Every city has its architectural icon, and although Winnipeg is home to the notable Winnipeg Clinic building and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba Hydro Place towers above the rest, literally and environmentally. Designed by KPMB Architects and built at a cost of $278 million in 2009, the award-winning, 700,000-square-foot ‘Hydro Building,’ as it’s called by local residents, was certified LEED Platinum in May 2012, setting a bold precedent for the company’s 800,000-member customer network.

The Hydro Building received a lot of press when it opened, but now—four years after the fact—is when Manitoba Hydro’s true commitment to sustainability can officially be quantified, tested, and developed. Tom Akerstream, director of facilities for the Hydro Building, was the energy and sustainability advisor for the design of the building. “The objective we set for ourselves when were designing the Hydro Building was to see that it was the most energy-efficient and sustainable office tower in North America,” Akerstream says. Read more below.

A Hard Look at Manitoba Hydro Place

Q: Does the Hydro Building really have clean air year-round?

A: It does. The 115-foot solar chimney creates a passive ventilation system, and the 78-foot waterfalls in the atria scrub the air clean, replacing the air in the building every 20 minutes.

Q: Just how big is the closed-loop geothermal system?

A: The biggest in Manitoba. It has 280 six-inch-diameter boreholes that penetrate the site 400 feet underground.

Q: Do employees really use the bus routes to commute to work?

A: Yes. Prior to construction, 95% of employees were commuting to work by car. Now, 70% of the employees are taking the bus to work.

When the company began implementing sustainability measures, it had what Akerstream calls the ‘submarine approach,’ in which an energy-efficient building cuts itself off from the environment. The Hydro Building, on the other hand, was the first to move toward a climactically responsive design. Rather than cutting itself off from the environment, the structure interacts with it.

Within the meteorological context of Winnipeg, a humid continental climate with hot summers and frigid winters, a glass office building is an unconventional choice in the extreme weather, but the design boasts revolutionary energy efficiency. It maximizes low-grade solar-thermal energy, natural wind, and year-round fresh-air exchange, and it has not only met but also exceeded energy-savings targets set by KPMB. “The ‘submarine approach’ will give you an average of 50 percent energy savings,” Akerstream says. “Our original target for the Hydro Building was 60 percent better than the model national energy code for buildings, and we’re currently hitting 70 percent. When we get all of the bugs worked out, we expect to increase that.”

The Manitoba Hydro labor force is sectioned in two separate buildings. Two thousand employees occupy the Hydro Building, and 800 employees occupy another office building in Winnipeg. With comparable staff ratios between the two locations, Manitoba Hydro has been able to quantify the objectives it set for itself with the construction of the Hydro Building. The first objective, Akerstream says, concerned the quality of the space. “We’ve had around a day and a half less absenteeism per employee in the Hydro Building as compared to the other Manitoba Hydro office,” Akerstream says, “and with 2,000 employees, that creates around 3,000 extra man-days of productivity.”

Although the sustainable potential of the Hydro Building could be forecasted during its design phase, the proven success of the program has become a barometer both for the ongoing functionality of the building and for other large building projects using the same sustainable model. “In one sense, we didn’t know how to run a climactically responsive building because we didn’t have any other buildings to compare it to,” Akerstream says. “We’ve learned that we need to have a good understanding of what is happening with the outside climate, and now we’re using that knowledge to advise builders to achieve this same level of energy efficiency.”

In addition to employees and tourists, more than 11,000 architectural and engineering professionals from around the world have visited the Hydro Building to observe and learn about its systems. “Some of these people were surprised by how open we are about our project, but we were successful,” Akerstream says. “Because Manitoba Hydro is a leader in energy conservation, part of our objective is to change the market, and it would be great to see someone make a better building next year.”