Canada’s greenest prof (Page 1 of 2)
Vancouver might just be home to the greenest building in the world. Meet the geography professor who brought it to life.
By Timothy Taylor with photography by
|The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC boasts many green features, including an auditorium that’s covered by a living roof and planted with native species. (photo: Marina Dodis)
The first thing you’ll notice upon
entering the University of British Columbia’s
brand-new Centre for Interactive Research
on Sustainability on the school’s Point Grey
campus is that the building has a dashboard.
You will also notice some other features of
the structure being touted as “the greenest
building in the world.” Almost every interior
space, for instance, is bathed in natural light. The
corridors seem to breathe with unconditioned air, pleasantly
scented with the pine that is the structure’s most
obvious material. It also has a lecture hall covered by
a mounded green roof, which forms a hillock of grass and
shrubs between the two main wings of the building. But
that dashboard — a wall-mounted flat-screen display
showing the state of various building functions — just
might capture and hold your attention the longest because
of the crowd gathered around it.
That’s par for the course at the Centre for Interactive
Research on Sustainability (CIRS), which has been a magnet
for attention since it opened late last year. At any given
hour, even when one of the ongoing tours is not in progress,
you’ll find people standing in the lobby discussing the data
on that dashboard, which shows, among other things, how
much water has been recycled that day, the kilojoules count
of harvested solar energy and the rate of thermal-heat
extraction from the soil on which the building sits.
CIRS is more than a workspace for living things, as the
dashboard and the animated conversation attest. It’s a living thing itself. People engage with it as if it were
of an order higher than architecture.
If that’s your reaction, then John
Robinson will be pleased. The man who
almost single-handedly brought this building
to life is committed not only to making
structures green in the ecological sense (more
on that in a moment) but also to making
them more humanly engaging. “CIRS is designed to be net
positive in seven ways,” says Robinson. “Ecologically net
positive in energy, operational carbon, water and structural
carbon. And also net positive against three human factors:
health, productivity and happiness.”
Robinson had just returned to Vancouver from the
Planet Under Pressure conference in London, England, the
day before we meet. But the man some refer to as “Dr.
Sustainability” has nothing but energetic enthusiasm when
talking about the UBC Sustainability Initiative, an ambitious
academic and operational approach to sustainability,
of which he’s executive director and CIRS is the public face.
Robinson stresses that measurements are still being gathered
on the exact degree to which the building succeeds in
being net positive in the seven ways sought. (Preliminary
results have been positive.) But that only highlights the
building’s primary function as a “test bed,” in Robinson’s
words. The $37 million, four-storey, 5,400-square-metre
“living laboratory” offers a multidisciplinary space on campus
for sustainability education and research and a physical
structure in which sustainability ideas can be deployed and evaluated at scale. Jet-lagged or otherwise, Robinson is
obviously still charged up about the project that he and
architect Peter Busby first discussed in 2001. After their
team considered four locations and five different designs,
construction started in the fall of 2009, and researchers
began moving in last September.
In addition to being an emblem of UBC’s sustainability
efforts, the building can also be looked at as a culminating
statement about Robinson’s influential career to date.
Embedded in those pine timbers, and in details such as the
skylight-mounted solar cells that double as energy collectors
and providers of dappled shade, is a carefully built world
view on sustainability that owes a lot to the route Robinson
has taken through his professional life.
Originally interested in law (his father was
a judge), Robinson found his vision of the future irrevocably
altered when Monte Hummel — then head of Pollution
Probe, later president of World Wildlife Fund Canada —
came to speak to his grade-13 classroom in Port Hope, Ont.
“It was the first time I heard the word ‘environment’ used
as a field or an issue,” says Robinson. “Nobody could say
that today. We get it from kindergarten on up.”
Robinson remembers the defining moment of Hummel’s
address to the students. “He showed us these cards. They
ranged in colour from very light grey to very dark. He said,
‘When you see smoke coming from an industrial smokestack,
hold up these cards. If the smoke is darker than
number three, phone the air management branch and
report a violation.’” Robinson chuckles. “Such was the state
of citizen science in 1970.” Still, he was hooked.
Robinson went on to work on the committee opposing
the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, which led to an interest in
energy issues, which led to a geography degree from the
University of Toronto, a master’s in geography from
Toronto’s York University and a Ph.D. in the same field (thesis subtitle: An Investigation of Energy Policy and
Conceptual Frameworks) from the University of Toronto
in 1981. A professor in the University of Waterloo’s department
of environment and resource studies before moving
on to UBC’s geography department 20 years ago, Robinson
has won several prestigious awards, including a share of the
Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for being a lead author in the last
three assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change and a major award from BC Hydro in 2010 for
advancing energy conservation in the province. But thinking
back to his formative years, Robinson remembers his interest
being driven not strictly by the ecological aspects of environmentalism
but by a growing sense of a cultural moment that
offered the opportunity for broader change.
“It was all totally naive,” he says of the prevailing attitudes
among young people four decades ago. “Putting
flowers in gun barrels. But there was this strong sense of
social concern. The world needed to be fixed, and our
generation was trying to fix it, or so it seemed at the time.
For me, that was the underlying motivation, that there was
a responsibility and an opportunity to change things.”