March 29 2021
Behind the Project: The Ampersand
The Ampersand (formerly known as Sun Life Plaza) is a commercial office building complex in Calgary, Alberta. Recently, we sat down with Senior Engineer Justin Fried and Principal Randy Thesen to discuss that when it came to this project and the challenges presented, keeping it simple was best.
Hi Justin and Randy, thanks for sitting down with us today. Can you please tell us a little bit about the project?
Justin: The project is a renovation of an existing tower complex in downtown Calgary. The renovation consisted of remodeling the podium area.
Randy: It’s an existing three-tower office building, totaling over 1 million square feet.
Justin: The existing building was fairly dated with a water feature and grandiose architecture. We stripped all of this out and remodeled the building in what the architect called a “refined industrial feel”.
Aspen Properties, the owner, added a significant amount of amenity space, including a basketball court, fitness area, remodeled conference centre, addition of cantilevered breakout meeting rooms that overlook the plaza area, and a feature stair that connects the main floor to the second floor in the plaza.
The main floor podium space is open. This open style was chosen with the intention of using it for events. The feature stair can also form bleacher-style seating that people can use in the case of events. And the exterior was also updated.
Randy: A neat feature is the new Lil E Coffee Cafe, which employs staff with intellectual and developmental challenges.
What are some of the challenges and solutions that you faced during the project?
Challenge #1 – Understanding What’s There
Justin: With any existing building, the first challenge is always understanding what’s already there. With this complex, the construction of the initial three towers was phased in the 1970s. The West tower was constructed first, and the two East towers followed. The podium area that we renovated was initially exterior space. It was turned into interior space in a previous renovation during the 1990s.
We had to understand how the three design periods related to each other and how we could integrate future work. This was the largest and most comprehensive challenge.
For instance, we needed to remove a large portion of the concrete slab to allow for the addition of the basketball court. This required checking the impact on the existing building of removing a large area of floor. There were other areas of floor, too, where we had to infill and create new space.
Randy: Another way we had to understand what was there to make it better was to create the meeting pods, which are cantilevered off the second-floor slab. We had to determine the best option to do that. This was part of the architects’ and owners’ vision for the plaza space, and it was made possible due to understanding the capacity and limitations of the existing structure. The building was originally designed to support precast cladding at the location of the proposed pods, which afforded the structure plenty of capacity to receive the cantilevered pods.
Justin: To Randy’s point, the existing second floor had capacity because of the original precast concrete cladding, so adding the breakout rooms was easy for that reason.
Challenge #2 – Adhering to a Budget
Randy: The client had a budget – we had to be efficient with how we designed things to stick to that. We needed to create a modern building in a cost-efficient way.
Justin: There was some work we did on the schematic design to help the client determine the best path based on their budget. They had talked about expanding the North West Terrace of the building and we determined the impact on the base building structure would be significant. We advised them not to move forward with that renovation and they took our advice on that.
Randy: The fact that we were involved early in the design, collaborating with the design team, allowed our early structural input to help determine that it wasn’t a viable solution, saving the client a lot of money.
Challenge #3 – Facilitating Temporary Works of the Structure
Justin: To facilitate temporary works during construction, rather than bringing in zoom booms and different lifts, they asked us to review the capacity of some of the roof trusses to use as hoists. This was unique – we wouldn’t use the base building structure to help facilitate the contractors’ work usually. This saved the contractor (EllisDon) money.
Challenge #4 – Meeting Clients’ Expectations
Justin: There were some unique asks from the client. The one that stands out for me is the feature stair. This large and important architectural element featured complex geometry. Figuring out how to do the design so it met the architect’s vision and could be constructed well was important.
We worked with the architect to make this cost-effective. It started as a concrete system, then we entertained structural steel to save cost, but then it ended up being half light gauge and half structural steel because it was the most cost-effective solution.
We boiled it down to the simplest form to realize the architect’s complex vision. The systems we chose were cost-effective and practical. This project really was about finding practical solutions without spending a ton of cash, while never losing sight of realizing the vision the owner wanted. We still wanted the building to appear grandiose.
What was your favourite part of the project?
Justin: My favourite part was taking an old building that’s actually a really neat, open space and breathing new life into it. It was great to enhance the original intent of the space, taking full advantage of the existing features.
I also valued working with the full team in a cohesive manner right from the start. Being involved from day one allowed us to develop early connections with the owner and helped us build trust. This helped allow us to lead things that we’re capable of leading. The cohesiveness of the team stayed all throughout construction, with no tensions arising.
Randy: Agreed – the team was aligned and focused on the same goals. We all wanted to get the project done the best way possible.
The most sustainable building is the one we renovate and repurpose – this is a great example of sustainability. This building didn’t have a lot of tenants, so sinking a bit of cash to redesign helped attract tenants without having to build a whole new building, which would have been a lot more expensive. From my perspective, this is a huge sustainability win.
Any final thoughts?
Randy: This turned out to really be a successful project. Not only does it look great, but everyone walked away with a good feeling – feeling like they did some good work, too.
Justin: I agree – I think this had a lot to do with the tone the owner set. Another thing to add is that it was delivered in multiple phases, so there were lots of different contractors to execute on different scopes of work.