The University of British Columbia (UBC) sits atop a hill at the westernmost tip of Vancouver. The campus’s natural beauty is an inspiration, even while its built surroundings fall well short of the mark. But Perkins+Will’s new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), which opened last August, tries to narrow that gap.
The 61,085-square-foot, $23 million (CAD) structure sits on an infill site just west of the campus’s Main Mall, edging a new landscaped “Sustainability Street” cross-axis. Inside are offices for various academic departments devoted to the study of sustainable principles, in the built environment and otherwise. UBC Sustainability Initiative executive director John Robinson (whose office is in CIRS) was the key partner in developing the plans for the center. He’s also a professor at the school’s Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability, as well as a professor in the department of geography. When a client has that broad of a portfolio, good things can happen.
There’s hardly a feature of the building—or its operation—that isn’t in some ways experimental. CIRS expects to achieve LEED-NC Platinum status while striving for the much more difficult Living Building Challenge (only three buildings have, as yet, been awarded this honor). In addition to following the high standards of both Canada Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute, the team developed its own agenda for making the building as “regenerative” as possible. “The building was designed to be ‘net-positive’ in seven different ways—four environmental and three human,” Robinson says. These are: net-positive energy; structural carbon neutrality; operational carbon; net-zero water; turning passive occupants into active inhabitants; promoting health and productivity; and promoting happiness. “We won’t do it if it doesn’t empower or motivate,” Robinson says. Perkins+Will managing director Peter Busby, Intl. Assoc. AIA, boils his architectural response down to three elements: “It’s all about air quality, light, and wood.”
Organized on a courtyard plan that is open at the east end, the building features a 450-seat auditorium filling its center on the ground level. Upper floors overlook a green roof atop the auditorium space. The west side of the building is inflected to fill the site with a series of sawtooth vegetated screens, and an existing path is maintained to create a covered accessible entrance while separating the wastewater-reclamation area.
The four-story structure is framed in wood (with a concrete foundation and basement), not just for its aesthetic but also to help the building be net-positive for carbon. The wood sequesters 600 tons of carbon compared to the 525 tons of carbon needed to create the building and its finishes. But there is one particular wood that may actually keep CIRS from fully meeting the Living Building Challenge: Busby and Robinson decided to use so-called “denim wood” on the exposed structural decking. A product of forests that have been infested with pine beetles, the wood has a bluish tone—and a nice irregular finish left by the parasites. It’s not FSC certified since the forests can’t be replanted immediately, but “we’re using it before it decays,” Robinson says, which would release the sequestered carbon back into the environment.
The wood structure is exposed on the interior, and its expression continues with exterior panels made of a three-ply, cross-laminated cedar. Busby notes that the wood structural members are bolted together—so the structure could, in theory, be dismantled and reused.
Natural daylight pours through every space in the building, even the fire stairs. The lecture hall is daylit too, an unusual design feature that Busby tries to use in many of his buildings. As part of CIRS’s research initiative, UBC’s psychology department is studying the effects of daylight on the hall’s occupants. Offices are located in the north and south wings of the building, linked by the full-height Commons at the west. Office windows are shaded by a screen that incorporates photovoltaics while the west façade’s glazing is screened using a vegetative wall with deciduous vines that allow the winter sun to enter the building’s common spaces while shading them during the summer months. Interior partitions on the upper floors are from a Haworth system. They’re movable and are already being used in several configurations.
CIRS wears its sustainable initiatives proudly, but it’s hardly an “edgy” building, despite its experimental processes. “John Robinson thought the building would have to be green and curvy,” Perkins+Will principal Martin Nielsen says, but Busby notes that that wasn’t the way to go. “It needs to be plug and play.” This allows for future study of building systems and deployment that can be implemented farther afield as the campus’s larger sustainable initiatives become a reality. And the leadership of CIRS shows no interest in slowing down.
ToolBox: Net-zero Water system
The key to CIRS’s net-zero water strategy lies in a ground-floor wastewater-treatment plant that’s clearly visible to building visitors and passersby from the general public. Located on the southwest corner of the building, the plant is glazed on three sides—part of CIRS’s mission to expose as much of its workings as possible.
Rainwater is collected and treated for potable use within the building. All wastewater moves through a solar aquatics biofiltration system before being fed back into the building for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation. The system’s 10,000-liter-per-day wastewater system capacity is far greater than the 7,473 liters of treated wastewater used per day by the building operations. The treated water that is not used is currently fed back to the sewer line (health concerns by the approving authority prevent UBC from releasing treated blackwater back into the ground). But the excess capacity (and the funneling of extra potable water to the rest of campus) speaks to a larger goal that UBC Sustainability Initiative executive director John Robinson has for the university—net-zero water for the entire campus. It’s not such a reach considering British Columbia’s climate. There are 5 billion liters of rainwater that fall on the UBC campus each year and, on average, the campus uses only 3.89 billion liters of water in that same time period. "We can get 100 percent of our water from the rain," Robinson says.
Robinson notes how unusual it is for CIRS to put wastewater treatment on display. "People don’t want to think of wastewater," Robinson says, "but this treatment plant smells like a greenhouse." It looks like a greenhouse, too—since the various treatment tanks use plants to aid the biofiltration process throughout the year. "The water is cleaner when it leaves the facility than when it enters as rain," Robinson says. "That’s net-positive in both water and quality."