MacKimmie Tower is re-energizing the University of Calgary’s main campus by creating additional space for classrooms, administrative support units and departments, while setting new standards for environmental design.

It was seen as a win/win/win situation. When the University of Calgary’s decades-old library building started to show its age, the university saw an opportunity to enhance faculty and administrative locations, rejuvenate the heart of the main campus, and showcase leading-edge environmental construction strategies.

The MacKimmie Complex dates back to 1963, initially built as the university’s Library Block. Expanded with the 13-storey Tower in 1973, the complex housed the library resources until 2010. After the Taylor Family Digital Library was built across the street, MacKimmie Tower sat empty until some administrative groups started to fill the building and the decision was made to undertake a major renovation of the structure.

The retrofitting of the MacKimmie Complex — which saw two floors of office space added to the tower and a new home for the Hunter Student Commons taking over the Block — addressed deferred maintenance on the original structure while enhancing pedagogical and administrative environments, accommodating growth and strengthening a sense of place and community in the heart of the main campus.

“This is the poster child for the university’s environmental stewardship,” says Boris Dragicevic, associate vice-president of Facilities Development. “There is a saying: the most energy-efficient building you can build is the one you didn’t build.”

Reusing the existing tower structure, rather than building from scratch, saved an estimated 3,400 tonnes of CO2 emissions that would have been generated by demolition and reconstruction – not to mention drastically reducing the amount of waste. By leaving the original concrete structure exposed, the building is able to harness its structure as a thermal mass and uses nighttime air-flushing to reduce energy consumption throughout the building’s heating and cooling cycles.

“We saw an affinity for utilizing this building for administrative purposes,” says Dragicevic. “We saw the building structure was conducive to this type of use and it could support the addition of two more floors.”

Supported by the Government of Alberta and key donors, retrofitting of the 33,000-square-metre MacKimmie Tower began in 2018. By spring of 2020, the floors of UCalgary’s first net-zero carbon building were ready to accommodate more than 1,300 faculty and staff.

These extensive sustainable efforts were recognized in 2020 when the MacKimmie Complex received the CaGBC Excellence in Green Building: Zero Carbon national award from the Canada Green Building Council, an award presented annually to a team responsible for a new or existing building that demonstrates climate leadership through optimal building performance and innovative carbon-reduction strategies.

“The new complex is on track to consume 85 per cent less energy than the former MacKimmie,” says Dragicevic.

Instrumental to achieving this are elements such as the photo-voltaic panels on the tower roof as well as the façade and roof of the lower block, which combined will produce more than 600 MWh of carbon-free electricity each year. “So that is very exciting,” says Dragicevic. “We made this building even a little bit bigger, but it uses less than one-sixth of the energy that the original building did and that’ll have benefits for the university for the next 50 years.”

MacKimmie Tower is wrapped in sustainable design, with an exterior “double-skin” that provides a highly efficient, glazed envelope around the original concrete structure. According to Dragicevic, this façade will respond to changing weather through day and nighttime, and the changing seasons, requiring less energy to keep building interior temperatures comfortable. Through a combination of automated windows and blinds, the skin of the building facilitates natural ventilation and passive heating and cooling. This is a first of its kind in Canada, working in concert with the mechanical system to decrease energy consumption and improve the indoor environment in terms of thermal comfort, day lighting and air quality.

Beyond its environmental impact, the rejuvenated MacKimmie Complex will have a profound impact on the university’s main campus, says Dragicevic.

“Not only did we revitalize and bring back an aging and inefficient building, but we revitalized that part of the campus,” he says. “It allows us to free up space around campus to do our core business, which is education and research. By having other administrative groups and faculties move into the tower, it has allowed us to free up strategic education and research space on the campus.”

Striving to be net carbon-neutral in its annual operation and pursuing LEED Platinum certification for Building Design and Construction, MacKimmie Complex is currently one of the most energy-efficient buildings operating on a Canadian post-secondary campus.