A new shade of green

A new shade of green

A super-ecologically friendly building promises to set new standards for sustainability and 'going green'
September 3, 2008
According to the UN's 2005 Commission on Population and Development, 61 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2030. That’s an estimate of more than five billion people. Clearly, such growth must be managed in a sustainable fashion by changing how homes and offices are built, starting with the people and issues involved.

That is precisely what Dr. John Robinson, a University of British Columbia (UBC) sustainability professor, hopes to do with the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), under construction in Vancouver. Along with architect Peter Busby, Robinson has set out to design a revolutionary building—a place for researching and testing green technology construction that can remain cutting-edge, but also cut costs. At a projected price tag of about $400 a square foot to build—the same as other new UBC buildings—the interactive research facility is already being hailed as the greenest building on earth.

“Anyone can spend millions building a sustainable building,” Robinson points out. “But that’s no help to the rest of us. When you build one at the same cost as a normal building, that’s when people sit up and take notice.”

Money aside, the hefty energy savings of CIRS are certainly worth touting. CIRS will use 80 percent less energy than a comparable building by taking advantage of existing natural resources. Heating and cooling will come from the ground. The sun will provide light and energy. Wind will provide ventilation. Even wastewater will leave cleaner than when it arrived, thanks to a state-of-the-art, in-house treatment facility. The building will be so efficient that it will feed power back into the grid. Eventually, the building will improve the local environment through its very existence. That, says Robinson, must be the future of the green movement. “We want to change the definition of green,” he says. “The reality is we need to leave our local environment better than if we hadn’t built something, and that’s what CIRS will work on.”

To do this, Robinson and his team will work with private partners to identify the problems and find solutions. “If we don’t involve all of them—developers, building inspectors, permitting, tenants, lessors, and government—in the process, we’ll have no impact at the community level. We have to work with the people who actually do the work. The best way to achieve sustainability is to focus on the human side as well as the environment.”

That’s why a key component of the CIRS project is community engagement. “We know politicians can’t act without pressure from their political constituents,” Robinson says. “So, we’re going to need to engage citizens first.” To that end, the building will have a 100-seat theatre where the public can come and play the QUEST Earth Systems Model—a game using real statistics and projections to see the consequences of everyday choices. “People can make green choices at an individual level,” he says. “That’s great, but it ignores community-level decisions like land use and transportation. When you show people that the choices we make today leave the entire Fraser Valley paved over in 40 years, it fires a public debate.”


Another goal is to develop CIRS so that it can adapt to new technology and be researched while it’s occupied. “It will be a living laboratory over the life of the building,” Robinson says. “It will continuously change and develop—like a plug and play concept—so we can continuously research new technology and building techniques.”

The third objective is to identify sustainable technologies in which BC’s private sector leads the world, and work with those businesses to improve the technologies to capture a significant portion of the trillion-dollar urban building market. “If we cluster innovation, we have a better chance of getting the technology into the market where we can have a greater impact,” Robinson explains.

Located at Great Northern Way near downtown Vancouver—an early-stage, high-tech industry campus, the CIRS project also serves as a catalyst for collaboration between academia and industry. For example, BC Hydro, BC’s power provider, will have a space in CIRS to test new lighting and metering technology. “By being in the building, our power-smart employees will see the newest technology and be able to test it out,” says Bruce Sampson, BC Hydro’s VP of sustainability. The company’s goal is to meet 50 percent of future growth in electricity needs through energy conservation and efficiency. “To hit those targets, we have to be at the leading edge of innovation and technology,” he says. “It will require a lot of consultation and work with the public. That’s the whole concept of CIRS.”

Through CIRS, Canada will demonstrate to the world a practical way of tackling global building and sustainability issues. The time to apply the new meaning of green is now.

“We want to change the definition of green,” says Robinson. “The reality is we need to leave our local environment better than if we hadn’t built something, and that’s what CIRS will work on.”