Sustainable Energy Lecture: Redefining Green: UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS)

Speaker: Dr. John B. Robinson

Date: September 18, 2012

About the Speaker

Dr. Robinson is Associate Provost, Sustainability at the University of British Columbia and a Professor in the Institute of Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, and in the Department of Geography. In 2012, Canadian Geographic named him Canada’s Environmental Scientist of the Year.

About the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series

This presentation is part of an ongoing series of lectures on aspects of sustainable energy which are part of the Master’s program in Sustainable Energy, organized by the Carleton Research Unit in Innovation, Science and Environment (CRUISE) and the Carleton Sustainable Energy Research Centre (CSERC). The lecture series was established in 2010, and since then has covered diverse topics ranging from examinations of the sustainability of nuclear power, to Aboriginal energy projects in Canada, and the ability to catalyze action on climate change.

Regenerative Sustainability

UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is a research centre housed in a new, net-positive building on UBC’s Vancouver campus. It is symbolic of the transition to regenerative sustainability necessary for urban centers to continue the delivery of essential services to citizens in a fully sustainable manner: clean air, clean water, energy, land uses, transportation, housing, livelihoods, health care, waste disposal, and social justice. The transition to effective growth management requires, in part, restorative buildings that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, as well as regenerate the human and natural environment.

Dr Robinson’s thesis is that the narrative of sustainability has thus far usually been articulated in terms of limits and constraints, and of actions based on mitigating impacts of human activity on the environment. However, sacrifice is not a motivating force and reducing environmental impact does not go far enough; society must move beyond net-zero and become net-positive. Regenerative sustainability envisions a way forward in which our buildings and communities contribute to the well-being of the planet and those living on it.

CIRS is a case study of how a building can be regenerative in terms of environmental and human impacts. CIRS aims to become an internationally recognized leader in accelerating the adoption of sustainable building and urban development practices. This innovative and high performance building achieves net positive returns on: energy, water quality, operational and structural carbon, productivity, health, and happiness. In addition, CIRS engages with inhabitants who benefit from enhanced air quality, day-lighting, ventilation, food and social spaces, and feedback and control. Challenges in producing a restorative building have been largely institutional roadblocks in the form of regulatory organizations locked in deep path dependence and institutional rigidity, not economic or technical obstacles. 

CIRS as Research Project

With ongoing research projects in building performance, inhabitant behavioural research, lifecycle assessment and costing, regenerative neighbourhood projects, and many more, CIRS is more than a “green” building; over 3,000 points of monitoring evaluate performance areas ranging from total electricity usage to the amount of storm-water harvested and redirected to recharge the aquifer. Comparative behavioural research examines the effect of the building on occupant recycling behaviour, mood and creativity, learning outcomes and more in order to understand the human components of the integrated building system.

Lifecycle analysis takes a consistent and comprehensive sustainability evaluation framework which includes an Integrated Design Process (IDP), green construction, pre-occupancy commissioning of the building, and continuous optimization of operations. In contrast to traditional buildings this broadened scope and regenerative context results in a reduction in the lifecycle cost of the building; higher capital costs are offset by lower operating costs over the life of the building, which leads to greater appeal for commercial building owners.

CIRS is intended to contribute to Canada’s role as a world leader in three interconnected fields of applied sustainability: building design and operations, visualization and community engagement, and partnerships and strategies of regional implementation. The innovative and high performance building is an introductory step in a larger initiative that goes beyond the building shell.

From vision to reality

Dr. Robinson suggested four reasons why CIRS is a reality:

1.   Leadership: the President of UBC is a strong advocate for sustainability;

2.   B.C. carbon tax: UBC pays $3 million a year in carbon taxes and mandatory offsets;

3.   Culture of sustainability in B.C.; and,

4.   Previous record of success: the UBC EcoTrek program, the largest university retrofit program in Canada, was launched in 2001 and saved the university millions of dollars in energy costs. 

UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI)

The goal of the USI is to deeply integrate operational and academic efforts in sustainability across the university, and to turn the UBC campus into a kind of societal test-bed, where partners from the private, public and NGO sectors can work with students and faculty on the technical, economic, and behavioural aspects of sustainability.

Universities are uniquely qualified to serve as test-beds because they are autonomous decision-makers and owner-occupiers with a great deal of capital stock and multiple buildings housing a variety of energy, water, and waste systems. Also, universities are public institutions which can afford to be long-sighted on returns for the sake of education and research. And universities teach and do research. No other societal institution has this mix of capabilities. As such, universities have a responsibility and significant academic and operational opportunity to be at the forefront of the sustainability transition and to train students in sustainability skills.

The University’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions are to reduce GHG from 2007 levels (already 6 per cent lower than 1990 levels) by 33 per cent by 2015, by 67 per cent by 2020, and 100 per cent by 2050. The 2015 target will be achieved, in part, through $150 million investment in four signature projects: CIRS, the Bioenergy Research & Demonstration Facility, a continuous optimization program, and steam to hot water conversion. It is hoped a new regenerative sustainability gradient will ensure continuous improvement on the design of new buildings on campus.

Summary of the discussion

Much of the discussion was focused on how the technical and institutional challenges were overcome and how other universities might go about emulating CIRS. The first issue raised was how to keep heating costs down in a building with so many windows. While some heat is lost through the large windows, the sacrifice is more than made up for by the efficient heating, ventilation and lighting system.

The structural integrity and the life of the building were questioned, given that CIRS is made entirely out of wood. As of late, though, there has been a revolution in the design of wooden structures that can now be built beyond ten floors (although the B.C. building code still restricts construction to no more than six); this is achieved using cross-laminated timber. CIRS is designed to last about 150 years whereas typical buildings will last only 50 years.

The issue of wastewater treatment on site was raised; is it only practical for research-based buildings or other types of building as well? Dr. Robinson answered that waste treatment is probably more practical on the community scale as opposed to the individual building or the city scale. However, processing facilities that manage waste for an entire city are susceptible to diseconomies of scale.

There was some interest in how decisions are made and who runs the building. CIRS is mostly a self-funded initiative with some co-funding by UBC. Dr. Robinson reports to a steering committee and meets with a working group monthly but maintains a lot of autonomy in decision making. A building technician was hired to oversee the daily operations.


Written by Kevin Lockhart and Ryan Reiber

Students in Masters of Sustainable Energy Policy

 To view Dr. Robinson’s presentation, click on the following links:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Conversations in Sustainability:

In 3 1/2 minutes, Dr. Robinson and four other UBC leaders, including President Toope, explore regenerative sustainability and touch on some of UBC ‘efforts.