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Saint-Laurent Library - When LEED Becomes the Competition Prize

by Carmela Cucuzzella, published 2012-10-13
The Saint-Laurent Library competition, launched in September of 2009 for the borough of Saint-Laurent in Montreal presented a great opportunity to invent a new cultural center, north of Montreal. It finally selected a project through a process displaying a disproportionate concern for environmental norms.

This was a two-stage competition process, where the first stage was not concerned with ideas but rather a dossier submission of past realizations. In order to be considered as a finalist, it was necessary that the team had a strong engineering LEED expertise. Of the 28 first stage dossiers, 4 finalists were invited to submit to the second phase: (1) Provencher Roy + associés/Anne Carrier Architectes in consortium; (2) ACDF architecture; (3) Chevalier Morales Architectes/Les Architectes FABG; and (4) Cardinal Hardy/Labonté Marcil/Éric Pelletier Architectes in consortium.

The competition called for a new library, where visibility from the main boulevard and the valorization of the surrounding wooded area were both as important as the very strict requirement for LEED Gold certification. We should recall that the mayor of the borough of Saint-Laurent, Alan DeSousa, is also the vice-chairman, in charge of sustainable development, the environment, parks and green spaces for the city of Montreal. Could this be one reason why LEED was conferred such an unusually important role for this Saint-Laurent competition?

The four finalist projects had very focused approaches regarding the sustainability criteria, albeit very divergent. The jury report stated, “All [finalists] achieve the points for LEED Gold certification” (French version - Tous atteignent les points pour la certification LEED Or) (p.4). ACDF based their design on the notion of compactness – a true sustainability principle that resulted in an elegant, minimalistic architecture. Chevalier Morales/FABG proposed a double envelope meant to address a series of environmental and social benefits for the project – not only emphasizing a connection with the forest because of its aesthetic aspects, but also to provide and control natural light throughout the day and reading comfort through an ambiance of tranquility. This team also determined the position of the building with respect to the preservation of existing trees on the site. Both Provencher Roy/ Anne Carrier and Cardinal Hardy/Labonté Marcil/Éric Pelletier did not adopt any global or encompassing environmental or sustainable design strategy except for enumerating the various technologies included in their proposal. Cardinal Hardy/Labonté Marcil/Éric Pelletier, the winning project, proposed a monumental structure that satisfied the main criteria in the program, that of visibility. Yet it was not clear how this monumentality valorized the wooded area behind the structure, if only as a new massive door to protect the wooded area, which in the end is no different from the traditional monumental concepts found in most competitions.

It is difficult to close this editorial without a further commentary on LEED. LEED Gold certification calls for 39-51 credits. Yet, teams had to demonstrate that they could obtain between 44-46 credits - even if 39 credits would do. Yet, teams had to proof to be able to obtain between 44-46 credits - even if 39 credits would do. Why would finalists be asked for these extra credits?

The brief stated that they needed this as buffer, in order to accommodate changes leading to the final construction. Is it possible to predict this early in the design process if the finalist proposals, proposing 39 or 40 or 43 or even 55 credits will not obtain a LEED Gold certification when the building is finally constructed?

The brief was very strict in this LEED Gold requirement. And the jurors, whether they liked it or not, could not ignore the precision imposed by the expert evaluators in their judgment, and had to address the prominence of LEED during the jury debate. There was a clear unbalanced emphasis on LEED in this competition. And this obsession with LEED caused a barrier to a proper judgment. Was the winner the safest project in terms of LEED certification or was it actually the best overall project? An immensely important question for the jury in cases where there is such a divergence of design ideals.

This competition was in fact exemplary in highlighting the many difficulties of incorporating questions and concerns of sustainability into the program and in the jury deliberation. Even when the goal is to select the best overall project, and this is both an individual as well as a collective jury objective, the intense pressure for satisfying LEED certification for this competition rendered this objective impossible. There is still much needed research in this subject area. The documentation and archival of the various competitions allows researchers to be able to study competitions, where one of the goals of such studies is to provide suggestions for improvement, especially in the current global era of sustainability. This new addition to the Canadian Competitions Catalogue is one among future CCC updates to be considered as a contribution to the sustainability debate.
IMPORTANT NOTICE : Unless otherwise indicated, photographs of buildings and projects are from professional or institutional archives. All reproduction is prohibited unless authorized by the architects, designers, office managers, consortiums or archives centers concerned. The researchers of the Research Chair on Competitions and Contemporary Practices in Architecture are not held responsible for any omissions or inaccuracies, but appreciate all comments and pertinent information that will permit necessary modifications during future updates.