Is This North America’s Greenest Building?

JR:  The University of British Columbia makes its case for North America’s ‘greenest’ building in this video and the following news release. Feel free to link to other buildings that might vie for this title.  South America’s green building of the moment is here.

The University of British Columbia has opened the most sustainable building in North America, a $37-million “living laboratory” that will help to regenerate the environment and advance research and innovation on global sustainability challenges.

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is one of only a handful of buildings worldwide that will provide “net positive” benefits to the environment. It reduces UBC’s carbon emissions, powers itself and a neighboring building with renewable and waste energy, creates drinking water from rain and treats wastewater onsite.

CIRS will be an international centre for research, partnership and action on sustainability issues, including green building design and operations, environmental policy and community engagement. Researchers will study users’ interactions with the facility to improve building performance, maximize the happiness, health and productivity of its inhabitants and advance best green building practices at UBC and beyond.

“With the world’s urban population projected to jump by two billion people in 20 years, universities have a crucial role to play in accelerating solutions for the sustainability challenges facing society,” said UBC President Stephen Toope. “CIRS is a flagship project in UBC’s ‘living laboratory’ concept, where researchers, students, operational staff and partners develop sustainability innovations on campus to be shared with society.”

Partners have committed more than $23 million in support for CIRS, including the federal government ($8.4 million), the provincial government ($5.7 million), BC Hydro ($5 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.

“Our Government is pleased to be celebrating today’s opening of the CIRS,” said the Honourable Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, on behalf of the federal government, which provided support through the Canada Foundation for Innovation ($4.5 million), Sustainable Development Technology Canada ($2.4 million) and Western Economic Diversification Canada ($1.5 million). “This facility will be crucial to the continued growth of our emerging clean technologies sector as a driver of the Canadian economy, opening up new avenues of opportunity, creating jobs and delivering environmental benefits.”

B.C. is a climate-change leader, and CIRS brings together the people and the technology to take that leadership to the next level,” said Dr. Moira Stilwell, Parliamentary Secretary for Industry, Research and Innovation, on behalf of the B.C. government, which contributed $5.7 million from the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund ($4.5 million) and other grants. “Our investment in CIRS will pay dividends in jobs for British Columbians as new technologies are developed, and improved environmental stewardship the world over.”

Built to exceed LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge standards, CIRS is one of the few commercial buildings constructed primarily of certified wood and beetle-killed wood (currently B.C.’s largest source of carbon emissions). Its wood structure locks in more than 500 tonnes of carbon, offsetting the GHG emissions that resulted from the use of other non-renewable construction materials in the building such as cement, steel and aluminum.

Major features of the four-storey, 60,000 square-foot facility include: the BC Hydro Theatre, which has advanced visualization and interaction technologies to engage audiences in sustainability and climate change scenarios, the 450-seat Modern Green Development Auditorium, indoor environmental quality and building simulation software labs, a building management system that shares building performance in real-time and a café that uses no disposable packaging and serves local and organic food.

Designed in collaboration with Perkins+Will architects, CIRS will house more than 200 inhabitants from several academic disciplines, including applied science, psychology, geography, forestry and business, and such operational units as the UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI), which works collaboratively to integrate the university’s academic and operational efforts on sustainability. CIRS website makes building technical information and performance available to the public.

“This is a place for big ideas with global impacts,” said USI Executive Director John Robinson, a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007, and the leader behind CIRS creation.

“Unsustainable buildings are 100-year mistakes that affect us all, so accelerating the adoption of green building practices is crucial,” added Robinson, a professor in UBC’s Dept. of Geography and Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability. “CIRS will serve as an agent of change, providing cities and builders a model to learn from, improve on and ultimately surpass.”

CIRS is one of four flagship projects – valued collectively at more than $150 million – of UBC’s transformation into a living laboratory for sustainability. Innovations that result from CIRS and other UBC sustainability projects will help UBC to achieve the most aggressive carbon-reduction targets at any major research university: a 33 per cent reduction in Vancouver campus institutional GHG emissions by 2015, a 67 per cent reduction by 2020 and 100 per cent by 2050.

Related links:

Quick facts about CIRS:

  • Natural lighting: CIRS’ U-shape design maximizes natural daylight and fresh air for inhabitants, who control their environment (light levels, temperature) with their computers.
  • Flexible workspaces: With power, data and ventilation under modular floorboards (instead of through walls or ceilings) at each workspace, offices can be reconfigured overnight.
  • Green IT: CIRS has no desktop computers or servers guzzling energy. Inhabitants “remote access” into desktops, drives and servers, which are stored “in the cloud” instead.
  • Psychology: One of many research projects is a study of CIRS’ influence on thoughts and behaviors and science-based methods for encouraging people to act sustainably.
  • Earth-friendly eats: At CIRS’ Loop Café, you stir your coffee with dry linguine, which composts faster than stir sticks. There is no disposable packaging onsite.
  • Cost comparison: CIRS cost 25 per cent more than an equivalent LEED Gold building, which is standard at UBC. The university is projected to recoup the extra cost in 25 years or less through reduced operation, maintenance and energy costs –and reap significant cost savings over the building’s project 100-year lifespan.

CIRS’ “net positive” environmental impacts:

  • Energy: By capturing energy from the sun, the ground and the nearby Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS) building, CIRS heats itself and returns 600 megawatt hours of surplus energy back to campus.
  • Operational carbon: CIRS’ operations require no fossil fuel and the surplus energy CIRS returns to EOS removes an additional 150 tonnes of GHG emissions annually through reduced natural gas use.
  • Structural carbon: CIRS’ wood structure locks in more than 500 tonnes of carbon, offsetting GHG emissions from non-renewable materials used in the building’s construction, including cement, steel and aluminum.
  • Water: CIRS will satisfy the water needs of 200 inhabitants, plus hundreds of auditorium and café users, by capturing rain and treating it onsite. Water that can’t be used for drinking will recharge the local aquifer.


The University of British Columbia (UBC) is one of North America’s largest public research and teaching institutions, and one of only two Canadian institutions consistently ranked among the world’s 40 best universities. Surrounded by the beauty of the Canadian West, it is a place that inspires bold, new ways of thinking that have helped make it a national leader in areas as diverse as community service learning, sustainability and research commercialization. UBC offers more than 55,000 students a range of innovative programs and attracts $550 million per year in research funding from government, non-profit organizations and industry through more than 7,000 grants.

Modern Green Development Co. Ltd. is an international property development company and one of the largest green building developers in China. With a special emphasis on comfort and energy efficiency, Modern Green has invested more than $100 million CAD in supporting green building research and development. In cooperation with the world’s leading architects, builders and scholars, the Beijing-based company has developed more than 10 million square feet of green buildings in China, with annual sales of more than $500 million CAD. Modern Green has green development targets of 6 million square feet per year. For more information, visit:

Haworth, Inc. is a global leader in the design and manufacturing of office furniture and organic workspaces, including raised access floors, moveable walls, systems furniture, seating, storage and wood case goods.  Family-owned and privately held, Haworth is headquartered in Holland, Michigan and serves markets in more than 120 countries through a global network of 600 dealers. The company had net sales of US $1.21 billion in 2010.

Honeywell ( is a Fortune 100 diversified technology and manufacturing leader, serving customers worldwide with aerospace products and services; control technologies for buildings, homes and industry; automotive products; turbochargers; and specialty materials. Honeywell is dedicated to protecting the environment with a comprehensive and contemporary commitment to address some of the world’s toughest challenges. Honeywell helps its customers conserve energy, reduce waste, and become more efficient and productive.

Perkins+Will Canada is an integrated architecture, interiors, and planning firm recognized for its leadership in Corporate + Commercial + Civic, Healthcare, Higher Education, K-12 Education and Science + Technology. The firm is committed to sustainability and high level green building design, creating modern, functional, and flexible spaces, utilizing the latest, most efficient technology and sustainable design principles.

University of British Columbia

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11 Responses to Is This North America’s Greenest Building?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Green building? Not.”North America’s greenest building”? Puhleez.

    It’s absurd to specify wood as a structural material and claim sustainability in any sense, even if it has the FSC rubber stamp. Wood buildings leak, move, and are degraded by insects and mold, leading to demolition far before a concrete or steel building.

    The other issue is British Columbia’s sordid history of giant clearcuts and indifference to what were once some of the most magnificent forests on the continent.

    UBC has a big Forestry department. Therein lies the explanation.

  2. Jaywfitz says:

    Well, wood can be built to scale and to site and make a lot of sense, otherwise agreed.

    I guess green and sustainability has come to mean indulgent technowankery that returns no value(except to those feeding at the project trough)– and inevitably built at outside expense, consuming revenues generated by inherently unsustainable means.

    Note for architects– I know it isn’t all that cool, but building small goes a long way to a smaller footprint.

    Just a voice crying in the wilderness- don’t mind me. . .but there are other ways.

  3. Leif says:

    Nice link Jay, Thank you.

  4. Brooks Bridges says:

    For evidence for your point: Many vacant foreclosed homes in FL have been virtually destroyed by mold and mildew because of high humidity levels when no A/C is used. And early attempts at highly energy efficient homes didn’t control moisture properly leading to things like floors rotting in two years. Of course, even if built with steel framing and artificial siding, the interior of a deserted house in FL could require complete gutting before it could be made habitable again.

    But I do find it hard to believe someone would produce a show case building that wouldn’t address all your concerns adequately – they should be expecting exactly such questions.

    Finally, I live in a 2 story house built in 1920 on Eastern Shore, Maryland, a great area for rot, termites, etc. The all wood house shows no signs of deterioration. The frame, siding, and floors are all wood not normally available today (because it was not harvested sustainably) – heart pine. Frame and siding of the accompanying garage were in direct contact with ground and no termites or rot.

  5. Brooks Bridges says:

    I agree with Leif, excellent, thought provoking link. Thank you.

  6. Celia Schorr says:

    Check out the Bullitt Center, under construction here in Seattle. The goal is to be “the greenest commercial building in the world.”

    Impressive vision statement for the project by Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes at

    – Celia

  7. jay d. says:

    incredibly misguided comments here…

    first, 1/3 of the wood for the CIRS is from pine-beetle infected wood, meaning if the carbon wasn’t locked up in the structural members, the wood would wind up rotting and releasing the carbon into the atmosphere. this is a very innovative use of the material.

    second, steel and concrete buildings move, leak, etc. to pretend otherwise is to completely disregard fundamental statics.

    third, only shills for the concrete and steel industry claim wood isn’t sustainable. the rest of the non-absurd world looks at wood as nearly carbon neutral or carbon sequestering.

    four, the embodied energy of a building is such a tiny fraction of the total energy expended in comparison to operational energy. to claim that smaller is better or greener – especially for high performance/net zero buildings is just completely false.

  8. Chad says:

    Nope. It fails on one major count – location, location, location.

    Since the university does not have any rail transit, you can be sure that far too many workers at this building drive, ruining it’s otherwise solid environmental credentials. Too many architects and LEED-geeks forget this key point. The champion hypocritical example of this is Amory Lovin’s Rocky Mountain Institute, which he moved from downtown office space to a beautiful hilltop far from anywhere. Does his building showcase awesome tech? Sure. Did he do the environment a favor by building it? Absolutely not.

  9. Mike Roddy says:

    jay d.,

    Incredibly misguided comments from you, actually.

    1. The whole notion that carbon is “locked up” when you turn a tree into structural wood is false. Only about 15% of the site carbon ends up in the boards. It’s better for our carbon budget for a forest to burn or rot than to clearcut it. The science is quite clear here.
    2. I’m a builder. The notion that steel and concrete move and leak like wood is very wrong.
    3. Do biologists also work for the steel anc concrete industry? There is a huge body of scientific work stating that industrial forestry- especially as practiced in BC- is not remotely sustainable. In the US PNW alone, sawtimber volume is down 25% since WW II, and it’s worse in BC. This doesn’t even consider destroyed salmon runs, monoculture, and general destruction of functioning ecosystems.
    4. Of course a smaller house is more sustainable. To say otherwise violates third grade arithmetic.

  10. jay d. says:


    steel contracts and expands with temperature – i didn’t write that it leaks/moves LIKE wood, i said it still moves/leaks – and since you pretend otherwise, you might want to up your liability insurance for all your pending failures.

    second, the embodied energy/carbon of a net zero or high performance house/building is only slightly larger than a built-to-code building. it can even be the same or less if the planners are smart (even if the building is the same size). within 50 years, the CO2 expended in heating/cooling/operating the built-to-code house is 10-20x greater than the embodied carbon of construction. in a net zero or high performance, the operational energy in 50 years might be 1-3x, so using size alone as the metric of how ‘green’ something is fails to see the forest for the trees.

  11. Chris Lock says:

    The provincial law requires all provincial buildings in British Columbia to be carbon neutral. Hospitals, schools and other such government buildings. When they are not carbon neutral they pay a penalty, or a carbon offset, payable to the Pacific Carbon Trust. This law forces school districts and hospitals to lower their carbon emissions, which is a good thing. But this law has not been adequately funded by the province. So school districts each year pay up to $200K each year to this carbon fund, money that comes out of the standard operating budget.