Sustainable Cities™

Vancouver: Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, has for a long time been one of the go-to universities for forward-thinking, sustainable solutions. With the building of their new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) the university is taking one step further towards practicing what they preach.

<a href="" target="_blank">CIRS interior from atrium to celing, photo credit: Don Erhardt</a>

The building is designed to be a "living laboratory" and a demonstration site for cutting edge green technology and ideas. In describing CIRS, the university uses the term regenerative instead of sustainable to point to that the building is supposed to regenerate the environment by "net-positive" benefits.

 In terms of energy efficiency, CIRS is designed to make use of the gifts of nature as well as of surrounding buildings on campus. CIRS uses captured heat from the sun, the earth and the nearby building accomodating the Earth and Ocean Sciences . This creates the possibility for the building to heat itself as well as returning surplus energy to other buildings, reducing the use of natural gas for the campus. CIRS also makes use of the rain by harvesting it it, treating it onsite and using it to cover the building´s water need.

In building CIRS, efforts have been made to eliminate carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. The building has primarily a beetle-killed wood structure, an inspiring idea, as the lumber currently is the largest source of carbon emissions in B. C. The building techniques are also designed not to require the use of fossil fuels, which decreases the negative carbon impacts related to construction.

CIRS Green roof, photo credit: Don Erhardt

CIRS has also incorporated smart ideas when it comes to the work environment. The spaces are design to be flexible and user friendly, with for example user-controlled lighting and temperature, and instead of using servers and desktop computers they make use of cloud storage. The building is also constructed to make lighting and ventilation as easy and energy-efficient as possible.

The use of the term regenerative, or net-positive, to describe the building has generated some skepticism. The creation of a 60.000 square foot building providing a net-positive impact on the environment, is something that is easy to dismiss as impossible. To be truly regenerative, it is necessary to monitor all possible impacts of the building from cradle to cradle, and create solutions to generate positive values. The calculated net-positive impacts of CIRS includes the building improving the quality of the water, sequestering more carbon than emitting when being built, and reducing the energy use of the whole campus. These are ambitious goals and, as John Robinson, Executive Director of UBC Sustainability Initiative acknowledges, the results will not be clear for some years.

The project has been criticized for being too expensive ($37 million). The University calculates that the building cost will be re-earned through saves in energy costs. Critics, however, suggests that the expensive building techniques and advanced sustainability gadgets could prevent CIRS from becoming a useful role model for others looking to be inspired. This is a valid point, as not all cities or companies have the resources to invest in such an expensive building with the hopes of recovering their expenses at a later date. However, CIRS can serve as an example of techniques available today, and create the possibility that what is expensive today might inspire and provoke new, cheaper solutions tomorrow.

There is always a risk, when using expressions like sustainable and regenerative too freely, that the meaning of the words will fade. Only the future will tell how regenerative CIRS will become; however, CIRS is likely to create benefits and positive impact on many areas, the greatest one probably on the human level with inspiration and stimulation of new ideas and creative solutions. When a project claims to be regenerative, or "the most sustainable building in North America" this will create debate and attention, and when a project sets such high standards for itself it will be more notoriously scrutinized. In the end it is still safe to say that CIRS project is a truly ambitious project that pushes the limits of sustainability, and that could become an inspiration for sustainable building and as well as for sustainability research.

Read more about Vancouver:

Vancouver Ecodensity Charter: Green livable cities
Newsletter Sustainable Cities: Vancouver Special

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014