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A new kind of green

Jeremy Shepherd learns about building that's good for the environment

THE recently completed Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC represents a new environmental philosophy - it may be the rare building that is good for the environment.

"The net effect is, UBC uses less energy and burns less carbon because we added a building," says John Robinson, executive director of the UBC sustainability initiative.

While many green buildings are making strides to reduce the harm they wreak on the environment, the $37-million CIRS attempts to benefit the environment primarily through a process Robinson calls "heat scavenging."

CIRS is located next to a lab that ventilates its hot air as frequently as 10 times an hour through fume hoods on the roof.

"We're taking all that heat into our building, we only need about a third of it, so we're giving them back two-thirds of the heat we take from them," Robinson explains.

While the process requires a substantial amount of electricity, it also cuts the need for burning natural gas.

"That reduction in natural gas and the associated carbon dioxide that goes up the stack when you burn gas, that reduction is greater than the extra energy we need to do all that," Robinson says.

The technology should save the school nearly 300 megawatt hours each year, according to Robinson.

"Sustainability is a neighbourhood phenomenon, don't try to do it all within the shell of your building," Robinson says, discussing the lessons he's learned in the long process of seeing the building come to fruition.

The project began in 1999 when UBC's president asked each centre on campus to come up with a five-year plan.

"We thought we needed to walk the talk a bit and contribute to the actual creation of the kind of thing we'd been arguing for," Robinson says.

Although there was a commitment to the idea, Robinson says the project didn't really take shape until he met with a like-minded architect.

"We didn't see a way forward until I met in 2001 with Peter Busby," Robinson says. "We had a meeting and we just hit it off. We were sort of completing each other's sentences."

Busby, whose whole working life is sustainable buildings, according to Robinson, helped move the project to the next stage.

"That really pushed our ideas forward quite a bit and. . . eventually resulted in us getting funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 2004."

While Robinson was still uncertain a building could have a positive impact on the environment, he was eager to try.

"Can buildings actually be net-positive?" Robinson asks.

"We think it's very appropriate that universities be trying and answer that question."

The CIRS building is primarily constructed out of beetle-killed wood, a building practice Robinson says is crucial in B.C.

"Surely if there's any place in the world that should be building with wood, it should be B.C."

Besides adding to the risk of forest fires, beetle-killed wood releases a massive amount of greenhouse gas.

"That's a massive catastrophe happening all around us in B.C." Robinson says.

"We thought it was really important to sequester that wood. . . . When you do build with wood, you lock in that carbon."

The wood used in the construction of the building is designed to trap approximately 500 tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted through decay.

While Robinson is excited about the technical achievement the building represents, he's equally excited about its story.

"The narrative out there of limits and constraints and even sacrifice, isn't a very empowering narrative. People don't get excited by it. They don't run out and change their behaviour when they're told that we're destroying the planet." Robinson says. "We were interested in finding ways to have a story about sustainability that people did find compelling and exciting."

The concept of regenerative sustainability is fairly new, and Robinson is trying his best to jump the hurdles that form in front of new ideas.

"If you sort of peel away the layers of the onion a little bit, what you find in almost every single case is institutional barriers."

Using ground source heat pumps and treating sewage at the site is unusual, which has sometimes made it difficult to deal with health and building inspectors, according to Robinson.

"All these rules were defined without really considering sustainability. And changing the rules of the game is the biggest barrier." Although the building may require some retrofitting to deal with the building's acoustics, Robinson says the problems in the building are a product of striving to create something better and the necessity of learning from failure.

"The purpose of the building was to push the envelope, to be right out at the frontier of performance and then know that we're going to fail."