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After the Snow Melts

Vancouver builds its Winter 2010 Olympics with post-event needs in mind.


By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Whether the Olympics are a boon or boondoggle for their host city is a point of perpetual debate. Arguments for and against hosting the event usually focus on finances, with proponents main-taining that the games create jobs in industries like tourism and construction, and critics countering that lasting benefits are negligible. However, economics is only one part of the Olympic equation. The games present an opportunity to bring attention to the environment. This is especially true for the winter event, since its sports, dependent on snow and ice, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But the Olympics also generate potentially environmentally damaging activity—a fact that has not escaped the organizers of the 2010 games, which will take place in and around Vancouver, Canada, and in the ski resort of Whistler, starting February 12.

The Richmond Olympic Oval roof structure incorporates wave-shaped panels made from the wood of pine beetle-infected trees.
Photo © VANOC
The Richmond Olympic Oval roof structure incorporates wave-shaped panels made from the wood of pine beetle-infected trees.

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When it was selected in 2003, Vancouver committed to convening a carbon-neutral event, the first host city to make such a pledge. “We had to track our emissions and be transparent about it, even as the accounting methodology was still developing,” says Ann Duffy, corporate sustainability officer for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). According to VANOC’s estimates, the Olympics, along with the Paralympics to be held in March in Vancouver and Whistler, will generate almost 130,000 tons of direct emissions. Plans for offsetting this footprint include investing in local clean-energy projects.

Organizers are not relying solely on offsets, but are mitigating natural resource consumption through various strategies, including sensible planning for competi- tion and support venues. When possible they are utilizing existing facilities or new buildings constructed for other purposes. For example, opening and closing ceremonies will take place at BC Place, a stadium built for the 1986 World’s Fair. The recently completed 1.1-million-square-foot expansion to the Vancouver Convention Center (VCC) will serve as the main media and broadcast center. The games should also benefit from infrastructure like the Canada Line, a 12-mile-long rapid rail link that started operating in August and connects downtown Vancouver with the adjacent city of Richmond and the airport.

The new competition venues are targeting minimum LEED Silver ratings. But just as noteworthy as these aspirations is the planning for post-games use. One facility that illustrates this well is the C$178-million Richmond Olympic Oval, the site of the games’ long-distance speed-skating events. Now the oval houses a 400-meter-long ice track and 8,000 seats for spectators. But this spring it will be converted to a community multi-sport facility with two ice rinks, a court section, and a track-and-field area.

The building has several high-performance features, including a system that captures heat produced during ice making and reuses it for domestic hot-water production and space heating and cooling. Its signature roof, which is intended to evoke flight, according to the oval’s architect, Cannon Design, is made up of arches of glue-laminated wood and steel spanning almost 330 feet. The composite members support wave-shaped panels fabricated of dimensional lumber from trees killed by pine beetles. Such infected trees are typically left to decay on the forest floor, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. But by finding a use for the wood, the project team has ensured that it will continue to store the global-warming-causing gases.

To build the oval, the city of Richmond pooled funds from VANOC with money from additional sources. Other venues, like the curling center in Vancouver’s Hillcrest Park, benefited from a similar financing mix, relying on money from both the organizing committee and the municipality to construct a C$87.9-million complex that will ultimately replace several aging community facilities. Already complete is a recreational aquatics center that shares an entry lobby with the curling venue. After the games, the curling facility will be retrofitted to house a branch library, a community center, and an ice hockey rink. On the basis of sustainable features like a heat-recovery system similar to the one installed at the oval, water conservation, and local material use, the project should earn LEED Gold certification once the retrofit process is complete in 2011, says its architect, Hughes Condon Marler.

Almost all of the new ice-sport venues incorporate daylight—an uncommon feature in such facilities because of con-cerns about direct sunlight on the ice surface, points out architect Walter Francl. His eponymous firm designed a community ice rink in Vancouver’s Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighborhood that will serve as a figure-skating practice facility during the games. The designers carefully studied the relationship between openings and daylight penetration. “We modeled the building 10 ways to sideways,” says Francl, adding that the result is a better environment for users and reduces reliance on electric lighting.

The most ambitious—and likely the most controversial—games-related construction is the development of roughly 17 acres of Southeast False Creek (SEFC). In conjunction with a developer, the city has transformed a brownfield into a residential neighborhood that will temporarily house 2,800 athletes. Permanent residents of the waterfront community’s 1,108 apartments will move in after the games.

Critics of the C$1.3-billion project include housing advocates who point to the relatively small number of affordable units (about 250) and fiscal watchdogs who worry that the proceeds from renting 119 market-rate apartments and from the sale of 737 condominiums will not suffice to pay for construction, especially given the slow economy. However, from a planning perspective, the village, part of the LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND) pilot program, has much to recommend it, like a pedestrian-friendly masterplan that incorporates commercial space and community facilities. SEFC also has a district energy system that relies on heat recovered from a municipal sewer line to satisfy about 70 percent of projected annual heating-and-hot-water energy demand, a rainwater storage and reuse system, and 287,000 square feet of green roofs.

The individual buildings, designed by several different firms, are expected to achieve at least LEED Gold certification, with two on track for Platinum. The structures incorporate thick wall assemblies for improved insulation, exterior corridors to reduce the need for electric lighting, and deep balconies that double as shading devices. Through an agreement with the city, the developer was able to implement these space-intensive features without sacrificing saleable area. The project should encourage deployment of such passive design strate-gies on new construction citywide, points out Roger Bayley, a principal at Merrick Architecture, SEFC design manager.

Like SEFC, the housing for the 2,850 Olympic athletes competing in the alpine events in Whistler is planned as a permanent residential neighborhood with long-term performance in mind. The stick-built structures making up the C$167.5-million, roughly 300-unit development have well-insulated building envelopes, radiant heating, and interior finishes selected with regard for indoor-air quality.

One of the project’s goals is to provide housing for the local workforce. More than 90 percent of the condos and rental units are restricted in price and reserved for people who work in Whistler, helping address problems like affordability and long commutes endemic to all resort towns. “This is the real sustainable legacy,” says Joe Redmond, president of the Whistler 2020 Development Corporation, the entity managing the village construction. “We are keeping employees in Whistler,” he says.

Of course, the success of the plans for the Whistler village, or for any of the Olympics projects, won’t be apparent for some time. Not until well after the glare of the media spotlight has faded will anyone know how well future needs have been anticipated.

This article appeared in the January 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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