How to Design a Building that Restores the Earth

UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability aims to set a new North American standard by actually benefitting the environment.


CIRS is a 'regenerative' building.

What if a building wasn’t just sustainable, but actually benefitted the environment? It’s a lofty goal, but the University of British Columbia is trying to achieve it with the construction of what they believe will be the greenest building in North America.

Right now, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is a two-story shell of a building: there are no doors, the stairs are rough, and rebar and plywood are the main decor instead of office furniture and potted plants. But by the time it’s completed this June, CIRS will be more than just a stylish campus building: it will meet both the LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge standards, and give back more than its taking in air, water and energy, upping the productivity and happiness of the people who inhabit it.

“The aspiration is for a regenerative building, essentially a building that can live within its footprint, what’s available to it in terms of mass and energy flow on the site or within the site,” says Alberto Cayuela, associate director of UBC’s Sustainability Initiative, which is in charge of the CIRS project.

Not just a bunch of hot air

CIRS relies on a series of heating systems, including 16 geothermal rods, solar hot water and a heater exchange connected to the adjacent Earth and Ocean Sciences Building.

In a climate where the amount of heating in winter matches the cooling in summer, geothermal rods could successfully mine the earth’s cooling and hot air to operate a building like CIRS.

But in a place like Vancouver, where the amount of heat required is three times the cooling, a geothermal system runs the risk of taking out too much heat and cooling the earth, causing a system decline over time. To avoid this, CIRS takes as much heat out of the ground as it does cool air, and relies on heat exchangers capturing wasted air from a nearby building to warm up the rest.

“(Earth and Ocean Science Building) consumes 1,600 megawatt hours a year of steam from the steam plant, and 990 goes through the roof, the fume hoods. So that building, by law, that’s 10 air changes in hour in every fume hood, and that’s 990 megawatt hours through the roof,” says John Robinson, executive director of the Sustainability Initiative.

“We’re taking all of that heat, bringing it into CIRS, we only need 300, we’re giving 600 back to that building. So we’re reducing their steam use by 600, which reduces natural gas burning by 860 at the steam plant — that’s 150 times a year. So the net affect of adding this building is to reduce natural gas burning at UBC.”

Robinson hopes building symbiosis models such as this will not only inspire future construction to rely on existing systems and improve them, but will inspire others to think of sustainability as being about more than just one building.

“Sustainability is not a building scale phenomenon, it’s an actual neighbourhood or community scale,” he says.

Water, water everywhere

Few places in the country get as much rain as Vancouver, so it seemed unnecessary to the Sustainability Initiative that all the water for CIRS had to be pumped in from the city reservoir when less than five per cent of the building’s water had to be drinkable.

Instead, CIRS will act as a water treatment plant, collecting and storing rainwater, treating it to grey water standards, and using it for the building’s non-potable water needs, like toilets, urinals, and irrigation.

“This location we get around 1,200-1,300 millimeteres of rain per year, and we have a catchment area of around 500-600 square metres, so there’s a lot of water we can harvest during the year,” says Cayuela.

“We have a 100 cubic metre system essentially that will be our main repository for rainwater harvesting, and we’re going to treat water on demand.”

The treatment process will be aerobic: pumping oxygen into the water to encourage bacteria to eat waste matter and turn it into carbon dioxide. It’s a more energy intensive process than anaerobic treatment, which doesn’t require oxygen but produces methane gas, making it a potentially more dangerous method of water treatment.

During slower periods of the year, such as the summer and Christmas break, CIRS will treat sewage water from other buildings, thereby reducing the amount of wastewater they produce. Excess water or storm run off will be treated and redirected into a well drilled into the aquifer, not only improving the quality of water returned to earth, but preventing the erosion of nearby cliffs.

“The runoff from every building on campus right now goes down through the soil, hits the clay layer, and goes off through the cliffs and erodes the cliffs,” Robinson told The Tyee.

“Our water discharge will go down the well and recharge the aquifer. So it won’t contribute to the cliff erosion.”

Inhabitants vs. occupants

“We think the new sustainability agenda is about making peoples lives better, not just environments’ life better,” says Robinson.

“We define an occupant as a passive recipient of building systems: you go in, you can maybe turn on your lights, you can maybe open your window, and that’s it. Everything else, you don’t know about, you can’t control. Can we instead create a building where people are inhabitants, where they have a sense of place and engagement with their actual building and with the spaces where they work.”

Robinson aims to do that by having each of the building’s inhabitants sign a sustainability charter, committing themselves to achieving CIRS goal of benefitting the environment. But Robinson doesn’t expect people to work towards a new level of sustainability out of the goodness of their own hearts. Instead, he’s offering inhabitants five benefits: high air quality, access to daylight everywhere, individual control of your workstation’s atmosphere, real time feedback on how the building is doing, and the ability to vote on the building’s control systems.

With the exception of the 450 seat auditorium — the largest lecture hall on campus and the only one lit by skylights — Robinson and Cayuela like to boast that every horizontal surface in CIRS is covered in windows, not only allowing in natural light, but giving people control over the air quality by using windows that open manually.

“We’re putting a sensor in each window — the reason is we want to make sure we know at any given time who’s using natural ventilation when conditions allow it,” Cayuela told The Tyee.

“Or, for instance, to what degree our building inhabitants are responding to our requests, for instance if we’re expecting a very warm weekend, and asking people to leave their windows open so that the building doesn’t overheat, to what extent people are doing that.”

‘Net positive in structural carbon': Robinson

Control over personal environment extends beyond opening and closing windows and flicking a light switch, however. Each workstation at CIRS will feature a power and data station, offering updates on the building’s energy and water consumption, as well as an air diffuser you can control.

CIRS will also feature removable partitions instead of drywall, and all the wiring will run through the raised floor system: a full 18 inches of space providing not only the ability to move workstation power systems, but also act as a natural air ventilation system. If you want to convert two small offices into one meeting room, it will take only a handyman, some tools, and a couple of hours to make the change.

In addition, most of the building is made of wood from B.C. and Oregon certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, with the floors and ceilings constructed out of two-by-fours made from pine beetle infested wood — just as strong as reinforced concrete or steel, but better for noise attenuation and prorogation.

“The amount of wood we have in this building represents more carbon being sequestered, locked away, than all the carbon emitted by the construction process and the decommissioning process at the end,” says Robinson.

“We’re net positive in structural carbon, which you don’t hear as much about, you hear a lot about operational carbon, energy use, but we think cities should really take seriously, especially in Canada, of any place on the planet, their responsibility as carbon sequestration engines.”

Driving to work would miss the point

But being the most sustainable building in North America only counts for so much when many people drive their cars to get there. A study by the university’s office of Campus and Community Planning found that in fall 2009, more trips were made to campus by transit than any other method: 58,000 in total. But cars were close behind, with 40,200 trips in the same time period — a 13 per cent decrease in car use since 1997.

Robinson says part of the existence of CIRS will be to house the Sustainability Initiative, dedicated to reducing the University’s carbon footprint through improvements to transit as well as buildings.

“We have very specific goals in all of those areas, a very active program of reducing transport by cars,” he told The Tyee, adding that almost half of the campus’ parking above ground parking spaces have been reclaimed in the last decade, and U-Pass membership has increased transit ridership by 43 per cent.

Don’t expect to see housing projects based on the CIRS model anytime soon, however. Robinson believes the building will inspire other universities in the country to try similar models, especially after the report on the construction costs, estimated to be 15 per cent above the normal rate, is released later this year. But he doesn’t see net positive houses being modeled after the UBC building.

However, Robinson is hopeful some elements of the building are already catching on outside of university campuses.

“You may have seen (news articles about) the cross laminated timber potential for actually building high rises out of wood; it’s never been possible. Right now, six stories, I think, is the max,” he says. “But the new technology, cross laminated timber, opens the door to significant construction and Canada should be leading the world in this stuff. We have a lot of wood.”

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) and was made possible through the support of the Vancity/Real Estate Foundation of BC Green Building Grant Program. Support for this project does not necessarily imply endorsement of the findings or contents of these reports. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.