Katie Faulkner, co-principal of Boston’s NADAAA, talks to Azure about how her firm rescued the University of Toronto architecture school expansion from losing its magnificent ceiling.
The most awe-inspiring aspect of the new extension for the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design is found overhead. On the third level of the new build, and up a narrow set of stairs, is a massive open space half filled with stacks of models stuffed onto shelves.
There are no interior walls or structural columns to obstruct the sight lines, which makes the room’s impressive scale of 1,500 square metres seem much larger. There is also a glass curtain wall naturally illuminating the room with diffused northern light and offering photogenic views of Spadina Avenue, one of Toronto’s busiest streets. It’s the kind of grandeur that makes one want to enrol in school again.
The real star, though, is the ceiling, where four angled masses gently twist from one side of the space to the other, traversing a span of 32 metres. They have the appearance of giant snow drifts sculpted by wind. Architect Katie Faulkner, who is co-principal of Boston’s NADAAA with Nader Tehrani, describes them as twisted surfaces. “The ceiling is the project,” she says. “If you took it away, it would have been something different.” Yet, for a while, it wasn’t certain this central feature would be realized.
The new faculty, which also includes visual art and curatorial studies, was conceived as a two-phase project – phase one being the renovation of a 1875 Victorian Gothic building to the south. Originally built as a Presbyterian seminary, the brick-clad building turned out to be in much more dire condition than anyone had anticipated and its rehabilitation, executed with local preservation firm ERA, took longer than planned. Time overruns, mostly due to labour, also eroded the budget and, as things went along, the firm started to wonder if they were in danger of losing the ceiling. “It kept coming up as something that maybe the building could live without,” says Faulkner. No one had ever really seen anything quite like it, and it looked expensive.
So Faulkner and her team decided to mock it up. That in itself isn’t unusual. Scale models are typical at half or quarter scale, as a way to demonstrate for clients, and to ensure in the firm’s own mind, that an idea is achievable. Given that the ceiling looked complicated, they decided to build a section at full-scale. “We sat down and wrote up a list of what we would need, and almost everything we wrote down we could get at Home Depot. So we went shopping.”
Within a week, they had constructed a metal frame covered with ¼-inch ply, a thinner-than-usual option that could bend a bit more than thicker plys. They built a surface with two end points that tip either up or down, and which demonstrated that over a long distance, the framing could accomplish the desired curvature using straight lines.
NADAAA’s hyperbolic paraboloid solution, says Faulkner, was significantly different from how the contractor was envisioning it. They had pictured a series of specialty metals crafted into an armature. The full-scale model proved that any framer could construct the ceiling using standard drywall, scoring it to create the curve.
“Once we broke the ceiling treatment into pieces, the contractors could no longer justify their estimate,” says Faulkner. “We were able to give them specific details, like, this is the amount of drywall and this is the number of studs you’ll need. So they aligned the quote with what we showed them.”
The model brought the price way down, well below 50 per cent of what was originally thought. The construction cost, including building, site redevelopment and landscape, was $69 million. “We do this kind of thing all the time, but never where you could have these demonstrable savings, not only in money, but also in saving the key element of the project, which is to have the studio be column-free.”
Everyone agreed the ceiling had to be kept.
For the official opening of the complex in November, city officials, alumni, faculty and students wandered the refreshed hallways of the original building, which has maintained its heritage features including wooden floors and spindle banisters. Its old-world charm, though, is left behind once inside the new extension; visitors find themselves in a grand hall gazing up, where natural light streams in from the ceiling above.
Without that ceiling, there wouldn’t be much to draw attention to the top level, where most students will spend their time. Faulkner says she and her team documented the process as best they could, taking photographs and videos and blogging on each stage along the way. Besides its unique form, the ceiling is also fitted with graphite-core radiant panels that help reduce the energy costs of the structure’s mechanical system.
From the start, the firm recognized the value of its “save the ceiling” efforts as a learning tool for the students who would eventually be working underneath it. “It’s an architect’s victory that you don’t get to tell that often,” says Faulkner, “and that’s very satisfying.”