Inside CIRS at University of British Columbia

North America's Greenest Building

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability


Sometimes, buildings are constructed to enclose laboratories; the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada is a laboratory, "a platform to test and showcase the technical performance and usability characteristics of the building’s technologies and systems, and to generate new knowledge about how to construct and maintain sustainable buildings," according to the website. The $37 million project is also, says the university, the greenest building in North America.

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John Robinson

credit: UBC

The Centre is the brainchild of John Robinson, who approached the UBC with the idea back in 2000. TreeHuggers have met Dr. Robinson before, in Are Cities Green, Or Are We Just Pigs in a Factory Farm? and The Tyee Interviews John "Dr. Sustainability" Robinson. We also covered the building earlier in Accelerating Sustainability: New Super-Green Research Lab and When Carbon Neutral Buildings Don't Add Up. The architect for the project, seriously downplayed in the CIRS website as a "collaborator", is Peter Busby of Perkins + Will, perhaps Canada's most successful "Green" architect. Don't know why he is given such a low profile; in my interview of him, he was certainly proud of the building.

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Living Wall

credit: UBC

There are many, (like me) who think that wood has the lowest carbon footprint of any building material, actually sequestering carbon rather than emitting it. According to UBC:

The wood used in the project will store an estimated 600 tonnes of CO2. As a result, the four-storey project will store 75 tonnes more CO2 than is emitted during the production of its building materials. Beetle kill wood has accounted for the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the province, more than all of the province’s human activity combined, more than motor vehicle emissions, and nearly double the output of Alberta’s oil sands. Yet this damaged wood is the same high quality as other B.C. lumber if it’s harvested within a few years of being attacked. Using it prevents carbon from escaping decaying trees. It also clears space for new growth.
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It's a U Building

credit: UBC

Like other green buildings we have covered, the building is shaped like a letter, a U. It is a traditional way of building that creates narrow wings to maximize natural light and ventilation, around a courtyard that creates a stack effect.

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A View of the U

credit: UBC

A living roof is planted over the auditorium that is buried under the U formed by the building.

Located above the MGD Auditorium, the living roof is visually and physically accessible to building inhabitants and visitors. It is planted with native plants designed to provide habitat for local animals and insects and is an important part of the water management strategy for the building.
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Green Wall

credit: UBC

A feature I am fond of is the living wall, a sort of upgrade on planting vines. It is so high-tech: Leaves block the sun in the summer, and somehow fall off to let sun into the building in the winter! How did they think of that?

The living wall provides solar shading for the western façade that is both passive and dynamic, as the leaves of the vines change color throughout the year and fall in winter. It also enhances the public face of the building with distinct character that expresses the sustainability principles of the CIRS project.
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credit: UBC

The theatre, underneath that living roof, is quite a beautiful demonstration of wood technology, with its glulam beams above and wood panels on the side. Because heavy timber chars as it burns, it doesn't need to be protected with drywall or fireproofing. Glulam technology also uses scraps that are not big enough to use for other purposes, significantly reducing waste, and in this case, using up a serious amount of pine beetle damaged wood. It has great acoustic properties too. Did I mention that I like wood?

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Green Gizmos Galore

credit: UBC

I have concentrated on the passive features of the building, the shape, the landscaping and natural ventilation, but it also has its share of the high-tech green gizmo features too, like these evacuated tube solar water heaters on the roof. There are also 30 geo-exchange wells under the building connected to a heat pump, which supply warm water to radiant panels and an underfloor air distribution system. More heat is gathered from the exhaust hoods in the laboratory building next door.

By harvesting renewable and waste energy, CIRS is able to supply not only its own energy needs but also a portion of the needs of an adjacent building. The end result is that the addition of a 4-storey, 5675 square meter building to the campus reduces UBC’s overall energy consumption by over 1 million kilowatt hours per year.

Geo-exchange is the Canadian term for ground source heat pump, that is often inaccurately (at least I think so) called a geothermal system.

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The Atrium

credit: ubc

Peter Busby was one of the first of the deep green architects who also really knew how to design a building that looks good, and it shows in this atrium, full of wood and light and air. It's not just for looks, but also an active part of the lighting and ventilation system for the building.

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Is it the Greenest Building in North America?

credit: UBC

Is CIRS the greenest building in North America? They make a good case for it. UBC calls it a "regenerative building":

Regenerative design is an approach to design where each act of construction and operation of our buildings and communities has a positive effect on the systems it affects. While sustainable design seeks to create balance between the positive and negative impacts of buildings and development, regenerative design seeks to affect human and natural systems positively by bringing them into integration.

That's a tall order, but a great term to replace the tired and almost meaningless "sustainable." There are other buildings on the boards or under construction that may knock it off its perch as the greenest building, but right now it probably holds the title.