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John Robinson Head ShotJohn Robinson, the Executive Director of the University of British Columbia’s Sustainability Initiative sat down with AASHE to discuss the recently opened Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) building to promote sustainability research. Dr. Robinson has been teaching at UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability since 1992. Prior to joining UBC, he taught in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Environment and Resource Studies.

Keep reading for a detailed look into the making of a regenerative building, and what makes CIRS a new kind of “green” building.

In addition to the long-term environmental benefits that the building can provide, what social benefits does the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) building embody and exemplify as a “green” building?

CIRS seeks to be green, humane and smart.

Regarding “humane,” CIRS aims to provide a socially and bio-physically healthy environment for human habitation which adapts to changing needs and uses over time, and which contributes to a continuous improvement in the health, productivity and happiness of building inhabitants.

Regarding “smart,” the CIRS building process applies human design intelligence augmented with monitoring and feedback to engage building inhabitants to get the most out of the available energy and material flows afforded by the site and its surroundings. We seek to integrate building performance and the performance of building inhabitants in an ongoing dance intended to improve the green and humane features of CIRS over time.

Related CIRS features include:

  • good acoustical performance.
  • building inhabitant control over local environment conditions to increase comfort (e.g. air flow, air temperature, operable windows, adjustable lighting, etc.).
  • access to daylight in every occupied area of the building.
  • natural ventilation when conditions allow it.
  • pre- and post-occupancy evaluations of building inhabitant satisfaction and creation of a feedback loop for continuous improvement over time.
  • a set of sustainability principles for the building that can be adhered to by building inhabitants to incentivize them to participate in energy and water conservation efficiency programs and waste reduction initiatives.
  • access to building performance and energy and water use and efficiency data through a user interface that allows participation in the continuous optimization of energy and water use in the building.

Who were the key stakeholders involved in the CIRS building project? What role did you and others with the UBC Sustainability Initiative play in conceptualizing and implementing the CIRS project?

I conceived the project in 1999 as part of the Sustainable Development Research Initiative at UBC (now the Institute for Resources, the Environmental and Sustainability), in response to a need for demonstrated sustainability research in design and building practices – a showcase of applied sustainability principles. The vision was refined in discussions with architect Peter Busby. Alberto Cayuela, Associate Director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative and CIRS, was a key member of the team from the early days.

Partners have committed more than $23 million in support for CIRS, including the federal government ($8.4 million), the provincial government ($5.7 million), and Modern Green Development, China’s largest green real estate developer ($3.5 million). CIRS also has strategic partnerships with corporations such as Haworth for adaptable workspaces, and Honeywell for building controls and automation – both of which made in-kind contributions to the facility.

Given that much of your own work has focused on marrying sustainability-related curriculum with operational efforts on campus, are there efforts underway to integrate the CIRS building into coursework at UBC? For instance, will students be involved in measuring and tracking reductions in GHG emissions, maintaining renewable energy technologies, etc. as part of for-credit work?

Students are involved in all areas of research at CIRS. Specific examples include life cycle assessment of CIRS and other buildings; pre- and post-occupancy evaluation; studying the social dimensions of sustainability; measuring and tracking building performance; behavioral change programming; and community engagement tools and processes.

What were the biggest challenges in executing the CIRS building project?

The CIRS Technical Manual documents dozens of challenges across multiple areas and systems. Some highlights include:

  • Maintaining the project team energy: At times during the 12-year development of the project, CIRS was “on life support” and the prospect of project completion was thought unachievable. Without continuous effort and the determination of Peter Busby, Alberto Cayuela and others, the project would never have been completed or the project ambitions might have diminished by compromise.
  • Maintaining the project team continuity: A number of important stakeholders in the history of CIRS left the project team or joined other organizations. This proved to be a challenge where detailed and easily accessible project documentation is imperative to maintain the continuity of the project design process and ensure achievement of project objectives.
  • Educating stakeholders: A key task of the project team was educating the stakeholders regarding the complex issues of sustainability involved in the project and ambitious goals set for CIRS. The project vision had to be communicated effectively to different types of audiences, including building professionals, academics and the general public.
  • Resolving ambitions with costs constraints: The project team had to deliver a high-performance building with innovative systems within the acceptable range of costs for standard lab buildings. Some systems, such as external operable solar shades and a control system for the operable windows in the office/lab blocks, could not be implemented because of the budget constraints.
  • Balancing design objectives: The decision to use a wood structure was made very early in the design process and constrained some of the more elaborate possible building forms and design features. One of the early design sketches for CIRS showed the building cantilevered over the pedestrian path that existed on the site. While this dramatic form may have made CIRS more iconic and brought more attention to the project, the project team decided that the wood structural system was the most sustainable option.

What outreach and engagement strategies were used to keep the campus community informed of the CIRS project during the construction process?

Strategies included use of social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr) as well as articles in UBC Reports.

How have building occupants been educated about the green or sustainable elements of the building?

First, note that we describe people working in CIRS not as occupants but as inhabitants. Occupants are passive recipients of buildings systems; inhabitants have a sense of place in and engagement with the building. We will ask inhabitants to sign a sustainability charter, committing them to working towards the sustainability goals of the building, in return for very high air quality, individual control over ventilation and real-time feedback on building performance at the workstation level, day lighting throughout the building, and ability to vote on the control strategies of the building. The inhabitants have been educated through meetings and tours.

How do you foresee the completion of CIRS influencing other sustainability efforts at UBC?

Based on the CIRS experience and the lessons learned thus far we believe that a significant opportunity exists to create an innovative model for the development of new building projects and major building renovations and upgrades on campus. Given the significant benefits that UBC could derive from deploying a more aggressive and far-reaching green building development model, we propose to create a new approach to green buildings on campus based on our CIRS experience and demonstrate it on a representative sample of UBC projects currently on the planning stages.

Aside from the CIRS building, how are you incorporating the social justice dimension into your sustainability work?

Social justice is a key component of sustainability, and our goal is to incorporate it throughout the activities of the University (e.g. rental cost student housing on campus is designed to be cheaper than anything that can be found within a one hour commute from UBC).

In what area(s) do you see the biggest room for growth in the higher education sustainability field?

I believe universities have a critical role to play as societal test-beds for sustainability. As post-secondary institutions, we can prove out the technical, economic and behavioral aspects of sustainability in the simpler institutional environmental of a university, with a view to contributing to commercialization of such technologies and application of such policies elsewhere. Universities have a set of characteristics that make them uniquely qualified to serve in this role for society: we are single owner-occupiers of significant capital stock, with our own energy, water and waste systems; we are (in some jurisdictions) public institutions that can be a little more forgiving on pay-backs and long-sighted on returns; we teach; and we do research. No other societal institution has this mix of capabilities. Thus universities have a responsibility, but also significant academic and operational opportunity, to be at the forefront of the sustainability transition.

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