Russel Acton Interview

Most students will have noticed over the past months the two concrete towers slowly rising above the horizon next to the already imposing figures of the Walter Gage Towers. And thought there have been articles at various stages commenting on the structure's groundbreaking goals and progress, the Ubyssey felt that there was room to go a little deeper, into both the architecture and architect behind the project.

Russel Acton is one half of the highly-reputable firm Acton-Ostry Architects Inc., which has a list of awards to its name that is far to extensive to list here. Their work can be seen on campus in projects such as the Friedman Building's renovation in 2008, the 2014 expansion and renovation of the Sauder School of Business, and the Hillel Student Centre to name a few, with their other current project being the new Aquatics Centre.

The office of Actom-Ostry presents itself much in the way one might expect, with light, minimalist design, concept models lining the walls and designs heaped over every desk.

Ubyssey: How did you become an Architect, what was the inspiration for you?

Russel Acton: When I was thirteen years old and I took my first drafting course in high school in grade eight and I always enjoyed art, and I was really doing well in my drafting and doing well in my art and then I can’t remember it was some teacher or maybe some adult I found somewhere who said “Hi you’re really good at art and you’re really good at drafting you should be an architect,” and it’s just a cool word, and I don’t even know if I knew what an architect was, and I think this is with a kid, something that lodged in my brain and I don’t know why but I just made sure that in my education process it would always enable me to do it. And yeah, so kinda lame but ever since I was thirteen I chased that goal and didn’t really know what it meant until I started doing the work, it’s just very different as I’m sure you’ve seen going from high school to university and you go through university and the work world, there’s a transformation of what you do.

U: Who were the inspirations for you as an architect?

R: I was very fortunate in that after I graduated and I got a job with a fellow in town, his name is Peter Cardoo, he was a sole practitioner at the time, but he’s well renowned architect, a few years ago he received the REAC gold medal for his life time achievement, it’s kind of a candidate's highest honour for an architect so, I worked with him for three and a half years and he was a great influence on how I approach architecture.”

U: When approaching a project what is your creative and logistical process for figuring out what you are going to do with it?

R: Yes, creative and logistics, they definitely have to kind of, they have to meld and merge and then kind of separate at times, sometimes you have to shut out the idea of all the technical constraints in order to then be creative and then run that creation test it back against the constraints of the project, technical budgets, approvals, whatever, so it’s kind of an iterative ongoing evolutionary transformative type of process.

U: I was reading with Brock commons that the logistics of making a larger wood structure in Canada is quite difficult because the market is different, I think they were comparing it to Sweden and they were talking about the availability of wood there in comparison.

So I think you’re a little bit off with that, so a couple of things, probably instead of Sweden it might be say Austria and Germany, they’re very big producers of CLT, glulam columns, so what’s happened over there is that they have I’m gonna say probably longer than us that they’ve been using engineered wood products, and BC we’re always very fortunate in that we have a lot of tree’s, over there they cut them all down ages ago, and so now that they have forest management where they grow trees and are ready for harvesting in 10 or 20 years, I don’t even know how long it is, but you know and then they make stuff out of all of these little bits of wood whereas here it’s a different culture, and I could that it’s because we have a lot. Having said that our industries over here have evolved over the last ten to fifteen years where we do more engineered wood products, I mean why cut down all of these trees if you can kind of grow them and manage them and replant them and harvest them. And there’s a lot of advantages to engineered wood because there’s no surprises in it or less surprises you could say and less warpage, twisting, it’s straighter, it’s more reliable in a way and I remember when I was making the transition going from natural wood or timber I was kind of hesitant you know leaving this natural material, but then as I found out the advantages of engineered wood I really really quite liked it and I like the the concept that you know it’s more sustainable and environmentally conscious, and you know there’s less waste, and everything. So in the industries over there there’s a need for it in demand here because you know we have our two by four industry and they don’t have a two by four industry over there, stackframe, they don’t do stick framing, that’s the European to cultural thing I’m sure you’ve heard they come over here and they look at our buildings and go “how can you live in a wooden stick frame house." They do wood houses over there but they have CLT floors and all of their acoustical considerations are much greater than ours, they’re very much concerned about some aspects of comfort. In north America we’re used to living in a different standard I guess. Just like culturally in Asia they’re used to living in more crowded conditions, it’s not a right or wrong it just is what it is. So because the stick frame industry is so ubiquitous,  the engineered wood one, the evolution of it is just a bit slower. It will come as the demand rises and mass wood structures are more common place then there’ll be more competition. Right now there’s structure land up in Penticton and a plant in Penticton and one in Kelowna and that’s who’s supplying our wood. And then you gotta go all the way to Quebec to I think they’re called Nordique, that’s the next large supplier of those kind of products, CLP and glulam. There’s other glulam suppliers in BC and Alberta that I know about, but in terms of sort of what you would want in a mass wood project, it’s structure and land. So yeah, we only really have locally one supplier.

U: What are the advantages of wood over concrete? I was talking to some people who were just visiting campus and I pointed out the buildings had largely wood construction and they were at first kind of almost uncertain of it, they thought fire disaster and things like that as we’re kind of conditioned to out here. So are there structural advantages?

R: Yeah, there’s advantages and disadvantages to all structural products. All of the ones that are in use have all been vetted and considered you know and I’m gonna say essentially equal, they’re gonna stand out, they’re gonna work seismically, they’re gonna work from a higher perspective. I mean for example with concrete, concrete is a composition of cement products and rebar and in order for concrete to work from a fire perspective and from a structural perspective it needs to have that combination. Steel is very susceptible to fire, so when you see a concrete wall or a concrete column or a concrete slab it’s what's called coverage of concrete, there’s a minimum depth of I think 1 and a half inches before you can have rebar, and that’s because what happens in a fire is is that you don’t want the steel to reach a temperature where that - it’s not about melting - but when it’s higher it becomes more docile so that it’ll bend more easily, and that’s what happens, so you can have a failure of a concrete structure in a fire, and that’s after there’s sufficient heat the concrete will start to sphal and the rebar becomes exposed and then there’ll be a collapse. Same thing with steel, steel structures are very very susceptible so that when you don’t have a concrete cover on it -lots of times you have a gibson board coverer, encapsulation, that’s what we use the term of thin project we’re encapsulating the wood in the gibson cover so it’s fairly analogous to the steel. So for the steel you’re putting, while there’s different products, typically it’s gibson board or a spray on… what is it, I can’t remember but you kind of spray it on and you sand it and it looks like a steel profile. So anyway the point is that what happens in a fire again is that the steel is protected from that failure for a certain period of time mandated by the coat before it would start to experience failure, and the reason why you give in fire rated assemblies an hour or two hours is that’s the time for the sprinklers to do their job and the firefighters to arrive and do their job and then also during that time that’s allowing the people to exit the building safely and also offers the amount of time so that firefighters can fight the fire safely within that structure and it’s only when everything goes wrong that you might see a collapse. And that’s why you don’t hear very often because sprinklers and fire fighters do their jobs. So in terms of wood, mass wood is inherently really interesting, has fire protection properties, have you been up through forest fire country after a forest fire has been through? So you see all these trees? They’re standing and haven't fallen down, so what happens is fire will burn of mass woos until about an inch and a half and then it stops. The reason why it stops is that in the depth of that charcoal layer there oxygen can’t get into the wood to keep the combustion process going, that’s also when you through logs in a fire you know, you gotta turn them and poke them and prog them and kinda get it at that vulnerable point. But that’s also why you know if you don’t do anything that logs gonna be half burnt. So the same thing in the forests with some trees, you’ve probably heard about the giants and stuff, they can have a fire and then they’ll kind of just go dormant for a while and then they’ll just keep on growing because they’ve got that protective layer of the bark and the wood and all that kind of stuff. So we could of actually engineered a building to have exposed wood but what we would've had to have done is that you have to make everything fatter to allow for that. And then also you have to just ask yourselves which we did at the beginning of this project with student housing, you know “do we really want exposed wood in a student residence?” And you know as I always say, “Johnny class of 2021” carved in, you know he might get in trouble, but then someone’s gotta fill it in paint it, cause you know the fill will still show Johny’s carving, and just from an operational or maintenance perspective. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in student residence but you know it’s a little bit of an elevated jail cell, they wanna be able to repair and then paint and keep it you know, pretty tight. We get asked “so why didn’t you expose the wood” well that’s one of the reasons, the other is we had a very specific approvals process, actually getting a site specific approvals process from the province. The building code allows different solutions that are not in the code you just have to prove out that they’re equivalent or better to what’s in the code specifically through structural and fire protection systems. And through just good engineering practice and you  know knowledge you can prove out the case that this is just as good as what’s required in the code. So on this project in terms of, some human emotion that comes into approvals of projects when they’re the first of their kind in a particular place, you know it’s the first one in BC for a tall building let alone with students living in it. When we’re coming up with a strategy and discussing a strategy with the authorities approval, is they just feel better, like we can show them the science on the exposed wood option, or we can just say “hey we’ll just cover it up with drywall,” you know like we do for steel, it’s very very familiar with them. The other thing in a tall wood building is theoretically, you can put a -like you see where we have these concrete cores standing- those can be made out of wood and it has been done in Europe and I think in Australia with wood cores, the science is all there, it should all work. But when you’re talking to again the authority and the firefighters is they sort of go, they can understand and kind of theoretically accept the idea of going up in a wood tube to access the fire, but they’re more comfortable and familiar with concrete. So part of our strategy was to go in and say “hey,we wanted this tall wood building, but just to make it easier for you and for everybody, we’re going to make the first floor out of concrete and the two exit stair corridors with the firefighter elevator out of concrete” and they go “Great!” And you know there’s a discussion about the theory and we go go “You know but in the future this could be wood” and they go “Yeah, yeah okay,” but they push that aside because they’re just more comfortable with giving the approval you know just in that human nature kind of way. So seismically again, this is the type of thing in my business and with structural engineers, there’s just never any question in our minds that this thing works structurally, seismically, from fire protection and in some ways when I get asked that question because I’m you know familiar with all that it becomes sometimes difficult to convey to someone who’s not familiar with those kind of principals just how straightforward it is.”

U: For the laymen.

“Yeah for the laymen, so say let’s use car automobiles as an analogy, you know safety in automobiles and the structure of them and crashes and stuff, you know we don’t for except those real watchdog kind of activist kind of things -I’m thinking back to the Ralph Maytor kind of days from the sixties- I don’t even know if you know who Ralph Maytor is. So you know they do kind of have that, before seat belts cars would just kind of crumple up and people would say “hey these things need to be kind of safer” well now they’re pretty darn safe right? And there’s been a lot of evolution there, so now laymen kind of don’t sort of go “hey is this car safe, or is it safe to fly in this plane.” But what you can be sure of is when the first commercial airlines came out people were wondering if this was safe. So we’re kind of in that state where people ask the question, there interested in the answers and everything I think but it’ll just be more commonplace, it’s like saying “How comfortable are you living in your wood house? What’s gonna happen when it burns down?”  well you’re gonna run out, it’s the same thing you’re gonna do in a tall wood building.

U: Why did you not use wood for the aquatics centre? The previous structure had a largely wood ceiling, was it humidity problem or stylistic?

R: It was budget. That’s pretty much the answer right there. The Aquatics had a very challenging budget, and then so we decided to look. We looked at what the different possibilities were. Wood was a consideration, and quickly left the table because it’s more expensive than steel. Simple as that.

U: Do you think prefab is the future of construction?

R: Mhm, I do. It’s been very interesting on this. We had a tall wood advisor, we called them, on this project. So a member of our team was an european architect from austria. Name’s Hermann Kaufmann.

U: I know that name. I read his article on Austrian wood construction.

R: I think it was 2012 or 14, i can’t remember, he did a tall wood building. 8 stories tall, doesn't sound tall but it’s when building codes kick in for different firefighting requirements. And after 6 stories it’s supposed to be defined as tall. So he did an 8 story tall one in umm I can’t remember if it’s 2012 or 2014. So when we pursued this project it was 2012. We thought “hey we should reach out to somebody and see if they want to join our team” and we did it as an advisory capacity. So what he did was he came out at the beginning of the project and we did a workshop. A collaborative design workshop with a construction manager, the company that could give advice on erecting mass wood, and a concrete company that could give advise about these two free standing cores because that’s not common place, right? and then a bunch of consultants, different types of consultants, and over these 3 days what hermann did was he described about how they would go about doing a tall building in europe. And it was an interesting experience because he would do these presentations showing all of this amazing pre-fabrication work that just happened. There's lots of resources of that, lots of suppliers i guess of those services over there. And we would have to explain to him that “yeah you know what, we don’t really have that, that type of resource here, it’s more of an individual trade type of culture here.” And make no mistake about it, it's not that one is better than the other, they’re just different. And so while we’re learning from hermann, and hermann’s learning from us about the way we build tall buildings. And I said “concrete, one’s downtown.” and some of the advantages of that. The vancouver construction industry for tall buildings is very efficient, like they’re very very skilled and they know what they’re doing. And what we concluded from that is that we would focus on the pre-fabrication efforts on the structure and the building enclosure, building envelope. Hermann’s that experienced with prefabricated kitchens, prefabricated bathrooms, like you just cring the place and they’re there and things like this. Different levels of pre-fabricated systems, well that’s not how we build here, it’s not a competitive set of industries here. so if you were to do a bunch of custom prefabrication, you’d actually be paying more when really in prefabrication you should be paying less, because it’s in its infancy. So we just went “ok we just get the structure built and we’ll look at another supplier that’ll supply us with the prefabricated panels.” After that, everything is built traditionally. The way it is. And that’s an economic consideration and it’s a availability of that’s how it happens here.”

U: What have you learned from the previous structures on campus before you guys started building on them. For instance buchanan tower as opposed to perhaps some of the more successful buildings?What have you learned from the successes and failures of buildings on campus when you came into Sauder to build those. Did you look at previous structures and see how they functioned on the environment?

“Yeah a lot of the work that we’ve done on the university was renovating their old 1960s buildings. I think that’s what Sauder was, we put an addition in the back, a sizeable addition but nonetheless the majority of that project was an existing building. We did the biological sciences complex which was an existing building. I have to say that more of a parallel for tall wood would be that the university over the past few years have been building a lot of student housing. So we did learn from that because “SHOS”(student housing and hospitality services) has learned a lot over the past few years about what works for them, for student housing. So you know that they just finished up ponderosa commons. That complex is 4 separate buildings i think…”

U: 5 I think.

“Yeah so lots of housing, and then also Orchard commons, the white ones. the form of those buildings are very similar to what we’re doing. And what SHOSH said to us was “Hey look we’ve been evolving these typologies of studio units and quad units, and layouts of these long bar slab buildings, and they worked for us. So we want you to do something to build upon that idea.” so it was very very helpful for us, we researched and checked it, and went “yeah this is good” you know there was nothing wrong with this. So yes we did learn from UBC’s experience of that evolution, and we’d like to think now we’re adding to it, and contributing. But UBC is a great place I think to work, and I think that anyone that attends there is fortunate because they have a real spirit of innovation, and research, and doing things a little different, and take...i don't want to use the word risk. You know like the pharmacy building is a very dynamic design. The pool is I think a very dynamic design. They’re willing to push the design envelope a bit. Having said that, I think the architecture really deliver because they always give us a reasonable budget, but not  really a excessive budget. You have to be very creative to get a good result.”

U: How do you maximize number of residents and keep cost down without compromising on quality life for those in it. Especially since we have a bit of a housing crisis on campus. I imagine there's a lot of pressure to fit as many people as possible.

R: Well again because SHOSH is so experience in what they’re doing, they know how much it costs to build student housing, and they know what the students want. I have to say that I’ve been kinda blown away or really impressed by how much attention they paid to what their market says that they want in a room. Like i have to say sometimes I think it’s a bit excessive, like it’s almost like too good. Like they put a stove, you know I’ve been in every unit and dishwashers, I sort of go: “dishwasher in every unit? You’re giving those kids dishwashers, you know make those students wash their dishes in the sink and you’ll save money.” and they go: “no, it’s important to them - our clients.” They think of them as clients.So anyways the point is that in terms of costs of this project, students are gonna pay the exact same amount to live in the tall wood building as they would in the concrete ones. And the difference in the thing is that there’s something that we call the “innovation premium” for doing something the first time. And in this project there's external funding that comes from government institutions and lumber coalitions or whatever and stuff like this. And that makes up the gap for the innovation in terms of the extra design that needs to be done, and the cost for some products or different to make that up. Because at the end of the day is what the UBC mandate is: we’re interested in doing a tall wood building because it’s a researched based facility that will contribute to - you know UBC got a really big forestry department and things like this. And this building will be used as a intimate research monitoring vehicle. There’s research teams from ubc that are monitor the building design as it gets constructed and then will be monitoring it after it’s built for the life of the building. And this information will be used to - the intention is to help and support and inform changes to subsequent building codes to refine them for the use of mass wood structures. So, I think that’s kind of a really interesting mandate that they happen to want to happen, but the bottom line is we’re not gonna charge students to live more and the university is not gonna pay more and direct their resources away from what they want - educations and good housing for students, someone else is making that gap, but we’re prepared to have it happen on our campus. And I think that it’s a really incredible thing. this project is economical and replicable, and I think that it’s gonna contribute to mass wood structures happening in the more commonplace mannerth throughout the province and across the country through the future. Cuz it’s not just the demonstration project that's like a government funded thing where it’s like let’s spend twice as much on it than we really need to. Our mandate was how can we do this as if it’s a developer driven project, as a business case is it going to make sense financially?”

U: Is it a coincidence that a largely wood building is next to an entirely concrete structure?

“Ya good question. As far as I know it’s the third site [the university looked at]. So i’m gonna say no. I saw it move around campus from different locations before they finally decided. And I think that's because they call it bracoms phase one because it almost looks like a little panhandle, and you know behind Allard Hall theres an area there and that’s the phase 2 of bracom. It will be as ponderosa commons as a precinct for residence. This is the first building in that precinct in the future.”

U: I was going to ask what’s the long term plan for that.

R: But I think that’s gonna be like - I don’t know for the subsequent phases in bracom and if they will be mass wood or not. I mean this project has to be completed, I have to see what the implications of that are for subsequent phases. I hope so.I wanted to add to the differences with concrete and wood, and prefab. That's something else that i think is gonna be really powerful too see when the wood starts wood work. Starting about a week or so. It be a bit of a slow start. They got to get the first set of columns really precisely aligned. It probably take them a week to do that on the concrete pack, and after that the wood structure would come in quite quick. And the way that it works is that as you get one floor built, then you go enclose it. because what you’re doing is you’re protecting the wood from the rain. Say if you look behind you there’s a picture of the building. That as each floor goes up, it gets enclosed, so what you’re gonna see from week to week is it’ll look finished and then unfinished, and then finished and then finished. And instead of when you think about ponderosa commons, the skeleton goes up and then they start cladding it. It’s a safety requirement about you can’t have a set of workers work under another one. there’s a series of WCB requirements for this. So when you see a concrete structure, that’s why it kinda goes up there and you’re seeing that skeleton, and then they start cladding it. But here it works in a way it’s like “got the structure up?” and then we clad it. And that’s just not how it works, it’s not that it couldn’t work for concrete, but just doesn’t make sense for the way that concrete works. It makes sense for wood because you want to minimize the exposure to the elements each time. Like you can deal with the rain but you can minimize it. It’s just like with concrete, that’s why then sometimes you see drop chutes on the side and stuff like this. Because the workers don’t like working in the rain and wind blowing rain, it’s just uncomfortable and then it gets blown into the interior floor and drips on some guy’s hat, and drips on equipment and stuff like this. So anyways that stuff is gonna be really cool about it, and then also what it’s gonna be then is it’s gonna be quiet. Concrete is quiet, and it’s dirty and it’s dusty - i’m sorry- it’s loud. Now with this, as the building goes up, after they get up about 4 levels, they start working on the inside. There’s working happening on the inside, it’s got walls all around it. Like these panels, prefab panels are completely finished. Windows are in, the cladding is on. So those neighbours across the street, they’ve been having to hear this concrete happen, but when the wood comes on it, it should be relatively quiet and relatively clean compared to concrete. Now think about that, if that was happening in a city like all over the place, it would be a completely different environment, let alone the environmental impact of dirt and dust and maintenance and pollution from what happens during a typical course of construction. Lots of controlled dust and water runoff from construction sites that has to be managed in an environmentally way. That’s the challenges for wood. Cuz it’s kinda like …… the advantage of prefab. Where everything’s so precise when put together it has to fit.”

U: How quickly is it expected to go up?

R: Projecting 1 floor per week, and it’s possible it might go faster we just have to wait and see, and that’s depending on how weather. Minimum it’s projected to be 1 floor per week. And the project will be finished in the summer of 2017. So got to go a little work in the side then it should be comfortably finished for everyone moving in for start of the following term.”

U: More general question, what in your opinion makes a great building great? And how do you maximize longevity of the building. Because there are some that are built and become very much products of their time, and then there are others who have endured and remain relevant. How do you do that?

R: Well I think that it’s when you design that you have a knowledge of construction and realty. Cause you know if you look around the room here at our work it’s interesting looking work but at the end of the day it’s pretty straight forward. We’re a real problem solving practice that is not about the image, it’s substance. You know substance over flash, we just don’t do stuff for image and visuals it’s equal consideration for technical aspects, functional aspects, operation and maintenance aspects and thing like those. We’re very very self critical about that as we know the types of things that cause owners problems in the future of buildings and some architects still like to do those moves because it looks kind of cool for the first couple of months, but after that it can kind of look tired and not work and then try to work in an architectural expression that’s a bit more timeless instead of flashy, you know contemporary, the campus is quite contemporary, modernist, sort of simple and straightforward, a good portion is like that.

U: How does one become an architect, because it’s a very vaguely defined path and I’m not the only one who’s somewhat vexed trying to figure it out.

R: Well Sam I don’t know if I should tell you the truth, I’ll tell you my story, and everyone has a different one but I just think it’s interesting because it’s got a UBC angle to it. So I grew up in Richmond, had this dream of being an architect by thirteen, my high school counselor’s back in the day just said to go to UBC and you’ll study arts or sciences and get a degree and then do your graduate degree at that time in architecture, so four years for me in arts, I’m honestly more of an arts guy than a science guy, so four years of arts and 3 years of architecture and it’s like okay, so I went in to apply to UBC and got into UBC then I went out to UBC and I started taking arts and it’s like (sigh) I didn’t know what that meant. My English teacher, sweet old lady but her thing was shakespeare and it’s not like you didn’t chose your teacher, so I think do you guys get to chose them more now? Stuff Like this?”“Sometimes”“Well probably not so much in one hundred level courses, Whereas my buddy he’s across the hall and he’s doing contemporary Canadian novels, and I’m doing shakespeare, and I hate shakespeare,  and anyways everything just sorta seemed to be lazy, and then I thought I’ll take psychology because there’s a sociological aspect and I don’t think I could take sociology but I took psychology and I remember I’d be sitting in these lectures and I’d ask a question and then the answer was always we’re not going to talk about that, that’s like two hundred level, three hundred level. All I did was just push a bunch of facts into the head and then the exam was always regurgitation of stuff. So by Christmas I was just kind of really frustrated, I felt like high school was really more interesting and I thought wow I can’t do this for 4 years and so I went and I did some more research on my own and I found out about BCIT, so I applied for BCIT and then I got accepted and I dropped out of UBC so my parents wouldn’t get too mad at me, but again I wasn’t going to start until the fall. But what I found out from that is if I did two years at BCIT I could go on to a place like Carlton and do five years in architecture, I didn’t even know there was a five year program you know cause my guidance counsellor sucked and we didn’t have the internet back in the day. Like you had some brochures and a guidance counsellor and you know I’m some 17 year old kid, what do I really know, it’s not like you guys have it. You know a bit about everything, you have the information is at your fingertips literally. So anyways I sorta went wow, two years of architectural technologies