Next regeneration: a building that boosts the environment

Jon Marcus reports from Vancouver on the campus project that's taking sustainability to the next level

June 23, 2011

The long main mall of the University of British Columbia ends at a rose garden with a view across English Bay towards Vancouver and the snow-capped mountains beyond.

It is one of the most beautiful settings in higher education and has provided inspiration for the next stage in the evolution of sustainability on campus: a building that not only limits its damage to its surroundings, but improves them.

"This region of the world has a lot of people who care about the natural environment," said John Robinson, founder of British Columbia's Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). He was also lead author of the past three reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

"It's a very outdoors-oriented city, so the idea of sustainability is much more viable in a place like Vancouver," he added.

Green buildings on campus are now common, but the new home of the CIRS, which opens next month, will aim to be more than simply "sustainable".

"What we're trying to do is demonstrate not just a 'green' building - I don't much like that word, in fact - but a regenerative building," Professor Robinson said.

"It will not just live within the site: it will give back."

While the university's location is one motivation for the project, there are others.

One is recruiting students, who are increasingly interested in sustainability, an area in which British Columbia is determined to carve a niche.

Another is to pioneer and demonstrate new construction techniques for the private sector, something Professor Robinson believes universities are uniquely equipped and morally obliged to do.

As for translating the features of the building for commercial use, British Columbia has already struck a C$3.5 million (£2.2 million) deal with one of China's largest property developers, Modern Green Development, to conduct research into sustainable construction.

A perfect place for innovation

Professor Robinson said that universities were in an unusual position in that they own and occupy vast numbers of buildings, often operate their own utilities, and are already in the business of teaching and conducting research.

"There's nobody else in society that does all those things. So we have a societal responsibility to treat our campuses as giant test beds," he said.

Although the building has not opened yet, the research has already begun. One project is looking at construction methods that minimise carbon production. Another will test the employees who will eventually occupy the building, measuring their relative health, happiness and productivity.

The building will be "like an organism where all the components need to work together for the best result", said Julia Beckermann, a graduate student involved in the research.

"You have to look at the internal organs as well as the shell, and the influence of building inhabitants has been largely ignored in (previous) research."

Occupants of the building will be able to adjust ventilation and lighting and to vote on building-wide adjustments.

The opposite of negative

"The old sustainability agenda was about being less bad, doing less harm, reducing impact," Professor Robinson said. "That's not very exciting, and it makes development itself inherently negative. The new agenda is net positive. You actually want the building, you don't just put up with it."

On the outside, the C$37 million, 60,000 sq ft structure does not look that different from other low-rise buildings on the British Columbia campus. But it will be heated through a combination of 16 geothermal rods and excess heat from adjacent buildings; much of its water will be sourced from rainfall; and it will also treat waste water from elsewhere on campus. Ventilation will be provided by the wind.

Not everything has gone smoothly: the building took 11 years to plan, and while it was intended to cost only 8 per cent more than a conventional building, it ultimately cost 25 per cent more. But Professor Robinson said it would be substantially cheaper to maintain.

"Everything in the building is a test bed: the paint, the glazing, the people," he said.

It may be the most sustainable building in North America now, he added, "but I want it to be the worst building - that is my mantra. This is now the floor. Everything should be better than CIRS."

He added: "We've learned a lot from it. Now I hope we're beaten badly and widely."

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