Today we welcome architect Richard Witt to the BuzzTalk hive. Richard is the co-founder of RAW, the Toronto-based architecture firm that has gained recognition both at home and abroad for its innovative and sustainable designs.RAW is also participating in the TOO TALL? exhibit at the Harbourfront Centre. TOO TALL? is an exhibition that hopes to engage the public in a dialogue about the future of urban architecture and design, asking questions like “How can Toronto neighbourhoods be redefined vertically?”

We speak to Richard about the upcoming exhibit (it will be on display from October 1 to December 31), Toronto’s vertical future, and sustainability features that everyone should embrace.


BuzzBuzzHome: How did you get started in the architecture industry?
Richard Witt:

When I was young, my dad was a bit of a handy man. He used to do some rewiring of houses in his spare time to make some extra money. My mum was a receptionist at a doctor’s surgery and one of the doctors she worked for had bought this old railway station and converting it to a house. My dad was rewiring it and I was going there and seeing these renovations being done to this old railway station.This is in Southern England, so it was a very old station. Seeing this old station being turned into a house made me think that I should become an architect. I was about 10.

BBH: When was RAW Architects founded?

RW: Roland, my partner, started it with me in 2007 — it was almost exactly four years ago.

BBH: Why did you want to start your own company?

RW: We’d been working at another company called Quadrangle for awhile. There were some opportunities to do what we were already doing, but taking it in a slightly different direction. We had been getting some recognition for some of the projects we were doing — notably Cube Lofts on College Street.

We had a lot of projects that we took with us. We thought that we’d remain quite small, but we’ve already grown to be 25 people. It was just an opportunity to do something exciting and also doing things like this TOO TALL? installation. There’s a lot more opportunities when you’re charting your own trajectory to try and get involved in those kinds of things.

BBH: What was the inspiration behind the TOO TALL? installation?

RW: The TOO TALL? installation is part of my job as the co-chair of the Toronto Society of Architects. In that capacity I’ve organized a few discussion forums on tall buildings, particularly in light of the Tall Building Downtown Guidelines. The city’s just released a bunch of guidelines for downtown — What are tall buildings? Where should they be? How should they behave?

I was at a conference recently in Bombay, India — the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Conference. So I’ve been thinking a lot about tall buildings: what’s being done here, what are people being encouraged to do here, what’s being done elsewhere in the world? Then somehow through that and through people who know people, we were invited to participate in TOO TALL?

BBH: What can people expect when they go to the Harbourfront for the TOO TALL? exhibition?

RW: The installation itself should start with a shout to the Harbourfront Centre. They’ve always had a lot of art in there, but maybe 2 years ago the curators decided they should have an architecture gallery. Architecture is something that everyone interacts with on a daily basis, everyone looks at and everyone talks about, but there’s a surprisingly small amount of communication between architects and the general public.

They set up this gallery for architects to speak to the general public and that’s exactly what this installation will be about. This one will last for four months and it’s going to be RAW and two other architects who are known in the city — KPMB and Architects Alliance. They’re all doing an exhibit/installation combo speaking about why we should have tall buildings or maybe why we shouldn’t have tall buildings, I’m not sure exactly what they’re doing, though I’m assuming, given their body of work, that they’re saying tall buildings are a good thing.

There’s an artist involved as well. It’s in one room and there’s these four exhibits that will create a dialogue.

BBH: Where do you stand on the tall buildings issue? How tall is too tall for Toronto?

RW: The installation that we’re doing is not just about Toronto. The current position that we’re making — and it’s not news — is that sustainable cities are necessary because there’s a huge increase in the world’s population that’s happening at the moment. In the next forty years there’s going to be an extra 2 billion people. That, combined with the fact that people are moving to cities, will mean a rapid increase in population and rapid urbanization.

There’s all kinds of studies being done on the carbon footprint of a sprawled out community compared with a dense community. We’re making the case that if you have this many people and they all want to live in the cities, then the only way to house them is in tall buildings in dense cities.

People don’t like change in their neighbourhoods. When they sit there and see a tall building go up next to a short building, they don’t like it because they see it as a contextual issue. We’re making the case that it’s not. It’s not about what’s there now and what will be there in the future. It’s about what needs to be there and what’s the appropriate way to build in the city.

BBH: Are there any special sustainability features on tall buildings you’re working on?

RW: The installation is a building which gets bigger when there’s more people in the room. There’s a carbon dioxide sensor that senses the occupancy of the room and it translates that to an activator which makes the building get taller. As the building gets taller, it spits out a load of numbers, so reduction in consumption, reduction in pollution and an increase in opportunity. The increase in opportunity speaks to suddenly having a lot more surface area, so you could put PV cells [also known as solar cells] on it.

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability, but the biggest thing is creating a building form that is appropriate. It’s responding to the context — which way is south, which way is the wind blowing — and then to provide a good building envelope.

BBH: Do you think Toronto is heading in the right direction now in terms of density?

RW: In terms of density, yes. In terms of the kind of buildings that are being built, no. An extruded rectangle that doesn’t respond to anything except for the street grid and has cheap glazing is not a sustainable building.

We need to build better buildings. I think stylistically they look very nice. Everyone has been to Vancouver and Vancouver’s buildings look very nice, but their climate is very different from Toronto’s. It doesn’t get nearly as cold, it doesn’t get nearly as hot and so we need to make adjustments for that. In the summer it’s very hot in Toronto and we get a lot of sun from the south and the west. In the winter we need to insulate a lot more in the northern sides of buildings because we’re losing a lot of heat there.

BBH: You’re working projects in India and China right now. Can you tell us a bit about them?

RW: We have a big project in China that’s a 2.2 million square foot, mixed-use complex. It’s got a system of rainwater collection that ends up in a solar pond — a water body that captures the heat latent in the sun. More salted water captures the heat that drives a turbine that creates electricity.

It’s funny. One thing I’ve learned from traveling, particularly in India, is we talk about sustainability, but it’s not really an imperative for us. We don’t really feel it. I never go home and think “is there going to be enough water?” In countries like India where there’s a billion people, there’s a huge strain on resources. They’re realizing very quickly that as they build their cities, they need to conserve a lot more.

We’ve got massive amounts of water just waiting here for hydro-electric production. We don’t feel the same strain, but we do just as much damage.

Thanks to Richard for buzzing with us!

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