Regenerative Design

PROJECT Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, Vancouver, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Perkins+Will Canada
TEXT Sean Ruthen
PHOTOS Martin Tessler

There is no doubt that the environmental movement has exerted a tremendous impact on present-day architecture. Just as the Greeks and Romans would have had no place for an electrical substation in their agora or forum, the masters of modern architecture in the early part of the 20th century would have been as equally perplexed over recent developments in building technology and its quest for carbon neutrality. Our built environment continues to be rethought and retrofitted. Where buildings were once retrofitted for life safety issues such as seismic upgrades to heritage properties, they are now being upgraded to stringent environmental standards from something as minor as weatherstripping and energy-efficient appliances to the addition of photovoltaic panels, geothermal exchangers, and heat-recovery units. Along with the populist rhetoric of such personalities as Al Gore, the culture of sustainable building has witnessed a sea change in its ideology over the past decade with champions like Vancouver-based Dr. John Robinson and Peter Busby of Perkins+Will Canada. Like an unseen sun, the ideology of regenerative sustainability that they promote is slowly being adopted the world over with the hope that collectively, we can reduce our out-of-control global carbon footprint.

What is most remarkable about the newly opened state-of-the-art Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is as much what you don’t see as what you do. Clearly, the photovoltaic arrays, geothermal heat exchanger and heat-recovery unit shared with the neighbouring Ocean Sciences Building are all readily visible, along with the green roof, the design elements promoting natural ventilation and daylighting, a wood Parallam structure sequestering 600 net tonnes of carbon, rainwater harvesting, on-site solid waste treatment, and a living wall on the building’s west façade. What you don’t see, however, is the 10 years it took to realize the project, during which time the public opinion on climate change evolved from ignorance to awareness to ambivalence. When touring the building, you would not be able to see the heroism and dedication of Robinson, who championed the building throughout the process, which has evolved into a project that has achieved LEED Platinum status and imminent Living Building Challenge recognition. The fact that CIRS has had three different sites with five different budgets further complicates this project’s history. Invisible, yet most astonishing, is that the building is “net positive”–its carbon footprint is actually smaller in size than its physical one. And lastly, if not most importantly, CIRS’s commitment to fostering human sustainability by teaching an awareness of the notion of regenerative sustainability is certainly not obvious to the casual observer.

CIRS is so much more than the sum of its parts–a 5,700-square-metre office building and lecture theatre–and even more significant than the aspirations of the architecture firm of Perkins+Will and the University of British Columbia. This project is the realization of a decade-old dream shared by a group of visionaries that includes Peter Busby, Dr. Raymond Cole, Stephen Toope, and of course, Robinson. At long last, the Lower Mainland has a “living lab” that uses the most up-to-date technology to monitor all aspects of CIRS’s building life-cycle analysis, from its construction to its occupancy. This data is already being used by researchers at UBC to be shared with their peers around the world to better understand the impact of our human activities on the environment–from the carbon emissions of the automobiles driven by the building’s occupants to the sequestering of that same carbon by the materials used to construct the building.

CIRS represents a new building typology–simultaneously an educational building and a natural ecosystem, with streams and plants intermeshed with a human ecosystem of offices and hallways. Intended as an educational tool for displaying green architecture, the Centre’s presence at UBC has inspired countless pilgrimages to its compound, drawing the attention of other universities, corporations, and overseas developers. Locally, BC Hydro has contributed to the project, and along with having an office in CIRS, bought the naming rights for one of the two lecture theatres–which is in fact now one of the largest lecture theatres on campus. Its natural daylighting, ventilation, and green roof are effective instructional tools for the students attending classes there, showing a more subtle and passive sustainability than the austere notion that we have to get by with less, usually with respect to heating or lighting.

International interest in CIRS has included Beijing-based developer Modern Green, probably best known for its Linked Hybrid development in Beijing designed with Seattle-based Steven Holl Architects. Building at a current rate of one million square feet of green residential construction in China every year, Modern Green took interest in the project early on, contributing $3.5 million to the project’s funding. Since then, the company has gone on to develop a residential equivalent to CIRS in Vancouver’s upscale neighbourhood of Point Grey–a 101-unit housing project in Wesbrook, south of the campus’s main mall and currently the greenest housing development on campus. As Martin Nielsen, project architect for CIRS for eight of its 10 years told me, “That’s a real-world spin-off!”

Peter Busby, director of the Vancouver office of Perkins+Will Canada, recalled that the idea for CIRS began in 2001, when the firm’s “Living Lab” project emerged at the same time that UBC professor John Hepburn asked Robinson to head the Sustainability Academic Strategy at the university (now called the University Sustainability Initiative, or USI). Robinson, whose shared research on climate change earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, is now continuing his work as both a UBC professor and Executive Director of the USI. Busby explained that our conventional notion of environmental sustainability is quite different from that of academic sustainability–what Robinson researches and teaches–and it is the USI’s mission to combine the two. CIRS is the perfect vehicle, as it exhibits the building’s environmental sustainability in an academic context. Hosting a major conference on sustainability this past November–and coinciding with the building’s grand opening–the USI presented itself and CIRS to the international scientific community.

It is no secret that CIRS is the real-world embodiment of Perkins+Will’s design philosophy. Along with the recently opened Van Dusen Garden Centre–also a LEED Platinum building and a project aiming for all the petals (i.e., key aspects) in the Living Building Challenge–CIRS represents the culmination of many years of the firm’s experience and expertise in the area of sustainable design. “All the things that we do in CIRS we have done somewhere else, but I can’t think of any other project that even comes close to combining all of them in one building. CIRS is the most radical building we’ve done, the most complicated and sophisticated, and the most ‘out there’ in terms of ambitions,” explains Nielsen.

One of the many things that Nielsen and Busby are most proud of in CIRS is the miraculous fact that the building was able to be constructed without sacrificing its ambitions. Another is that the facility has already become a think tank for the climate-change community, housing offices for both the public and private sectors, including
those of Robinson, BC Hydro, former Vancouver mayor and BC Premier Mike Harcourt, and representatives from the departments of psychology, architecture, and planning. They also agree that without Robinson, there would simply be no CIRS, as it was he that led the crusade to ensure that the major components of the building survived the cost-cutting when the project suddenly found itself in a $1.5-million shortfall.

At the heart of the building is the notion of “regenerative sustainability,” a concept that is more than just about humanity and the environment coexisting with each other, but instead concerns the ways in which the two elements can mutually benefit each other. Regenerative sustainability can be simply described using an example of a tree and a person. Both depend on carbon and oxygen to survive, but each needs what the other naturally provides. By extension, this is the guiding principle of CIRS, which recovers waste heat from another building and turns it into energy, transforms rainwater into drinking water, and converts sunlight into electricity. Even the building’s site, constructed over a well-worn footpath, incorporates an old university thoroughfare into an external passageway through the building, graded so as to make an otherwise impassable cross-slope wheelchair-accessible. It is this idea of the building’s social functions of sustainability that most animate Robinson.

“With the wastewater plant in a glass pavilion at the building’s southwest corner, people are constantly passing by this part of the building. Even if a student never sets foot in this building, they will still experience it by passing by and through it on their way to class,” explains Robinson. When I first met him, he had just given a lecture on the earth’s population reaching seven billion; the crux of his presentation concerned the need to start building using the same regenerative green strategies that were used in CIRS. Additionally, Robinson brought up the 2007 Stern Review, which posited the notion that while the cost of acting on climate change would cost 2 percent of each nation’s Gross Domestic Product, the cost of inaction could be as high as 20 percent.

Robinson further added that CIRS cost approximately 20 percent more to build than a conventional UBC building, but that if one were to remove the building’s two main features–its heat-recovery unit and wastewater plant–the building cost would be about the same. Yet the project’s long-term sustainable aspirations extend far beyond its initial construction. The building is a part of the entire university campus’s effort to create its own district energy system. This realized “living lab”–which now includes CIRS–also consists of a soon to be completed biomass plant and the already mentioned Modern Green housing development, making UBC the greenest university in the nation. Taken as a kind of microcosm, Robinson and others like him hope that real live data on regenerative sustainability at the scale of a university campus could begin to influence the way other cities and communities could be built around the world.

It is precisely this bottom-up, more holistic life-cycle approach that Perkins+Will Canada view as the way to the future. As Nielsen explains: “The real action on climate change is happening at the local level, not in Copenhagen or Durban. Real sustainability will be emergent from everyday activities, so that we can build up from the community level instead of [having laws and regulations] being imposed upon us from above. For architects, our niche is to promote regenerative sustainability at the neighbourhood scale, and this can have a tremendous impact [on our built environment].”

In addition to having achieved a LEED Platinum rating (and currently awaiting its assessment for the Living Building Challenge), CIRS has also found a new aesthetic: “We have an external living wall on the west façade which acts as a sunscreen. To me, it’s one of the most poetic moves in the building–the way the leaves which shade the summer sun fall away in the winter to provide more daylight for the building, and that the living wall changes colour with every season. It’s how that natural cycle is embodied in something physical and real that makes it poetic.”

Partially due to its university context and on a moderately sloped site between the Ocean Science Buildings and campus greenhouse, CIRS is essentially a sculpted four-storey cube, carved out of the tight university street grid in a part of the campus made up primarily of science buildings. With two lecture theatres and a café at its base, a pair of three-storey office wings fill out the remaining floors, all connected by a soaring central entry atrium in which the wood Parallam beams and columns of the building are clearly expressed. The building’s envelope is a triple-glazed glass-and-spandrel window-wall system, interspersed with brick at the building’s southwest corner, and crowned with a green roof at the second level, with banks of photovoltaics covering the building’s main roof. The bowing Parallam beams expressed inside the BC Hydro theatre are the equal and opposite reaction to the depth of soil above for the green roof, while the shadow pattern of the photovoltaics filter sunlight through the upper-floor skylights. As a tool for demonstrating regenerative sustainability, it excels; the building’s use of non-carbon sequestering materials (i.e., steel and concrete) has resulted in the ability to calculate the volume of wood used for the structure to balance the building’s footprint. As well, the glass and spandrel’s high embodied energy is offset by the wood structure, exceeding local energy requirements while fitting in nicely with its context.

Robinson reminds us that the next 10 years are set to be very different than the decade it took to realize CIRS. The most enduring aspect to the building–even more than its net-positive footprint–is what the future holds for it. As Busby and Nielsen remind us, “Buildings are the most basic tool to teach people about regenerative sustainability, and so the architects and urban planning professionals are responsible, in partnership with the consultant engineers and landscape architects, for teaching the public that buildings aren’t just individual entities, but nodes in a network, part of a natural flow. The architect’s frontier is to lead the way in promoting a regenerative sustainability concept of neighbourhoods in cities–let’s fix our cities!”

If there ever was a building to point the way that Busby and Nielsen are advocating, CIRS would be it. The building has already prompted a massive change in the direction of the university’s policies towards sustainable design, with other universities looking to see how it can implement many of those green strategies already being pursued at UBC. And as Nielsen notes, “If CIRS achieves anything in terms of UBC, I hope it creates for them a rethink of how buildings are designed, built, and managed.” Meanwhile, with outside interest like that of Modern Green, there is real hope for a future where new cities being built across the globe could reduce their carbon footprints as well, and pursue alternative sources of energy such as photovoltaic or geo-exchange systems. When asked about Bruce Mau’s Massive Change exhibit–and its accompanying tagline of “What shall we do now that we can do anything?”–Robinson answered, “There was a great issue of Scientific American in which the writer of the feature entitled his piece “Managing Planet Earth?” and the editors removed the question mark–[which sends] a totally different message. Including the question mark sends the right message–what are we going to do now that we can do anything? There has to be a normative and ethical perspective, otherwise we’re just doin
g whatever we want, whenever we can. This is not very productive. As it turns out, I think that this will lead us to unsustainability.” Whatever the outcome of our management of the planet, CIRS is firmly under the watch of Dr. Robinson, whose plans very much concern changing the world.

Sean Ruthen is a Vancouver-based architect and writer.

Client The University of British Columbia
Architect Team Peter Busby, Maginnis Cocivera, Sebastien Garon, Brian Gasmena, Jörk Grävenstein, Horace Lai, Blair McCarry, Martin Nielsen, Z Smith
Structural Stantec
Mechanical Fast + Epp
Electrical Stantec
Landscape PWL Partnership
Interiors Perkins + Will Canada
Contractor Heatherbrae Construction
Code LMDG Building Code Consultants
Acoustical BKL Consultants
Building Envelope Morrison Hershfield Limited
Water Eco-Tek Ecological Technologies, NovaTec Consultants
Civil Core Group Consultants
Geotechnical Trow Associates Inc.
Area 5,675 M2
Budget $23 M
Completion October 2011