Green to the Core

TEXT Graham Livesey

Since the publication of his project “A House for the 1980s” in the October 1980 issue of The Canadian Architect, Peter Busby–then still working in Norman Foster’s office in London–has made his mark on Canadian architecture, pursuing his architectural vision with singular determination. The house, influenced by Foster, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles and Ray Eames, was a work inspired by High-Tech Modernism with a strong emphasis on prefabrication and environmental responsiveness. In 2009, Peter Busby celebrated 25 years of practice, during which he transitioned from a small office to join forces with the fourth-largest architectural practice in North America. Some may see his joining the US firm Perkins + Will as a questionable move, but it is in fact a natural progression, one that demonstrates Busby’s evolving skills and his response to expanding opportunities, and also reflects significant changes occurring across the industry.

The various offices directed by Peter Busby since 1984 have challenged many of the conventions of architectural practice in Canada. In the 1980s, he operated against the prevailing tendency towards Postmodernism and a preoccupation with the look of buildings. He did so by advocating, unapologetically, a Modernist-inspired approach that focused on advanced constructional systems and performance. This approach had rarely been seen in Canada, apart from the work of Eberhard Zeidler and Barton Myers in the 1970s, and by Winnipeg’s IKOY practice in the 1980s. Many of the current challenges facing the profession of architecture in Canada today originated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As Busby notes: “The real problem started with Postmodernism, where architecture was distilled down to a six-inch envelope and what it looked like. At that point, Postmodern architects lost control of the process of design, the understanding of the needs of the occupants, and the understanding of systems; they perverted all those to a look and a feel. And then there were a whole series of ‘isms’ that came after that, and so architects became absorbed with those ideas and lost what we always felt were the priorities. If you trace the history of Postmodernism against this practice, it was ten years that we had to live in that world during which we offered a completely different product.”

In 1986, Busby established a partnership with Paul Bridger, which resulted in a number of noteworthy projects including the Ebco Aerospace Centre (1986-1987), the District of North Vancouver Municipal Hall (1989-1995), the Headquarters for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (1994-1995), and the Metro-McNair Clinical Laboratory and Office (1994-1997). During this period, the firm also established Designlines as an industrial design aspect of the practice, involved in developing building components and furniture. The work from this period is straightforward, clearly executed, and yet technically refined.

Writing about the firm in their 1998 monograph Access to Architecture: Intentions + Product, Ray Cole (an important early mentor of Busby’s while he was a student at the University of British Columbia) and Sherry McKay note that Busby’s practice has always been committed to environmental responsibility, and that the firm has accepted “that environmental progress will be incremental and that environmental issues will be gradually assimilated into an established design vocabulary rather than provoke a sweeping overhaul of conventional architectural practice.” The focus on an innovative approach to the design of sustainable buildings has been a hallmark of Busby’s various offices, reflected in the recognition and many awards received for their work.

With the loss of Paul Bridger in 1995, Busby renamed the practice Busby + Associates Architects, an entity that would last almost a decade. Building on the formative work that he had developed during the previous decade, this period represents one of both continuing technical innovation and increased architectural sophistication. During this period, Busby produced his finest work to date, including Governor General’s Award-winning projects such the Brentwood Skytrain Station (1999-2002), the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (1999-2001), and the York University Computer Science Building (1998-2001, with van Nostrand DiCastri Architects); these projects demonstrate that high-performance buildings can also be evocative.

In 2004, Busby made the significant decision to join forces with the large US-based architectural firm, Perkins + Will. Since creating Busby Perkins + Will, the size and volume of work has increased with some loss of distinctiveness in the designs. On the other hand, the scope of work that Busby is involved in has changed in scale and geography. He is currently involved in projects in Abu Dhabi and China, and beyond buildings, is now actively involved in designing large-scale urban design projects, health-care design, natural environments, and urban infrastructure. As a Director in Perkins + Will, Busby and his Vancouver office (he also oversees an office in Seattle) now benefit from the resources of one of the largest firms in North America. In turn, Busby has given the Perkins + Will firm significant credibility in green design. The Vancouver office has strengthened the firm’s Sustainable Design Initiative (SDI), helping to implement policies and programs across Perkins + Will’s 20 offices, policies that included greening all the firm’s procedures. This consolidation of Busby’s office with Perkins + Will is consistent with a trend towards larger firms, as firms strategically amalgamate. Busby maintains that it has allowed him to pursue larger and more diverse projects. It also allows him to draw upon a more complex range of expertise, the kind needed to develop high-performance buildings. He notes that escalating demand for expertise is a major challenge for contemporary architecture, as clients demand higher-performing buildings. While the consolidation of practices in the architecture profession is a current trend driven by a number of forces, it is also one that will likely weaken the profession in the long term as small- and medium-sized firms find it increasingly difficult to compete.

Busby has always sought to achieve innovation, and has had a longstanding commitment to research (including 4% of the bottom line invested in research) in his practice. Today, the firm’s research group comprises six members of his staff and is growing, providing internal services to the firm in terms of researching products, materials and systems. They also act as a semi-independent consulting group providing expertise to a range of clients. Kathy Wardle, an Associate Principal at Busby Perkins + Will and the Director of Research, has been with the Busby practice since 2002. Trained in environmental and resource management, she directs the research efforts of the firm, and is a co-chair of the SDI program. With increasing demands to understand biology, ecology, chemistry and mechanics, the research group provides vital expertise and is reminiscent of the interdisciplinary “environmental design” model pioneered in the 1960s. Again, the investment in research is something that needs to be more widely spread thoughout the architecture, development and construction industries. Interdisciplinarity is key to the Busby Perkins + Will approach, particularly the integration of advanced engineering into the projects’ designs from initial conception.

In 2007 a second book on the practice was published, entitled Busby: Learning Sustainable Design. It is edited by Busby and Jim Taggart, and includes a foreword by David Suzuki. The book demonstrates the commitment on the part of the firm to careful site design, water conservation, the responsible selection of materials, innovations in solar control, attention to high-quality indoor environments, energy conservation, exposed structure, and comprehensive integrated design. T
he book provides some insight into the Busby Perkins + Will practice, and yet could go further in demonstrating the principles of sustainable design. In the publication, a chart documents the sustainable strategies of the firm, and a review of the chart shows the progressive development of the firm’s work, culminating, for the moment, in the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC for Dr. John Robinson. This project, which began in 2005, is a demonstration project for advanced sustainable design, and is moving beyond LEED to engage the Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s “Living Building Challenge,” which includes net zero energy, net zero water, net zero carbon construction and net zero carbon operation.

However, as Busby notes, “It is very easy to design a high-performance building, but it is much more challenging to operate it that way.” In order to achieve the performance results demanded by the challenges of global climate change, architects must both design increasingly more sophisticated buildings, and they must also include clients and users in performance, including control systems and the social interactions buildings produce. Busby develops the idea further: “You have to have an educated client group and user group so they understand the ebb and flow of energy, temperature and performance in a green building, but then you have an obligation to make sure that it is designed properly, as simply as possible, so that it works effectively without confusing people.” The long-term maintenance and operations of buildings is a factor of the industry that architects must get more involved in. As an example, with the Office for Revenue Canada (1997-1998), there were difficulties with the energy performance of the building because the users were not fully committed to the features of the design.

This is one of the broad challenges facing Canadian society as it wrestles with climate change. While the number of LEED-certified buildings in Canada is growing, there are not nearly enough to have a significant impact on energy and greenhouse gas reduction. And, as Busby Perkins + Will have demonstrated, architects must go beyond the performance requirements of the LEED system. This will also require a significant commitment on the part of clients and users to participate in the performance of buildings, including the real-time monitoring of projects. Busby’s career has attempted to both educate and challenge the profession of architecture. He continues to operate on the leading edge of the discipline, and is committed to the long-term performance of his buildings. In this regard, he suggests that architects have to seriously consider giving warranties for their work, stating: “If you buy a dishwasher or car, you expect a level of performance out of it. And if it does not perform, you take it back and show your warranty. Why wouldn’t architects enter into these kinds of commitments? We would like to have a contract that extends for a two-year warranty period, whereby we are actively there on an ongoing basis making sure that the promises we made are respected. It is like paying for a warranty for a car; people will pay a little more to have a warranty for a car, so why not for a building?”

Even for Busby Perkins + Will, a firm with enormous resources, there continue to be significant challenges in developing leading-edge sustainable buildings. The mechanical engineering profession, so vital to the design of high-performance green buildings, remains, like much of the architecture profession, mired in outmoded forms of practice. To overcome these difficulties, Busby has brought Blair McCarry, formerly of Keen Engineering and Stantec, into the office as part of the research group, and McCarry participates directly in developing the conceptual design of projects. Further, Perkins + Will has also committed to the establishment of a sister mechanical engineering company to address the issue. Another key aspect of designing leading-edge green buildings is the development of advanced and adept integrated design software (BIM), which is a slow process, with demands of better integration of services and more flexible design capabilities.

Busby believes that today the successful architect must balance business acumen, leadership in thought (or taking on environmental challenges), and the substantial demands from clients for expertise. A tireless advocate for responsible, ethical and sustainable design, Busby has devoted countless hours to the raising of standards within the profession and to educating his colleagues. This includes developing the course entitled Sustainable Design for Canadian Buildings 101 (SDCB 101) in 2000 for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), and his subsequent involvement with the US Green Building Council (USGBC) to bring the LEED system into Canada. In 2002 this led to the establishment of the Canadian Green Building Council (CaCBC), in which he has been heavily involved. More recently, among many initiatives he has championed, Busby has also been a strong advocate of urban densification through Vancouver’s Ecodensity Charter. And while many architects in Canada have become LEED-accredited, there are many other lessons that can be learned from Busby’s example. The career of Peter Busby represents a relentless pursuit of design excellence and innovation; it has also demonstrated an ethical and public commitment to the profession and to society that is rare in an architect. CA

Graham Livesey is Associate Dean (Academic-Architecture) and Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.