Designers of the Year Photo Credit: Eugene Uhuad at 3Ten Photo, loft photo by Robert Lemermeyer

Eco Designer of the Year 2012: Manasc Isaac Architecture

From scarcity comes creativity, as Edmonton's Manasc Isaac learned the hard way—in the heart of the Arctic.

A contemporary house sits atop another, larger building like a design remora. A sweeping curve of academia brushes up against—and makes peace with—a neighbouring boreal forest. A thin modernist residence communes with a neighbourhood of post-war bungalows on the subject of utilitarianism. Individually the projects read like one-off discussion pieces, but together they help illustrate the unique and focused design ethos of Edmonton’s Manasc Isaac—or what judge Peter Busby refers to as the firm’s “progressive clarity of design approach.”
While the vision of original principals Vivian Manasc and Richard Isaac has long since expanded past the borders of their Northern Alberta base (and their team size has expanded, too—they’re now an office of 50 people), there’s no mistaking the genesis of their vision: adversity breeds creativity. When you start your career designing high-performance buildings that have to work in the extreme conditions of Canada’s Arctic, you approach the construction of a single family dwelling or an office building in the relatively tranquil confines of Alberta’s capital in a different manner than most.

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First and foremost, the team keeps a near-religious adherence to their process of thinking long and hard about what resources they’ll expend in a buildings’ design. “When you’re designing a building for a Northern community that receives all its building materials and supplies on one barge, or ‘sea lift,’ per year, it makes you very conscious of the choice of materials,” says Manasc. “It teaches you to minimize waste, of materials or energy, and maximize opportunity—which may be the sun, the wind or the snow.” Adapting that doctrine to less extreme climes has resulted in a string of firsts: Alberta’s first LEED certified building (the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association offices); Alberta’s first C-2000 Green building (Banff Town Hall); Edmonton’s first LEED Silver building (St. John Ambulance headquarters); and the first LEED Gold building in the Arctic (the Greenstone Government of Canada building).

Manasc Isaac Western LivingBut the suggestion that this is a group of doctrinaire crusaders is dispelled after a quick look at the playful side of their buildings. As judge Brandy Burdeniuk observed, “When winter seems never-ending, the hits of colour in their projects make the spaces feel brighter and warmer.” Perhaps no building emphasizes this nexus of design, functionality and conviviality better than Vivian Manasc’s own residence. At first blush it looks like a beautifully imagined modernist box with a Mondrian-esque pattern of coloured windows. It’s striking to look at, but the real magic happens as the camera pulls back. The house—actually a former mechanical room—sits atop a drab 18-storey building in Edmonton’s downtown. The juxtaposition is a perfect summary for the firm. Striking new thinking is injected into staid sets of ideas, and the result—for the owner, the city and the environment—shows that with this dedicated team the sky really is the limit. wl

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