Inspired by Nature

Earth, wind, heat and water all play a role in the new Environmental Science and Chemistry Building

Patchen Barss
Cross-section of Environmental Science and Chemistry Building

University of Toronto Scarborough’s new 10,220 square-metre Environmental Science and Chemistry Building (ESCB) connects teaching and research labs with administrative offices, centred around a sunlit atrium populated with collaboration spaces and student lounges. The ESCB’s most innovative architectural features draw on the sun, the air and the Earth. Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, it’s a building inspired by nature and designed to inspire those who study nature. Located north of Ellesmere Road, the new building blends harmoniously with existing structures, and also anticipates further developments outlined in UTSC’s master plan.


1. Geothermal heating: About 80 bore- holes extend 210m into the ground—much deeper than the building is tall. The boreholes extract heat from the Earth, supplying about a quarter of the total heat for the building—at no monetary or environmental cost.
2. Earth Tubes: Underground spaces naturally moderate extreme temperature changes, which is why basements are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Six earth tubes run underground drawing outside air into the building. Baffles in the tubes slow the air, allowing heat exchange with the surrounding soil. Earth Tubes provide non-mechanical air conditioning for the entire administration wing of the ESCB.
3. High-performance curtain wall: An insulating glaze and 5 cm of spray foam line the external aluminum façade. The foam itself is not innovative, but the way it is protected is. Layers of drywall and a carefully designed ventilation system ensure the insulation remains pristine and efficient indefinitely.
4. Fritted Glass: The lab windows face southwest, while skylights stream sunlight into the atrium. Too much sun risks creating glare and hotspots in the building. Diamond Schmitt used uniquely tapered sun shades on the windows that create patterns evocative of wind-on-sand and tree bark. In addition, the glass uses a process called fritting to help diffuse the light, creating more even lighting and heating. Fritting also fits into the build- ing’s bird-friendly design strategy, creating a sufficient opacity to prevent birds from flying into the glass.
5. Artificial  light:  Researchers  work long hours. For those inside when the sun isn’t shining, the ESCB is completely wired with high-efficiency LED fixtures, which consume less electricity than either traditional  incandescent  or  fluorescent lights. Solar and occupancy sensors help ensure natural daylight is maximized and electricity use is minimized.

Water: Researchers in the new building study many facets of water—from dispersion flow where the Don River meets Toronto Harbour, to the effect of microorganisms on the chemistry of lake water. Others study how best to protect against groundwater contami- nation. With water becoming an increasingly precious and controversial natural resource, the ESCB positions Scarborough as a world—leading hub of aquatic expertise.

Climate change: While the building itself is designed not to accelerate climate change, many faculty members inside work on projects that could help slow or even reverse global warming. The building is a central hub for laboratory and field research stretching from studies of the climate right here in Toronto, all the way to the North and South Poles.

Biological chemistry: Using ever-advancing biomedical imaging and simulation techniques, researchers at the ESCB work to understand life at the molecular level. Using magnetic resonance and fluorescence imaging, researchers can watch the chemistry of life play out in real time, observe proteins fold, and even manufacture customized molecules with major potential for biological applications.

Biogeochemistry: The chemical composition of soil, air and water changes constantly. Endless transformation is driven by bacteria and fungi, plants and animals, wind and water, as well as countless other forces. At ESCB, researchers study how and why some chemicals persevere and accumulate in an ecosystem, while others disappear. Their work speaks to environmental issues ranging from carbon capture to persistent organic pollutants.

Environmental chemistry: Researchers in this cluster are doing more than creating new knowledge about environ- mental chemistry: they are developing entirely new methods and tools for doing science. Researchers here are pioneers in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance imaging, which reveals the chemical processes of nature molecule-by-molecule, as well as in developing inexpensive techniques to sample airborne organic compounds.