Bending to the Designer's Will

VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia

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Bold use of metal: check.

Use of metal that captures the designer’s artistic intent: check.

Enduring symbolism of a building’s environment and primary use: double check.

Of all the qualities that garnered the VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre in Vancouver, B.C., a 2013 Chairman’s Award from the Metal Construction Association for metal roofing, perhaps foremost was how it blends striking aluminum composite panels with traditional wood supports to both evoke and promote sustainability and beauty.

What sets the VanDusen building apart visually is its bold use of approximately 12,000 sq ft of Alucobond naturAL panels on an undulating roof designed to look like five orchid leaves. The Alucobond panels used in the building feature two sheets of 0.020-in. aluminum thermobonded to a polyethylene core (all of which can be recycled). The panels cover a living, vegetation-filled roof constructed mainly of Douglas fir beams and plywood.

“The roof is really exuberant,” said Jim Huffman, design principle for project architects Perkins+Will Canada, Vancouver. “And they wanted a building that really drew people in. One of the first meetings we had with the client—and I’ve never had a client say this before—they wanted the building to be outrageous.

“If you look at our portfolio of work, it’s very different from anything else we’ve done,” he added. “It looks irrational and illogical, but if you understand how it was designed and the technology behind it, it’s actually quite clever.”

Clever, perhaps, but definitely complicated. Despite that, the panels proved easy and quick to install—a plus in Vancouver’s rainy climate, Huffman noted.

Because the 19,000-sq-ft building has an organic design, the roof elements include aflowing stream of positive and negative curves, all achieved with an interlocking system of prefabricated panels created by metal installer Keith Panel Systems Co., Ltd. (KPS), Vancouver.

The firm designed a joint system that incorporated a two-piece nose cone that allowed them to extend one piece into the next panel, creating a seamless series of panels throughout each of the roof’s elements.

“We developed stuff that we’d never seen used in the world before when we designed this,” said Doug Dalzell, who founded KPS in 1986 and has since become one of the top three Alucobond dealers in North America. “What you start with and what you think you’re going to do on a crazy building like this, and what you end up with, is a growth curve. And you’ve got to be dedicated to it and work it through. We fabricated it all and installed it all.”

Containing the heavy load of the roof’s soil and plant life was one thing, but the panels also carried stress in a way that gave Perkins+Will and KPS a material that could bend and roll reliably and consistently into the organic shapes they created in their 3-D design software.
“This is art; this is expression,” Dalzell said. “This is not a solid product; it’s a shape and form. And what you do is, you let the shape and form take over a little bit. If you try to do what we pulled off here on a flat sheet of metal, be it aluminum or stainless or whatever, it would probably kink on you. You’d be pushing it too hard, and it would let go.

“The material, if you curve it, if you roll it, it’s got a tremendous memory. It’s just alive. The more complicated the job, the more this product will work for you.”

The building was designed to exceed LEED New Construction Platinum standards. Even more ambitiously, it has been submitted for the International Future Living Institute’s Living Building Challenge—a stringent standard that Huffman is confident the building will meet.
In addition to demonstrating sustainability with the living roof, the visitor centre practices it every day in ways that make the building a net-zero consumer of energy and water. It achieves that status, in part, by using solar hot water tubes on the roof to transfer heat to underground tanks for later use and an innovative, onsite bioreactor to clean wastewater and return it to a weeping field nearby.

“Our firm is a strong believer in sustainability, and that was one of the things that we thought a botanical garden should show to the public,” Huffman said of the building, which cost almost $22 million Canadian dollars to build. “That whole project is about sustainability, about showing people how they can live in the future. I think it’s one of the greenest buildings in North America, if not in the world, right now.”

Dalzell says he was delighted to take on a project that allowed him to use a product that he’s very familiar with to reach a difficult-to-achieve goal—and on a building that means so much to Vancouver. KPS took on the project as a challenge, to prove to the world, and to themselves, that they could pull it off, he said.

“When things like this come along, it’s a lot of fun, let me tell you,” Dalzell said.


Vancouver, British Columbia

Perkins+Will Canada, Vancouver

Ledcor Group of Companies, Vancouver

Keith Panel Systems Co., Ltd., Vancouver

3A Composites USA, Inc., Davidson, NC

Alucobond natural metal composite material panels

October 2011

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Build Legacies: Metal