Hitting the Ceiling
A sustainable building in the 21st century needs to be more than roof—more than mere shelter and more than an emulation of natural processes like rainwater collection.
This is an excerpt from Natalie Dubois’ larger thesis portfolio, titled “Building Wor(l)ds: What Can Architecture Give in the Anthropocene?” This work can also be found in the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.
There is really only one word in the English language to describe the top enclosure of a building: roof. No synonyms of “roof” are directly equivalent, but they are revealing. Some, like “ceiling” or “parapet,” describe parts of a roof. But others, like “house,” “shelter,” or “crown,” point to the essentiality of the element. To put a roof over your head means to be housed, to have shelter. This is arguably the fundamental purpose of architecture.
The frontispiece to Marc-Antoine Laugier’s Essai sur L’Architecture (1755) is illustrative of this. The Primitive Hut, the French Enlightenment myth regarding the origins of architecture, is a representational symbol of shelter: it’s mostly roof. But it also illustrates something else: that the answer to the predicament of architecture can be found in nature. Architecture, represented by the woman, is pointing to the trees: this is the way. Laugier is implying that architecture can find true beauty by returning to the simple logic of nature.
Laugier could not have anticipated, way back in the mid-18th century, the crisis of climate change that we’re currently facing. But as we grasp at straws for solutions, we still turn to the idea of “nature” for knowledge, separating the notion of “nature” from “society.” If only we could emulate nature better, maybe we could find a way out of this mess.
Let’s look at the Primitive Hut. Who would want to live there? Of course, the image was not meant to be taken literally. But to realistically live in this hut, you’d have to go out and source more materials: put up some walls, maybe fashion a door or window. Beneath the canopy, the structure is not habitable. Yet, aren’t humans part of nature, too? Sustainability rooted in preserving and conserving only nature, at the expense of habitability, misses a big part of the picture.
Although it seems unlikely, this romantic myth lives on in the 21st century. In our aim to achieve sustainability, we often end up prioritizing the concepts and ideals of nature over human needs. We can look to a recently completed project as an example: the new building for the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto.
In 1875, a Presbyterian seminary called Knox College was built at One Spadina Crescent, a perfectly circular piece of land that splits the north- and south-bound lanes of Toronto’s Spadina Avenue. One hundred and forty-two years later, the Daniels Faculty, led by Dean Richard Sommer, took up residency and constructed the most significant addition to the crescent to date, designed by the architecture firm NADAAA.
The addition’s dark grey roof and ceiling for the graduate studio space below are the building’s showpiece. On the interior, the studio space is a monumental, irregularly shaped room with soaring white ceilings, which billow and undulate symmetrically here and there, opening up into skylights. On the exterior, the new roof appears almost flat, especially in contrast to the steeply pitched roofs of Knox College. Upon closer look, the new roof traces a silhouette akin to an uneventful line graph. Jutting up and down, sloping here and there. All of these angles perfectly frame the pointed spire of Knox College just to its south.
This complex series of slopes collects and funnels rainwater into cisterns below the building, to be used for landscape irrigation. A cleft between new and old structures illustrates the water’s gravitational path. Openings in the roof create the skylights for the studio space below. Parts of the roof are planted for the the department’s Green Roof Innovation Testing Lab.
I analyzed over two dozen sources of material about the new wing of One Spadina. I specifically focused on what was written or said with respect to the environmental features of the building, and how it’s expected to perform over time. I found a handful of words that consistently circle around the new structure: “sustainable,” “green,” “performance,” “flexible,” “adaptable,” and “transformable.”
In an interview, Dean Sommer likened the school to “a theatre company that never had the right space to put on its performances,” going on to say that “the new building is a great theatre that allows us to put on a much bigger show.”¹ NADAAA stated that the faculty “decided to make their commitment [to sustainability] visible rather than being checklist-driven.”² What is being performed–showcased on this new stage of a building, then–is an image of sustainability. One can see the rainwater being collected; therefore, the building is performing sustainability. Not in a quantifiable way, but in a demonstrative way. The literal and symbolic crown of the building works to tie together a narrative of sustainability into a clean and tidy bow. The roof “establishes a meaningful relationship between structure, daylighting, and hydrology… in one simple sweep,” the architects wrote. In their narrative, sustainability is achieved through the conservation of material resources, like water and energy.
But is One Spadina habitable? Much like Laugier’s Hut, the answer is no. A comparison between the architectural photography of the space and a photo of the space in use is telling. In a photograph by John Horner from the building’s review in Canadian Architect, the space is empty. Pristine, majestic, and glowing, it’s all about the ceiling. But occupied, and without the magic tricks of professional photography, we see that the space is rather dark and completely out of scale for its inhabitants. They’re dwarfed by the ceiling; it’s not “performing” for them. Students have reported lack of space, lack of privacy, and terrible acoustics. In response to these concerns, Dean Sommer recommended that students go work in other spaces in the building. In other words, the Dean recommended that the students go outside the space that was intended to house them. How is this sustainable?
The roof and ceiling may be beautiful; they may even be sustainable from a material resource perspective. But a sustainable building in the 21st century needs to be more than roof—more than mere shelter and more than an emulation of natural processes like rainwater collection. A truly sustainable building needs to be habitable for the humans below its roof, too.
¹ Alex Bozikovic, “Spectacular New Home of U of T’s Daniels Faculty Merges Past and Future,” The Globe and Mail, May 5, 2017, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/home-and-garden/architecture/spectacular-new-home-of-u-of-ts-daniels-faculty-merges-past-andfuture/article34906578/.
² Sarah Treleaven, “One Spadina Crescent Is Raising the Bar,” gb&d Magazine, October 2018, https://gbdmagazine.com/2018/one-spadina/.