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University of British Columbia Claims Credit for 'North America's Greenest Building'

Dec 05, 2011

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has just completed a new sustainability center that it is calling "North America's greenest building." UBC intends for the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) to serve as a "living laboratory" for environmental innovation.

CIRS buildingDesigned by architecture firm Perkins+Will, the new $37 million, 60,000-square-foot, four-story building exceeds LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum and Living Building Challenge standards. Not satisfied with a net-zero project, UBC designed the CIRS building to be "net-positive." The university's announcement about the project says the building "reduces UBC's carbon emissions, powers itself and a neighboring building with renewable and waste energy, creates drinking water from rain, and treats wastewater on-site." (Photo: New CIRS building. Credit: Don Erhardt. Courtesy of the University of British Columbia.)

How a "Net-Positive" Building Works

A presentation at the CIRS web site provides some cutaway drawings and explanations of how the building's systems work. (Drawings shown here are courtesy of the University of British Columbia and the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability.)

The building's design and orientation makes maximum use of daylight and shading for its lighting scheme. The building incorporates a "living wall," or "green wall," that provides shade on the western side of the building in summer. The living wall, constructed of a metal framework and mesh, is planted with chocolate vines that live well in containers and climb vigorously. In winter, the wall drops its leaves, allowing sunlight into the building interior. The wings of the U-shaped building are narrow (a configuration called a "narrow floorplate" by Perkins+Will), which results in a lot of exterior wall exposure all around the building, in turn allowing for considerable window surface to bring in natural light, as well as fresh air.

CIRS lighting

The CIRS building is net-positive for energy performance, employing multiple systems to achieve that. A heat-recovery system captures waste heat from the nearby Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS) building's laboratory exhaust system; it transfers that heat to heat pumps that provide heating and cooling for CIRS. Excess heat gets channeled back to the EOS building in a usable form. The system harvests a considerably amount of waste energy, according to the presentation:

The lab exhaust provides a continuous exhaust of 10,384 liters per second (623,000 liters per minute or 22,000 cubic feet per minute) and provides more heat annually than is required by CIRS ... the amount of energy in the heat transferred [back] to EOS is greater than the total amount of energy consumed in CIRS.

The building also taps geothermal energy. Solar power systems are incorporated into the roof and into the sunshades on the windows. Solar energy is also used for domestic hot water.

CIRS energy systems

CIRS is built to be completely water-self-sufficient, receiving all of its potable water through rainwater collection. Rainwater is collected on the building's roofs, then channeled to an underground cistern for filtering and treatment. The cistern can hold a three-months supply of water.

CIRS rainwater system

Living systems are incorporated into the building, including the green wall mentioned earlier, a green roof, and a rain garden. The green roof is part of the building's rainwater harvesting system. However, it is also designed to use reclaimed sewage, as described by the designers:

The roof also indirectly reduces the burden on the municipal sewage treatment system; in the summer months when the building is sparsely occupied, the solar aquatic system imports sewage from the municipal system in order to maintain the volume of treated water available for irrigation in the driest months of the year. The need to provide steady year-round irrigation was one of the driving factors in this innovative "sewer mining" solution. The living roof is therefore supplied with nutrient and phosphorous-rich water throughout the year, independent of both rainfall and the level of inhabitation in the building.

The university's choice of construction materials for the project contributed to its LEED and Living Building qualification. The announcement says,

CIRS is one of the few commercial buildings constructed primarily of certified wood and beetle-killed wood (currently B.C.'s largest source of carbon emissions). Its wood structure locks in more than 500 tonnes of carbon, offsetting the GHG emissions that resulted from the use of other non-renewable construction materials in the building such as cement, steel, and aluminum.

The university says the new building will return "600 megawatt hours of surplus energy back to campus." It will "require no fossil fuel" and will remove "an additional 150 tonnes of GHG emissions annually through reduced natural gas use."

What's Going on Inside

CIRS is conceived as a center for education and research in sustainability in the Vancouver region. The center seeks to spearhead projects in the community that advance sustainable design, operations, and public policies. The organization works with private-sector and non-profit partners, who sometimes serve as funding sources, but also as collaborators in research and training, and in testing and demonstration of new building technologies and systems.

CIRS living wall frameCIRS's current partners include electric utility BC Hydro; Haworth Inc., a designer and manufacturer of office furniture and organic workspaces; technology company Honeywell; and Modern Green Development Co., a Chinese property developer interested in market-based solutions to sustainability challenges. (Photo: Living wall frame with young vines. Credit: Martin Dee. Courtesy of the University of British Columbia.)

The center sees its new building as a living laboratory, and will use it as "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." The university's announcement says the building will be used "to study users' interactions with the facility to improve building performance, maximize the happiness, health and productivity of its inhabitants, and advance best green building practices at UBC and beyond." Research projects planned at the center include psychological studies of the building's affect on the people using it, as well as "methods for encouraging people to act sustainably."

The center houses building-management systems and simulation labs that will allow students and researchers to study the building's systems and indoor air quality in real time.

The 'Greenest Building Anywhere'?

The LEED Platinum certification achieved by the UBC center is the highest rating possible under the United States Green Building Council (USBC) LEED program. LEED measures building performance in such areas as site selection and development, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, use of materials and resources, indoor air quality, and design innovation.

As of 2009, UBC requires all building projects at its Vancouver campus to meet LEED Gold or equivalent. While the CIRS team did target LEED certification, Martin Nielsen, principal at Perkins+Will, maintains that,

We avoided using the LEED checklist to design the building. We established goals based on what was the right thing to do. We wanted to avoid 'point-chasing.'

The Living Building Challenge (LBC), perhaps not as well known or widely adopted as LEED, steps up the requirements for green construction. LBC, run by the International Living Building Institute, calls its set of standards "the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today." The organization believes that LBC "provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment." It says "projects that achieve this level of performance can claim to be the 'greenest' anywhere." (See my previous article, "Living Buildings: Like LEED on Whole-Grain Natural Steroids.")

Buildings that are the 'greenest anywhere' -- an ambitious objective. It appears that the University of British Columbia might be able to lay claim to that achievement, at least for now.