innovative environmental measures and is targeting a LEED Gold certificate.  It is located at the corner of Bank St. and Wilton St. about one block from Rideau Canal, an area with a wealth of walking distance amenities, an ideal site for urban intensification.

The condo was developed by EcoCité Developments of Montreal and designed by Chris Chris Simmonds of Chris Chris Simmonds Architect Ltd. this years recipient of the Ottawa Green Building Council Recognition Award. 

An unusual feature of EcoCité-on-the-Canal is that it is a six-storey load baring lightweight cold-rolled steel frame building. According to Christopher Sweetnam-Holmes, a partner in EcoCité Developments lightweight steel frame construction is quite common for 3 and 4 storey buildings but EcoCité-on-the-Canal is the only building he knows in Eastern Ontario that is as high as 6-storeys. Furthermore, Sweetnam-Holmes has received engineering advice that suggests a lightweight steel frame building could be as high as 10 storeys.

Steel is experiencing significant growth in residential construction where wood has been used in the past.  With 90% of North America’s old-growth forests already harvested, the quality of available wood has diminished and the cost has risen. According to the Steel Recycling Institute a typical 2,000 square-foot home requires about 40 to 50 trees, roughly an acre of forest.

Lightweight steel contains about 25% recycled material where the recycled component is derived from products like cars. The steel used for construction framing is not only recycled it is also recyclable. Steel is lightweight and has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any construction material.  It requires less framing material compared to wood for the same sized structure.

Steel is manufactured in Eastern North America and there are companies qualified to fabricate building components in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.   It is considered to have less embodied energy than concrete although according to Sweetnam-Holmes research is required to validate this assumption.

An article titled Steel: The Clear Cut Alternative for Building Homes that describes the benefits of lightweight steel for building homes can be found on the Steel Recycling Institute website.

According to Sweetnam-Holmes, use of lightweight steel frame construction in EcoCité-on-the-Canal meant the building had less mass overall than a conventional building its size.  This allowed it to be built on a floating foundation instead of concrete piles.  The builder was also able to use a mini-crane that also suited its constrained urban site. Sweetnam-Holmes said that over all steel frame construction is less expensive than conventional building technologies and results in a shorter construction time.

Sweetnam-Holmes originally sourced a fabricator of lightweight steel in Almonte, Ontario.  Prior to construction start the company closed up shop, NewGens Building Systems hired its key staff and moved to Alberta. Sweetnam-Holmes felt comfortable with NewGens quality control and decided to give the EcoCité-on-the-Canal contract to NewGen.  Holmes noted that while it is a long way to transport building components, red molded steel beams commonly used in mid-rise construction are often imported from Asia.

Both Sweetnam-Holmes and Chris Simmonds referred to additional management required to construct a steel frame building because it is still relatively new as well as the inherent complexity of the system. Although lightweight steel frame buildings can be constructed onsite like a wooden frame building EcoCité-on-the-Canal’s steel components were assembled off-site and delivered. 

Panels of steel frame are either welded, screwed, bolted or crimped together depending on design requirements and the manufacturer’s preference.    Each section of the building requires a separate shop drawing that Chris Simmonds says adds to the design time. With offsite assembly an engineer hired by the fabricator is responsible for quality control.

Chris Simmonds noted that the steel frame construction at EcoCité-on-the-Canal facilitated the design of multi storey lofts.  He added that, as there are no shelf angles with steel frame construction all exterior masonry rests on the foundation and panel siding is used above the ground floor. A testament to the strength and flexibility of the design at EcoCité-on-the-Canal is the ‘age in place’ option for an elevator in the three storey penthouse units. 

“With growth of midsize building market, there may be a business case for the replication of buildings, particularly for Green Buildings like EcoCité, as it reduces their cost,” said Sweetnam-Holmes. EcoCité-on-the-Canal’s site, a former gas station, turned Sports Bar, on a level, corner lot with a standard 100-meter by 100-meter footprint is, according to Sweetnam-Holmes, a typical Ontario property. Ottawa’s Committee of Adjustment approved variances for height and density to raise it from four to six storey.

In a similar vein, Sweetnam-Holmes is considering how to license construction of his company’s Abondance project in Montreal.  Abondance is also a green building but in other respects it is a typical three-storey Quebec walkup apartment.

According to Chris Chris Simmonds steel frame construction may play a key role in Ottawa’s future where the City is keen to have urban intensification with buildings that are 4 to 7 storey.  He said that builders typically want tall buildings partly because the scale allows them to pay for the high base cost of concrete.  Steel frame buildings, like EcoCité-on-the-Canal, may offer a profitable mid-rise alternative to the typical concrete high-rise structure.

According to  the condo’s sales representative Lyse Freeborne of Royal LePage Performance Realty there are still six units available at EcoCité-on-the-Canal including three three-storey penthouse lofts that are in the $675,000 range.  

Freeborne expects all the condos will be sold before the building is completed which, due to the benefits of off-site manufactured steel frame construction, in a year of record snowfalls, remains on schedule for July 31st, 2008

To stay abreast of Green Real Estate issues register for the Green Real Estate Conference to be held on April, 3, 2008 at the Toronto Convention Centre. Register is open until March 28th.

Ann launched RENX in 2001 as a part-time venture and has grown the publication to become a primary source of online news for the Canadian real estate industry. Prior to…

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Ann launched RENX in 2001 as a part-time venture and has grown the publication to become a primary source of online news for the Canadian real estate industry. Prior to…

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