Why the much-touted ‘raincoats’ Sidewalks Labs wanted to install on Toronto’s waterfront were rejected

“The only failure comes when we refuse to learn,” says Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang.

They were touted as the answer to the problem of inhospitable weather on Toronto’s waterfront.

Google sister firm Sidewalk Labs was part of a team that created a prototype of a “raincoat” — an adjustable awning or “second skin” that extends from a building and is meant to protect public sidewalks from rain, wind, snow and sun.

The company wanted to use the innovation to help create outdoor spaces at Quayside, its proposed 12-acre high-tech neighbourhood on the waterfront, that are comfortable for people year round — a challenge given the firm has calculated the waterfront is only “comfortable” 30 per cent of the year.

The problem: they’re a tripping hazard that haven’t been fully proven to work, according to Waterfront Toronto, the tri-government agency tasked with approving or rejecting the project, who turned down the innovation last month.

The raincoats were heavily promoted by Sidewalk Labs in their master plan as part of their “Outdoor Comfort” system. Sidewalk Labs even installed the large prototype at the front of their head office at 307 Lake Shore Blvd. E. It’s still there.

A prototype is still up at 307 Lake Shore Blvd. E., Sidewalk's head office, even though Waterfront Toronto recently rejected the innovation.

Sidewalk Labs came up with the concept for the raincoats and collaborated with Partisans, an award-winning Toronto architecture and design studio, RWDI, a Toronto firm specializing in engineering modelling and climate analysis, along with Maffeis Engineering, an Italy-based multi-disciplined engineering firm, to develop the prototype.

Sensors were to be positioned near the raincoats to collect weather data that could then be fed to the raincoats telling them to open in advance of snow or rain for example. An RFP went out, the design process for the prototype began in the spring of 2018 and it was completed in 2019.

A lot of thought, money and hard work went into the effort.

But the innovation was rejected in a report released to the public Feb. 18 by Waterfront Toronto’s own technical evaluation team. Even though the team supported a majority of Sidewalk’s 160 innovations for the overall Quayside project, the raincoat concept just didn’t float.

The raincoats, made of a durable, transparent, lightweight plastic film, were to be anchored to public sidewalks and street pavers in Quayside, but that was a major concern for Waterfront Toronto in terms of unobstructed walkways for pedestrians, particularly the blind.

“Generally public sidewalks you try to keep free of obstructions so that pedestrians can move freely. Those structures on any sidewalk in Toronto potentially constrict pedestrian flow — and the angled structural brackets (that fasten to the sidewalks) also pose challenges to the visually impaired,” Chris Glaisek, chief planning and design officer for Waterfront Toronto, said in an interview Tuesday.

Glaisek went on to say the raincoats’ ability to protect against all weather conditions was not proved.

“I think in looking at them, it’s pretty clear they provide protection from rain and snow and that’s a step in the right direction. But with the pilot (the Sidewalk Labs team) was not able to provide us with any evidence there was an improvement in outdoor comfort beyond protecting from rain and snow. Even wind it’s hard for them to protect from unless the (raincoats) are fully enclosed.

“We’re not convinced the comfort benefits are so dramatic that it would be worth the potential problems of obstructing the public realm,” Glaisek went on to say.

Waterfront Toronto turned to its design review panel — an independent advisory body made up of some of Canada’s leaders in architecture, landscape design, engineering and planning — as well as Toronto urban design firm Perkins and Will to help evaluate the raincoats.

“Sidewalk has acknowledged that they are not exactly a perfect solution either, and I think they are planning to look at other alternatives, which we have encouraged them to do,” Glaisek said.

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Sidewalk Labs acknowledged Waterfront Toronto’s concerns and said any eventual design of the product for Quayside would “not have any permanent presence on the sidewalk,” spokesperson Keerthana Rang said in a statement this week.

The raincoats were rejected as, according to a Waterfront Toronto report, the anchors could be a tripping hazard and the structure wasn't proven to work.

The prototype was only an “early iteration,” Sidewalk says.

“Outdoor comfort will be part of the innovation plan for Quayside. A building raincoat is just one example of outdoor comfort. We will keep looking into solutions for outdoor comfort in our building design, which we will review with Waterfront Toronto on an ongoing basis,” Rang added.

Alex Josephson, architect and co-founder of Partisans, one of the firms involved in developing the raincoat prototype, said in an interview this week he had no idea the prototype had been rejected. He only learned about it when asked about the raincoats by the Star.

“I’m hearing this for the first time, to be honest with you” said Josephson, whose firm is known for work including co-producing Toronto’s bid for Amazon’s second North American headquarters, innovative designs for Bar Raval on College Street, and the revitalization initiatives for Union Station.

He later went on to say: “Nobody came back to us and said these are the things we want to improve upon,” adding he is no longer engaged with Sidewalk Labs.

“We weren’t included in the technical review (for the raincoats). We would love to see the technical analysis, and I think that is exactly what prototyping is about. Give us the analysis, give us the feedback and you can take it to another level and design something that does work perfectly. The design process has never been about putting a perfect thing into the world,” Josephson added.

Sidewalk explained Partisans and the others on the team that created the prototype were only engaged for the development of the prototype.

The large awnings or building raincoats were touted by Sidewalk Labs as the solution to the tough climate most on the waterfront.

Glaisek of Waterfront Toronto suggested the timeframe for the prototype process was perhaps too ambitious.

“It’s challenging to develop a new typology, a universal solution to outdoor comfort. It usually takes years and years of testing and prototyping and they didn’t have that kind of time to prove this out in the span of their (master plan being released last year),” he said.

“They’re trying to be innovative. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You’ve got to try ideas, you’ve got to be willing to fail sometimes … They’re trying to think outside the box and that’s the risk you take,” Glaisek says.

Sidewalk also attributed the rejection of the raincoats as a step in the learning process.

“The only failure comes when we refuse to learn. Finding what works and what needs improvement isn’t failure — it’s progress,” Rang said.

Waterfront Toronto’s board is set to vote May 20 on whether to proceed with the Quayside project.

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