Federal Building’s living wall coming down as part of cost-cutting measure: UCP

First the gift shop closed and now, the living wall that greets people as they enter the Federal Building lobby in Edmonton is being removed — a decision that isn’t sitting well with the installation’s designer.

Ontario-based Nedlaw Living Walls built and installed the wall during the Federal Building renovations and said it’s more than just a piece of art — it’s part of the structure’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

“(It) was actually designed around this living wall,” Adam Holder, sales and marketing manager with Nedlaw Living Walls, told Global News.

“The idea behind it was that because it was cleaning the air and contributing to the relative humidity of the building, some efficiencies were actually able to be created in the HVAC design.”

“Because we were able to reduce the amount of outside air that was needed to be exchanged on, kind of an hourly basis, that needed to be heated and cooled in the summer (and) in the winter, respectively. And it actually made the air circulation system in the building and the building itself more efficient,” Holder said.

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The atrium of the newly restored Federal Building in Edmonton Alta, on Friday January 30, 2015.
The atrium of the newly restored Federal Building in Edmonton Alta, on Friday January 30, 2015. Jason Franson, The Canadian Press

The plant installation encompasses about 2,400 square feet of the entrance atrium, which also has six kinds of marble, nickel-plated doors and unique light fixtures and ceiling accents.

It was all part of an extensive, more than $400-million renovation that the provincially-owned building underwent over the course of six years — between 2009 and 2015 — after sitting empty for decades.

Read more: $1.65M fix underway at Alberta Federal Building

Despite being just over five years old, Alberta’s UCP government said while completing upgrades to the HVAC system, the living wall will ultimately be replaced with art from the provincial collection.

It’s not known why the upgrades are being done or how much that will cost, however, the UCP government said maintaining the wall is too expensive.

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“Now, more than ever, the province needs to distinguish between need-to-haves and nice-to-haves as we continue to focus on saving lives and livelihoods,” Service Alberta press secretary Tricia Velthuizen said in a statement.

“A living wall that costs taxpayers an excess of $70,000 per year to maintain is clearly a ‘nice-to-have’ that our province can no longer afford.”

A living wall leading up to office space in the newly restored Federal Building in Edmonton Alta, on Friday January 30, 2015.
A living wall leading up to office space in the newly restored Federal Building in Edmonton Alta, on Friday January 30, 2015. Jason Franson, The Canadian Press

The plants on the wall are held in place by a growth medium and fed via a controlled loop irrigation system, Holder explained.

He said it doesn’t require much daily upkeep, but over the course of a month, a maintenance contractor would check the health of the plants, remove and replace whatever had died, and spray for bugs. He said it would be part of the building’s overall maintenance.

“So periodic inspections of, you know, the mechanical system, the plumbing system, the irrigation systems, looking at the plants themselves, making sure that they’re healthy,” Holder said.

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“Most of them are thriving, usually with with very little care. If the wall’s kept healthy and happy with with light and water and the right temperature, it can it can be relatively low maintenance.”

Read more: IN PHOTOS: Alberta’s sky palace unveiled, but in revised form

Holder, whose company has installed living walls across North America and in Europe and the Middle East, said he’s not happy to hear the Alberta government is removing the wall.

“I’m hoping we can appeal to a sense of an environmental concern and sustainability,” he said.

“I think the decision is based on, you know, kind of a ‘trimming the fat’ measure. I feel like this wall is being viewed as a really fancy decoration and something that we can just get rid of to save costs.

“I don’t think that there is an understanding of just how integrated and integral this wall actually is to that building.”

A living wall leading up to up the stairwell in the atrium of the Federal Building in Edmonton Alta, on Friday January 30, 2015.
A living wall leading up to up the stairwell in the atrium of the Federal Building in Edmonton Alta, on Friday January 30, 2015. Jason Franson, The Canadian Press

Holder said the building’s HVAC will likely have to be re-engineered as a result of the removal, with changes to the rooftop units and ducting.

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“If I were to take a piece of your lung out, your lungs would have to learn how to do without,” he said. “But just think in a building instead.”

The refurbished 1950s, 11-floor art-deco-style structure block north of the legislature contains offices for about 600 people, including government and opposition MLAs, Legislative Assembly Office staff, treasury board and finance staff and executive council staff.

Click to play video 'Issues with the Federal Building' Issues with the Federal Building

Issues with the Federal Building – Feb 10, 2016

“Alberta’s facing the greatest fiscal challenge in a generation, and Notley’s NDP wants the government to spend $70,000 per year on plants in THEIR office building’s lobby,” a tweet sent Wednesday by the UCP caucus read. A spokesperson for the party later acknowledged all parties have offices in the building.

Read more: ‘Sky Palace’ not the only issue with the Federal Building: Opposition

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Thomas Dang, MLA for Edmonton-South and official Opposition critic for infrastructure, called out the UCP for picking fights on Twitter and in a statement, pointed out the Federal Building’s renovations were approved and carried out by the former Progressive Conservative Party.

“For the record, the Edmonton Federal Building, including the living wall, was designed and built by a Conservative government. Ric McIver was the infrastructure minister at that time and is the best person to explain his design choices.”

Alberta Progressive Conservative leader Jason Kenney, left, walks with former interim leader Ric McIver at the Federal Building in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, March 20, 2017.
Alberta Progressive Conservative leader Jason Kenney, left, walks with former interim leader Ric McIver at the Federal Building in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, March 20, 2017. Codie McLachlan, The Canadian Press

The structure housed Government of Canada staff from 1958 until 1988, when its occupants moved to Canada Place on Jasper Avenue.

The building made national headlines during the renovations in 2014, when it was revealed that former premier Alison Redford’s office had ordered revisions to transform the top floor into a swank penthouse retreat for Redford and her daughter.

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Plans called for the “sky palace” to be modelled after a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C., with bedrooms, showers, a butler’s pantry, powder rooms and other luxuries.

The top floor was later returned to its original configuration as meeting rooms.

Read more: ‘I think it’s been used six times’: Alberta ‘sky palace’ now open

— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News, and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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