You Can Do Whatever You Field
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You Can Do Whatever You Field

Photo of the existing YMCA rooftop running track by Marc Lostracco.

The Metro Central YMCA at Yonge and Grosvenor found itself with a problem, but one that led to a new opportunity: the roof is leaking and needs extensive repairs. Featuring a running track and not much else, the large concrete rooftop slab is more akin to the upper deck of a parking garage than a place to exercise or enjoy, but its barren configuration made it a premium site for a forthcoming downtown green roof.

Built in 1984 by Diamond and Schmidt Architects, the outdoor running deck of the colossal YMCA was intended not only as place to jog in circles, but also for lounging and exercising. With little shade and open only in the warmer seasons, being on the roof turned out to be more like standing on a griddle. Yet even though the pale cement is tough on the eyes in direct sunlight, the view of the surrounding buildings is appealing, and its walls make it dead silent—currently a brutalist, but strangely tranquil urban oasis.

Rendering courtesy of Natvik Ecological; image at right courtesy of Google Maps.

Instead of just fixing or replacing the failing roof, the YMCA started looking at options that were both in line with community improvement and the Association’s environmental stewardship plan. Incorporating a green roof would not only mean eco-benefits like energy efficiency, reduced storm water runoff, and a reduction in radiated heat, but it also would drastically improve the space for YMCA members. The green roof would be fully accessible, yoga and aerobics classes could be comfortably held on a dedicated wooden platform, the running track would be retained, and a water feature and short grass meadow would prove an appealing place even just to sit and read a book.
The green roof plan also has a charm that most people won’t even see from the ground. The north side of the facility off of Breadalbane Street features a large garden and water feature that, from high above, resembles a branch with eight leaves. A companion green roof adds some additional context, and makes both a strong aesthetic and environmental statement downtown, along with the existing garden rooftops of buildings like 401 Richmond, Mountain Equipment Co-op, and Ryerson’s pioneering 1987 quadrangle covering the university’s athletics centre.

Left photo by Marc Lostracco; rendering courtesy of Natvik Ecological.

Natvik Ecological of Guelph was asked to conceptualize three options for the rooftop, which the Metro Central YMCA is now presenting to its members and surrounding community for feedback. The additional cost of installing a green roof is undisclosed, but it’s not insignificant. The YMCA is applying for government and private grants, and will be relying on donations and volunteer work from both its members and the corporate sector.
A green roof is thought to last about twice as long as a traditional roof, but putting a garden up high on a bed of concrete means extra consideration for the drainage and filtering of rainwater and urban debris, load constraints, growing substrates, and root-repellent barriers. Structures like the Metro Central YMCA benefit even better from green roofs because their footprint is squat and wide, which allows them to use less air conditioning, minimize the “heat island” effect, and better mitigate stormwater runoff.

Left photo by Marc Lostracco; rendering courtesy of Natvik Ecological.

The YMCA’s green roof is scheduled for installation over the month of August, and its a welcome voluntary measure in the face of this month’s controversial plan to make Toronto the first North American city to make green roofs mandatory for new structures over a certain size. The City of Toronto already has a eco-roof incentive program that grants up to $100,000 toward environmental retrofits, but the technology is still pretty much an afterthought in the West—in contrast to Germany, which boasts the highest density of green roofs in the world (about 10% of flat roofs; the German government legally mandates green roofs for new construction, but also typically pays up to half the additional costs).
Part of why the YMCA’s rooftop plan works so well is not just that it returns a bit of nature to the paved landscape, but that it’s specifically designed to be actively used as a leisure space by people. What a concept.

UPDATE: JUNE 9, 2009 The Metro Central YMCA has revealed the final design for the green roof [PDF]. The revised plan includes trees, more seating than originally planned, as well as wider pathways and a raised edge to the running track for the visually impaired.