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property report

The courtyard at the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.Martin Tessler

It's the leader in a new generation of green construction – buildings that will do much more than just reduce harm to the environment.

Instead, say the passionate advocates who built the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, it will show how buildings can enhance the planet's health, along with the health and happiness of humans who work in them.

"CIRS will demonstrate that a building can be regenerative," says UBC Professor John Robinson, who spent 10 years on a mission to create what he believes is a revolutionary model for sustainable building. "It's designed to be net positive in four ways for the environment and three ways for human health."

It's the most energy-efficient building in North America, adds architect Peter Busby, who worked with Prof. Robinson throughout the gruelling planning process for the $23-million, 65,000-square-foot centre.

"It can live on the rain that falls on it. There's no wastewater leaving the building. It can run with all the lights off during the day," he says, listing the details that went into its design.

But besides that, it also helps to reduce the energy load of the campus. The energy collected from its photovoltaic cells can be routed into the university's overall system. The building can also trap waste heat from the neighbouring Earth Sciences complex and use it to heat both buildings.

From a distance, the CIRS building looks like several other recent additions to the UBC campus – sleekly modern, glass and metal, with bands of colour layered between rows of windows.

It's not until you approach the front door that it starts to feel different. There, a small, glassed-in cube sits to one side of the front door, with what looks like a small conservatory of tropical plants.

The cube is an on-site sewage treatment facility that ensures that everything that goes into the toilets in this 250-person building is turned into usable water and compost. It's a tangible sign of how far the builders have taken the principle of not fouling the planetary nest.

It's just one small part of a menu of elements aimed at creating a building that gives back to the environment in four key ways – energy, water and two types of carbon reduction – and through dozens of design features.

Beetle-killed pine was used throughout to preserve the carbon that trees accumulate in their lifetimes. Glass window shades include photovoltaic cells to generate energy, chocolate vines have been planted to shade west-facing windows, and modular office partitions can be reassembled when space needs to change.

Another example of its unique design is a little walkway by the main door – it cuts through the ground floor diagonally between the sewage facility and the main part of the building. It has no direct environmental benefit. But it does illustrate the way the building has been shaped to reflect the way people live. The walkway preserves an old shortcut that students used to take across the lot, one that leads them to a small grassy park on the other side.

That's all part of the effort to give people in and around the building a sense of control and inclusion, something the designers believe will pay off in tangible results.

Prof. Robinson says the university will be collecting data on the health, productivity and happiness of its inhabitants, to assess the impact of enhanced levels of daylight, fresh air, spaces for people to interact and, most importantly, the ability to modify all of those.

"We'll be looking at data over the next two years to see 'Do you those give people a sense of control?' and does that improve life for them," says Prof. Robinson, who has now been put in charge of sustainability initiatives for the whole UBC campus.

Prof. Robinson is a missionary believer that the old environmental approach – humans should stop doing, buying and building to preserve the planet – is not going to work with the younger generation. "People don't leap on the sacrifice bandwagon."

Instead, buildings such as CIRS can show them that human activity can be a plus for the environment.

And, he says, universities are uniquely qualified to lead the way. Unlike cities, which are bogged down by complex ownership and decision-making patterns, universities are single decision-makers, owners of physical stock, and institutions with a public mandate. As well, Canadian universities, unlike European universities, own their buildings.

"Every university on the planet should be doing this kind of research. And Canadian universities should take the lead," he says.

He is hoping to see more buildings such as CIRS on his campus, on other university campuses, and eventually in cities around the world. The signs seem to be there, he said. He and his staff have been doing non-stop tours since CIRS opened in September.

"It's exciting times. The snowball is growing."