Michael Green’s Ronald McDonald House

April 2, 2014

Michael Green is running late, but given everything that the rumple-haired architect has on the go, it's hard to mind. Besides, it allows me a few minutes to scout the field behind B.C. Children's Hospital, where he's building a new Ronald McDonald House years in the making. Dramatically larger than its Shaughnessy predecessor, the 75,000-square-foot, $30-million home away from home for sick kids and their families opens this month.

When he does pull up, with colleagues Jennifer Netherton and Jordan Van Dijk, it's with apologies: they were in deepest Cloverdale buying a trailer. Traffic was killer. Like everything that Green, 47, works on, the story is both complicated and inspiring. The trailer will be another classroom for his students — last week, frustrated by inertia at UBC and elsewhere, he founded an independent school out of his office to teach 24 architecture students the practical side of the design/build process. ("We'll have to figure out the financing later; right now, I'm losing money.") He's hoping to put it to use on the Downtown Eastside. For example, Tradeworks is a woodworking training program on East Cordova that might benefit from mentorship by his students; perhaps the trailer could share space with the school… In the meantime, he needs the trailer because — did he mention? — it will be the workshop for building the stage for the TED Conference starting in a few weeks. (He's an alumnus, having spoken at Long Beach last year on the subject of wooden towers.)

Hardhats on, we circle the construction. A tarped outdoor play structure in tepee form was suggested by his son, Makalu. The wall panels cladding the building's skeleton are made from cross-laminated timber — the glued-together slats of beetle-ravaged wood that Green has made the centrepiece of his practice; their innovative role, in place of concrete, has drawn architects from near and far (last week, a contingent from Japan). Wood is important because it's local, its manufacture pollutes less, and unlike concrete, it insulates. He's building Ronald McDonald House to last, so it must be power-efficient, not merely because Green's green (he is) but to reduce operating costs for the next 100 years. "Nobody wants their name on a power bill," he says, as we pick our way toward the facility's entrance. "People want their name on a room or a building. Fundraising has to happen now, and then the building has to take care of itself."

McDonald's essentially franchises these facilities — a recent, controversial study calculated that the corporation donated only 20 percent of the charity's 2012 revenue, the rest coming through donation boxes and the local offices. Here, the contractors and subcontractors have helped, especially ITC Construction at over a million dollars; so has Green. (The city might have forgiven $850,000 in permits, applications, and rezoning fees, he points out, but it didn't.)

Inside, we pause in the airy atrium between the four houses. The brief from the board was to build not a kind of skyscraper or hotel (as seen in Chicago and Toronto, the only facilities larger than this one) but a home that could balance health needs and comfort. Green has built privacy into each room, intimacy into each six-room floor, social space into each 18-room house, and a unity across the whole four-house structure. A few years back, he wrote Alpenglow, a picture book that is given as a gift to visiting families and whose imagery is reproduced throughout the house. Its theme is apt: in crisis, we must learn to take support from those around us if we're to survive.

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