by John Robinson for UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 1 | Dec. 29, 2010

The old paradigm aimed to reduce environmental impact. The future is about buildings that actually improve our environment.

Can we build cities with buildings that reduce a community’s energy consumption and carbon emissions, that improve the quality of water flowing through their sites, that restore their environments… and that make people happy?

Yes we can, and we are, right here at UBC.

The old environmental agenda focused on reducing emissions and making things “less bad. ” In this way of thinking, urban development was about reducing impacts and mitigating damage. To my mind, the new sustainability agenda is to design and construct buildings that improve things—that actually make both the physical and human environment better because they exist.

At UBC we are researching how buildings can live within a site’s natural flows—using the rain as a water source, wind for ventilation, and the sun for light; gathering heat from the ground and from neighbouring buildings; purifying wastewater; generating heat and electricity; and using wood as a building material. We’re looking at how a building can restore the environment by being net-positive, meaning it reduces a community’s energy use and emissions, improves the quality of water flowing through the site, and sequesters more carbon than the carbon emitted in constructing the building and decommissioning it at the end of its life.

Adding a restorative building to a city should not only improve environmental quality, but also improve human quality of life. We want to investigate how providing natural light, very high air quality, individual control over ventilation at the workstation level, real-time feedback on building performance, and the ability to influence the operating conditions within the building may make people healthier, happier and more productive.

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), a 60,000 square foot regenerative building currently under construction at the Vancouver campus, is serving as our living lab. When it opens in the summer of 2011, we will test new technologies and explore the building’s impact on the environment and the health, happiness and productivity of its inhabitants.

We are aiming to create a model that can be replicated in cities around the world. UBC is a micro-city of 45,000 students and 19,000 staff and faculty, all learning, working and living on 402 hectares. Our goal is to apply across our campus what we learn in CIRS and, with the help of our partners, in the marketplace. We know there is a misconception that green buildings are prohibitively expensive; in fact, we expect CIRS, with innovative, green features that will allow it to perform well beyond LEED Gold standards, will cost only eight per cent more than a similarly sized building constructed to LEED Gold, the minimum standard for all new public sector buildings in B.C.

It’s going to take effort, vision, and ambition to enhance the environmental and social conditions in cities. The biggest challenges will be around changing the way we think about buildings and cities, and having the courage to aim at targets and practices that are transformative, not just incremental. I think universities have a critical role to play in supporting such a transition. I believe a sustainable world, and sustainable cities, really are within our reach.

John Robinson is a professor with the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability and Director and executive director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative.