Canadian Consulting Engineer

Award of Excellence: VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre

October 1, 2012
By Fast + Epp

Fast + Epp was the structural engineering firm for the 19,000-sq.ft. visitors’ centre at the VanDusen Botanical Gardens located in Vancouver, B.C.

Fast + Epp was the structural engineering firm for the 19,000-sq.ft. visitors’ centre at the VanDusen Botanical Gardens located in Vancouver, B.C.

Forming an entrance point to the grounds, the iconic building serves as an interactive education centre and welcome portal to revitalize public interest in the gardens. It includes lecture rooms, exhibition space, a café, and guest services.

The engineers collaborated with architects at Perkins + Will to develop the building’s most dramatic feature – a free-form, organically-shaped roof that metaphorically represents the petals of an orchid. The roof flows seamlessly into the surrounding landscape like an extension of the garden itself.

From an engineering perspective, the main achievement and innovation was to use timber almost exclusively – and in an unprecedented manner – in such a complex roof form. The design team pioneered a wood solution in the interests of economy, sustainability, innovation, and to meet tight time constraints that had been imposed on the project by the federal government’s stimulus funding program.

By using a highly sustainable product so convincingly, this type of work expands the industry’s potential to create environmentally-conscious public buildings that are also architecturally distinct, locally and internationally.

Billed as “Vancouver’s greenest building” by local media, the VanDusen project sets the sustainability bar for future projects at a new high. It targets LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge status and challenges others to push the envelope with wood innovation. The centre’s sustainable features include a green roof, rammed earth walls and natural ventilation.

True integrated design coordination between all the architectural and engineering services accelerated the construction process on site and allowed those involved to meet the budget objectives and an almost-unrealistic project schedule.

The building also encourages the generous use of simple, staple products of the local forest industry.

Computer modeling and trapezoidal shapes

While similarly complex building forms (like Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum or the Music Experience Building in Seattle, Washington) have been achieved through the use of steel or concrete, this is believed to be the first example of wood use for such a complicated shape.

Three different high-powered computer modeling programs – Rhino, Revit and Inventor – were used to develop the multifaceted geometrical roof shape and each individual building component. This three-dimensional technology ensured an accurate assembly in the shop and precision fits when the panels arrived on site.

Seventy-one unique panels consisting of glue-laminated wood and standard dimensional lumber components were designed by Fast + Epp and subsequently fabricated by StructureCraft Builders (a company owned by the principals of Fast + Epp). The engineers were able to tackle the complex problem by breaking the project down into manageable pieces – trapezoidal-shaped roof panel modules that were typically within a 3.6-m wide by 18-m long shipping size. The units consisted of doubly curved glulam edge beams and sawn timber joists. Part of the ingenuity of this simple panelized approach was using the curved glulams as a “jig” in the shop to frame the complex geometry.

Panels integrate systems

The prefabricated panels were designed to have mechanical, electrical, acoustical and ceiling finish components pre-installed. This approach allowed fast track construction that was able to mitigate exposure to the mid-winter rain, and it ensured a high-quality installation. The panels include pre-installed thermal insulation, sprinkler pipes, lighting conduits, acoustic liner, and finished wood ceiling slats.

To accommodate the undulating twists and turns of the building’s 50-foot atrium, the engineers developed a novel universal panel-to-column connection to avoid unique connections at every support location. Additionally, the engineers created a lateral system to support the heavier mass of the building’s green roof, locating steel braces and concrete walls strategically, so both the functional layout and breathtaking views of the surrounding garden would remain unimpeded.

Opened in September 2011, the landmark structure will afford the public an enjoyable experience for generations to come.cce

Name of project: VanDusen Botanical

Gardens Visitor Centre, Vancouver

Award-winning firm (structural engineer): Fast + Epp (Paul Fast, P.Eng.,

Duane Palibroda, P.Eng.,)

Owner: City of Vancouver, as

represented by its Vancouver Board

of Parks and Recreation

Client/architects: Perkins + Will Canada

Other key players: Ledcor (contractors, project management); Cobalt/Integral Group (mechanical and electrical

engineers); Trow, R.F. Binnie (civil), BTY (quantity surveyor), B.R. Thorson (code).


We appreciated that the building’s exposed structure was both technically advanced and represented the aesthetic centrepiece for the project. This coupling, together with the building’s significant sustainable design features, made this project an obvious choice for an award.


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