For the People

Text Jessica Woolliams

What drives innovation in sustainable building and urban design? Along the west coast of Canada and the United States, a number of recent projects ambitiously address systemic issues of climate change, persistent toxic chemicals and social inequity. Their high-level sustainability goals necessitate a robust engagement with building users, manufacturers, regulatory authorities and developers, from concept through occupancy. This article finds five ways that designers and clients are bringing sustainability to a much broader range of people–and driving forward innovation in the process. 

1. Practice Integrated Design
Many would claim that it is impossible to design a truly sustainable building or community without an integrated design process. Take the newly finished Bullitt Center in Seattle (it opened its doors on Earth Day 2013), designed by the Miller Hull Partnership and arguably the greenest office tower in the world. It’s pursuing the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the most rigorous social and ecological sustainability standard around. Bullitt Foundation CEO Denis Hayes says the project included years of weekly charrettes and significant engagement of construction and other workers. This went well beyond standard practice. “The people directing traffic on the construction site were able to describe the features of the building in detail to pedestrians walking by,” says Hayes. Through its expanded integrated design process, stakeholders, tenants and community members felt that this was a triumphant leap to a better world. That excitement got to the street.

2. Take Integrated Design to a New Level
Integrated design in the most exemplary projects involves a deep level of engagement between people in roles that would ordinarily not come in contact with one another. When Simon Fraser University’s UniverCity Childcare Centre was being created by Hughes Condon Marler Architects, the design team ran charrettes with the children (ages 3-5) that would be the occupants. UniverCity staff also brought in the Fraser Health Authority and the City of Burnaby to discuss a UV treatment system that Integral Group put forward for obtaining 100% of occupants’ water from captured precipitation and closed-loop systems. The LBC recognizes that the process of bringing the core realities of sustainability to key stakeholders–health authorities, manufacturers, building occupants–has the power, with time, to effect radical innovation. 

With the success of the Childcare Centre–which was delivered below cost, handed over free of charge to a not-for-profit operator, and looks to be on track for certification as a Living Building–SFU is currently planning to create a Living Neighbourhood in the UniverCity area. Dale Mikkelsen, Director of Development at SFU Community Trust, says, “We noted that many of our successes with the Childcare Centre were possible through scale jumping. For instance, we created a neighbourhood supply of energy and a system of stormwater management. It makes more sense to create these alternative infrastructures at the neighbourhood scale rather than burdening each building with these systems.” Mikkelsen notes how this approach also reduces burden to the developer. “The developer of the lot really only needs to meet the materials credits, as they are tying into storm, sewer and energy infrastructures at the neighbourhood scale. So the model is easier for the developer to accept.” 

3. Ask for Help
The Bullitt Center is designed to function like a Douglas fir forest. It can create as much energy and purify and return as much water as it uses–that is, if the tenants go along with the plan. The Center is designed with an energy-use intensity that is roughly 80 percent lower than a typical office, and roughly half of the electricity used will be plug load: cell phones, printers, computers and so on. As such, tenant buy-in is crucial to success, and each tenant at the Bullitt Center has an energy allowance within its lease agreement. This is comparable in approach to the ecoFLATS building in Portland, Oregon by Siteworks Design Build with Works Partnership Architecture, which has been described as the first net-zero-energy mixed-used apartment in the United States, a project that is also geared to affordable rental rates. Developer Jean-Pierre Veillet of Siteworks says that ecoFLATS “beats energy code by 70 percent and was created for $120 per square foot.” Veillet notes that the “delivery of information to the users is very important.” A live monitoring system in the main entry hall compares the energy performance of each unit, encouraging friendly competition between neighbours. In both projects, it rests in the hands of the occupants whether their buildings will ultimately achieve their net-zero-energy goals.

4. Set Audacious Goals
Rebecca Holt, Sustainable Building Advisor at Perkins+Will, has worked on two Living Building Challenge projects–the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre and the University of British Columbia Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). She describes the intense challenge of sourcing materials for LBC projects. “Imagine an alternative product is proposed during construction, something different than what was originally specified: you and your contractor might need to contact 10 to 15 people to find out whether this alternative includes a red-listed ingredient,” she says. “This unanticipated effort can significantly delay project progress at critical points.” Kathy Wardle, Director of Research at Perkins+Will, adds, “The industry has come a long way since we constructed CIRS and VanDusen. If we were to start an LBC project tomorrow, the material research process would be a lot easier since the Health Product Declaration and Declare tools have come online.” 

However, even for the more recent Bullitt Center, Denis Hayes estimates the design team invested close to two person-years of work in researching building materials. They used the International Living Future Institute’s Red List, but discovered many of its items to be broad categories. “When we began blowing up those categories to list all the elements and compounds that they contain, we found ourselves excluding 362 separate chemicals,” says Hayes. “On final count, the Bullitt Center contains approximately 950 individual components that needed to be vetted for compliance.”

As a result of this hugely challenging process, many individuals and companies were engaged in the critical question of eliminating persistent toxic chemicals. To find a vapour barrier without phthalates, the Bullitt design team convinced a manufacturer to reformulate their vapour barrier to remove the red-listed ingredient. According to Hayes, this company has now reformulated its entire line of building products to eliminate phthalates in all of them. As a result of the Bullitt team’s commitment to pursuing the Living Building Challenge, the market started to shift and innovate to meet seemingly audacious demands. 

5. Sustainability Includes Equity
In 2008, CEO of Renewal Investments Joel Solomon completed the restoration of the Flack Block in downtown Vancouver into a hub for social entrepreneurs, with the help of Acton Ostry Architects. “The Flack project could only happen due to enlightened public policy. There were historic preservation credits, density bonus support in particular,” Solomon says. It was a rare sustainability-minded historic preservation project in a part of downtown that needed it. 

Like the socially oriented ecoflats project, which opened in March 2011, the Flack Block restoration came at a difficult time. “It was the biggest boom time in construction history and expensive to build,” says Solomon. “O
ffice rental rates were skyrocketing. The choice to do the first LEED Gold Interior leaseable project in the country greatly constrained our options for general contractors and subs, and drove up our price. We were finishing the most expensive part of the project as the stock market collapsed in late 2007, with a premium for LEED. Our tenants were evaporating as their funding dried up.” However, they completed the building and it is now filled with a dynamic mix of innovators and leaders in their sectors. Despite its challenges, Solomon is still proud to have gone ahead with pursuing his vision, which has resulted in a robust, socially oriented community. Renewal “invested in owning real estate that had strong social purpose to it, in our neighbourhood” and the results “represent our work, values and purpose.”  

Can the process of engagement drive innovation towards truly sustainable design? The projects examined here have all taken sustainability out of the purview of technocrats, academics and other anointed experts, and brought it to a much wider group of individuals and to a more diverse audience. By subscribing to bold standards–such as the Living Building Challenge, net-zero energy and the highest levels of LEED–they have spurred dialogue with manufacturers, regulators and occupants that are pushing sustainability innovations to the next level. Used this way, design itself can be a key factor in democratizing and accelerating sustainability.  

Jessica Woolliams is an urban planner with over a decade of experience in sustainable building and community policy, planning and education. Reach her through