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Behind the Project: The University of Calgary's Social Sciences Building

The University of Calgary’s Social Sciences Building, located on the main campus, is currently under construction for a reclad and the incorporation of full photovoltaic (PV) array at the south elevation. Recently, we sat down with Principal Ian Washbrook to learn more about our structural engineering role on this project

Thanks for sitting down with us today, Ian. Can you tell us a bit about the project?

Thanks for having me. The University of Calgary’s Social Sciences Building is an existing 13-storey building that was constructed in the 1960s and is characteristic of the brutalist era with highly textured precast architectural panels. We’re the structural consultants on the project. Our team also consists of Gibbs Gage Architects as the prime consultant, EllisDon, as the construction manager, and SMP Engineering, as the electrical consultant.

The project is currently in phase one, where we’re working on a full reclad of the north and south elevations which is a partial reclad of the entire perimeter of the building. Phase 2 will include the reclad of the east and west elevations, which will likely be studied in the next couple of years.

What are some of the project goals that your team is working toward?

In particular, the university wanted to remove the existing precast panels since there’s been some noticeable failures in the precast systems over the years. Some examples include the bowing of the precast panels along with the horizontal joints between the precast panels closing in.

Approximately five years ago, temporary reinforcements to the precast panels were put in place. These panels are not only unsightly but also a liability now if the panels are not removed due to the load case. Precast panels resting on other precast panels were not a load case that the original precast was designed for. Along with the removal, the reclad also includes opportunities to improve the thermal performance of the building.

With Calgary being quite a sunny city, there was also the opportunity to place full photovoltaic array on the south façade from level three to the roof. Gibbs Gage carefully designed a pattern of PV array that made it look like it was a part of the original building, rather than an add-on. This is a step toward the university’s ambition to eventually be a net-zero campus. Although the north façade is not exposed to the sun, there will be architectural metal panels in place that will resemble the PV panels of the south elevation.

In addition, the university is considering using some sort of device to publicly highlight how much of the sun’s energy is being converted into electricity. They are hoping the data will show students and other folks how this is a sustainable way of producing energy.

What have been some challenges that you and your team have faced so far?

Construction started recently with EllisDon being onboarded as the construction manager. Like most projects these days, long lead items were identified, especially the electrical equipment. The supply issues are causing delays as well in the progress of the solar panels and the architectural cladding.

There’s also the logistics challenge with the removal of the dozens of precast panels at a very active University campus. Each panel weighs about 4,500 lbs on average with some panels weighing up to 6,000 lbs. The panels will be removed at nighttime with a mobile crane. Overall, this project has gone very smoothly with a great consulting team and a fantastic client. Lessons learned from previous projects have been shared and taken advantage of.

What has been your favourite part of the project so far?

Honestly, the team dynamic has been the best part of the project. We’ve worked with the same team of project managers and consultants before on similar projects at the University of Calgary, so it’s been great to foster and continue to grow these relationships.

It’s also been great to work with the University of Calgary and help them work towards their goal of being a net-zero carbon campus which is aligned with their Eyes High strategy.

That’s great to hear. Do you have any final thoughts on the project?

’m also excited about a unique art piece being planned at the lower levels of the south elevation which has been designed by Gibbs Gage. It will consist of a series of steel plate fins that project and have different contours to it to provide a relief outline of frogs.

The frog artwork is inspired by a story written by students on the north stairwell of the Social Sciences building in the 1970s. The journey of Leon the Frog symbolizes a student’s university journey and is a metaphor of a student “lost in space”. Each tread of the north stair from the basement level up to level 12 on the north stairwell is a sentence or phrase of the story written by artists and writers in the 1970s. This new steel fin structure that will hang off the building will be a significant symbol and a tip of the hat towards the story. I’m really looking forward to seeing it!


Thanks for sitting down with us today, Ian. We learned a lot and we’re excited to watch the progress at the University of Calgary’s Social Sciences building!

For more information on the project, you can reach out to Ian here.


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