The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, claims that its new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is the world’s greenest building, specifically designed to deliver “net positive” benefits to the environment. It is a four-story, 60,000 square-foot building that cost $37 million when completed in late 2010. When I was given a tour by one of the Centre’s staff in July 2012, I learned several valid reasons why this claim may be justified.
By capturing waste heat from the earth, the sun, and the adjacent Earth and Oceans Sciences building, the CIRS building heats itself and returns 600 megawatt hours of surplus energy to the encompassing campus network. The CIRS building systems require no fossil fuels, the surplus energy removes 150 tons of GHG (Green House Gas) emissions annually through reduced natural gas use. The primarily wood structure locks in more than 500 tons of carbon, eliminating GHG emissions that would have resulted from non-renewable construction materials or unused beetle-killed timber (the current devastation of B.C. forests by a beetle-plague), the province’s largest source of carbon emissions. The capture and treatment of rainwater from the outside surfaces of the building satisfies the water needs of the 200 inhabitants, in addition to frequent auditorium and café users. The building’s U-shape architectural design maximizes the amount of natural daylight and fresh air for inhabitants, who control their own work environment through their computers, assisted by skylight-mounted solar cells – no light switches or wiring in the walls of the building. CIRS has no computer servers – desktop computers store everything in the “cloud” (part of a UBC green information technology pilot project). All waste water and sewage from this building is processed through a compact filtration recycling plant (located behind glass walls at the entrance to the building) which returns water for irrigation on the property and returns excess re-cycled water to the aquifer through reverse wells.
Research psychologists are using the CIRS building to study how best to encourage people to adopt sustainability in their lives. The center of these studies is the high-technology 450-seat auditorium constructed with a garden over its roof to enhance the quality of air intake, natural lighting, and transformable seating inside. It is called the “Decision Centre” because of its multi-modal image-technology, even including projection on central screens expanded by projection on walls below the windows that can be controlled from laptop computers by the audience as well as the leader’s central console. “We’re giving people an opportunity to walk into an alternate future” explains design team leader, Professor Stephen Sheppard. “They will be immersed in an environment that looks and feels like an actual place in 2050. They can see possible consequences of their community’s decisions and lifestyles.” This theater is being used for interactive presentations, perception research, conference workshops, art installations and collaborative planning sessions for all university departments.
According to UBC Professor John Robinson, Executive Director of CIRS, named “Environmental Scientist of the Year” by Canadian Geographic magazine, “CIRS is a place for big ideas that have global impacts.” I believe it.