Closing the Gap

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, Vancouver, British Columbia

Busby Perkins + Will Architects

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is intended to respond to the challenge of rapidly expanding urban development. According to the United Nations, the anticipated global population increase of 2 billion people by 2030 will occur in cities. Over this current decade alone, the World Bank estimates that this will require over $3 trillion in new urban infrastructure and will increase the demand for strategies in sustainable urban development to address such challenges as air quality, water quality, water supply, energy, land use, transportation, housing, jobs, health care and waste treatment. New research is urgently required to articulate and evaluate these strategies and their implementation.

Green building practices continue to mature and find widespread adoption through incremental improvements in performance efficiencies. While an important first step, simply producing buildings that are progressively better than typical practice will prove insufficient to meet the requirements of a built environment that can support sustainable patterns of living within a context of rapid urban development. Greater performance leaps will be necessary and at a faster rate. This will challenge many existing norms and expectations and, in particular, redefine how we conceive the design, construction and operation of buildings. CIRS will be an internationally recognized research centre that accelerates the adoption of sustainable building technologies and sustainable urban development practices. It will be located on the new Great Northern Way campus–a unique precinct in Vancouver that will accommodate four academic institutions–the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr College of Art & Design, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology–and will provide space for researchers to work together on interdisciplinary and inter-institutional projects.

While technological and behavioural solutions to the challenge of sustainable urban development are often well understood, the CIRS research program will focus on the “performance gap” that exists between the technological and behavioural potential for particular strategies, and their actual realization in real world applications. First, there is a well-known gap between the predicted environmental performance of the built infrastructure and its actual performance, as expressed, for example, in the difference between estimates of building energy use based on engineering models and measured building energy consumption once the building is built. Second, there is an equally well-known gap between the professed concern for environmental issues, expressed for example in willingness-to-pay surveys, and the actual behaviour and acceptance of adjustments required in occupant responsibilities for green buildings. There is also what has been called the implementation gap between the expressed goals of environmental policy and actual policy outcomes such as the difference between the expressed goals of Canada’s climate change policies over the past decade, and the actual performance of these policies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, there is a pioneering opportunity to approach two elusive performance goals–Greenhouse Gas (GHG) neutrality and net onsite power generation on an annual basis. These goals have been predicted for some time, and CIRS offers an opportunity to examine the implications on building design directly.

Partners from private and public sectors such as the David Suzuki Foundation, will also share the facility, working with CIRS researchers to ensure that the research is connected to the real needs of the community, industry and policy makers. This research will also identify areas in which British Columbia has a competitive edge in sustainable technologies and services, and then serve to implement these on the ground as a springboard to the export market.

In order to meet the CIRS vision and research agenda, the building itself will be used as a laboratory and research vehicle for operations, monitoring and assessment of sustainable building products and practices. As a research laboratory or a “living lab”, CIRS will provide the infrastructure that will further the development of leading-edge, sustainable building technologies and systems. When CIRS opens in 2007, it is anticipated to be the most innovative and high-performance building in North America.

Vancouver’s Busby Perkins + Will Architects developed the initial concept for the 12,000-square-metre research centre which has three main components–two institutional wings and a tenant wing that are separated by two central atriums. The Building Monitoring and Assessment Lab–which forms the south faade of the building and the interior bridges spanning both atriums–connect each office wing. A key feature of CIRS is to attract and engage the public in issues of a sustainable future and to transform this from an abstract notion to one that they can envisage. As such, a prominent part of the design will be the community theatre.

The CIRS building is conceived as a comprehensive set of interrelated systems that permit systematic monitoring of energy and water use, daylight harvesting, indoor environmental quality, temperature and occupant behaviour. In the same way that transition to a sustainable future will depend on matching technological and cultural advances, successful building requires understanding and accommodating the interaction of building users with new technologies. In order for the building to remain as a state-of-the-art testing facility, the design will embody innovative, flexible design solutions that can be easily modified to adapt to the rapid changes in technology and use. This will be accomplished by considering the building as a process, not a product, allowing a more holistic approach to the analysis of integrated buildings systems as well as a modular approach to these systems in which key building components can be tested and replaced over the lifetime of the building.

The integration of energy and water monitoring systems is increasingly being incorporated into leading-edge buildings to provide direct feedback on performance. The monitoring of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio, for example, can be accessed in real time via the web. The research on the CIRS facility will be unique in terms of both the monitoring of technical systems and the effects they have on the building’s performance. Over the lifetime of the building, the interaction of building occupants with these systems will also be explored while ensuring that the day-to-day functioning of CIRS is not compromised. This will involve monitoring, analyzing and documenting the critical energy and mass flows within the building, the effectiveness of specific sustainability technologies, and the influence of user and operational patterns. The hundreds of points of monitoring that will be built into CIRS will permit the translation of the insights from thousands of streams of data into the development of a set of key variables that could subsequently be monitored in a larger population of buildings to create a comprehensive database on how buildings actually perform.

The ongoing research activity within CIRS bridges sustainability theory and practice and offers direction to a multiplicity of industry and political stakeholders. But the building itself will be equally instructive through the research acquired during its development. The design process will involve the active participation of the user community, and the effectiveness of this involvement will be evaluated. Establishing a state-of-the-art understanding of sustainable building practices and emerging building technologies is essential to setting the performance targets that will enable the completed building to exceed international “best” building practices. Under the leadership of Dr. John Robinson of UBC’s Institut
e for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, a series of task groups involving a broad range of stakeholders are directly involved in shaping the performance goals together with a host of research explorations planned that will ensure that the strategic choices of materials, components and systems are based on a rigorous life-cycle assessment analysis. Once complete, an ongoing comprehensive public and professional education programme is planned, so that the lessons from CIRS will affect the next generation of sustainable building design in Canada.

Projects like CIRS that set challenging benchmarks and derive from a multiplicity of stakeholder interests and participation have enormous potential to focus discussion and change expectations. Far from being a one-of-a-kind facility, many of the ideas and principles embedded in CIRS–both in its research activities and building design–are seen as being used in other regions. In particular, the approach to the research at CIRS will contribute to innovations in practice by pioneering new forms of partnership among researchers, practitioners and end users. Such an approach is central to moving the fruits of the research more directly and effectively into the policy and business decision-making arenas and to providing feedback on building performance to the design community. Different stakeholders, partnerships, environmental constraints and opportunities in different regions would translate into facilities that both reflect and inform regional priorities.

Ray Cole is a Professor at the School of Architecture, University of British Columbia.

Client: Dr. John Robinson, Director, UBC Sustainable Development Research Institute

Project Team: Vaughn Berg, Peter Busby, Robin Glover, Martin Nielsen, Kathy Wardle

Project Manager: Alberto Cayuela (Stantec)

Structural: Fast & Epp

Mechanical/Electrical: Blair McCarry (Keen Engineering)

Cost Consultants: Helyar & Associates



Vaughn Berg, a 31-year-old key member of the CIRS design team responsible for the development of the graphic material presented in this article, sadly passed away on September 30, 2004. Vaughn graduated from the University of British Columbia School of Architecture in May 2000 and joined Busby Perkins + Will Architects in 2001. The remarkable passion, commitment and pursuit of excellence that he brought to every one of his many interests are evidenced in his contribution to the CIRS project. More importantly, Vaughn’s role in this project points the way for young graduates committed to environmentally responsible practice to have a profound impact on the profession, filling us all with optimism for the future.