Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability - Designed to be the most sustainable building in North America

Located on a dense site next to ‘Sustainability Street’ at the University of British Columbia, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability [CIRS] houses 200 researchers from private, public, and NGO sectors, who work together with the common mission of  accelerating sustainability.

BY Jana Foit, Architect AIBC, LEED AP Associate, Perkins+Will

The 5,675m2 ‘living lab’ is organized around two four-storey wings, linked by a central atrium. The atrium serves as a building lobby, entry to a daylit auditorium, and as a social and educational space from which all of the project’s sustainable strategies are visible.

Other program areas include: academic offices, meeting rooms, multiple smaller social spaces, indoor environmental quality and building simulation software labs; a Group Decision Lab that has advanced interaction technologies to engage audiences in sustainability and climate change scenarios; a building management system that shares building performance in real-time; and a cafe that uses no disposable packaging and serves local, organic food.

The CIRS building has embraced the ambitious sustainability goals of the Living Building Challenge, including those of net zero water consumption; waste water treatment on site; net zero energy consumption, and construction and operational carbon neutrality.

>>>   Water and Waste
Through a simple system, rainwater is harvested from the high-albedo roofs, stored in a below-ground cistern, filtered, disinfected onsite, and distributed through the building for potable water applications.
Using a solar aquatics biofiltration system, 100% of the building’s wastewater is reclaimed, treated and reused within the facility. Water is collected from fixtures throughout the building, and treated water is reused within the building for irrigation and toilet flushing, creating a closed-loop water cycle. The solar aquatics system is designed to mimic the purification processes of naturally occurring water systems in close proximity to human habitation, such as streams and wetlands.
The solar aquatic system is located in a glass walled room at the southwest corner of the building. Highly visible from the West mall and ‘Sustainability Street’ it engages the curiosity of students and other passersby.

>>>   Energy
CIRS harvests sunlight with building-integrated photovoltaics, captures waste heat from a nearby building, and exchanges heating and cooling with the ground to achieve net-positive energy. On an annual basis, CIRS returns 600-megawatt-hours of surplus energy back to campus while removing 170 tonnes of GHG emissions.
To reduce heating and cooling loads, the building emphasizes passive environmental strategies, such as proper solar orientation and glazing ratio, strategic placement of windows for cross and natural ventilation, and solar control strategies such as canopies, overhangs and fritted glass.
Organized around an atrium and auditorium, the building’s U-shaped plan contributes to the goal of 100% natural daylight and ventilation for all inhabitants. To further reduce building energy loads, the design allows occupant control of personal spaces and includes energy-efficient equipment.
Building-integrated photovoltaics [accounting for almost 10% of energy], shade operable windows, and the western facade’s living solar screen is planted with deciduous vines - once grown in, the screen will act as a dynamic shading device that responds to seasonal change.
A heat recovery system captures waste heat in the exhaust ventilation from the fume hoods on the adjacent Earth and Ocean Sciences building, transferring it to the heat pumps in CIRS. The heat pumps provide heating and cooling for the building through the radiant slabs and a displacement ventilation system.

>>>   Carbon neutrality
During the design of CIRS, both the ecological and human health impacts of the project’s building materials, as well as the visual and tactile expression of the materials, were considered along with cost, durability, and maintenance requirements. In response, wood was chosen as the primary building material. Produced by the sun and a means of sequestering carbon, wood is one of the most sustainable materials in the world, which also supports an important sector of the regional economy.
CIRS is the first large, multi-storey institutional building at UBC to be constructed of wood since the passing of British Columbia’s “Wood First Act”. The expressed wood structure - constructed of FSC certified and pine-beetle-killed wood - sequesters 600 tonnes of carbon, helping the project achieve net-zero carbon in construction and operations.
The moment-frame structure was designed to create an open, column-free floor plate for flexibility of use and interior arrangements, as well as to allow for large openings in the walls that maximize daylight and views. A focus on indoor environmental quality and the use of low-VOC finishes and materials contribute to inhabitant health and well-being.

>>>   A New Paradigm
More than a building, CIRS is a research tool that demonstrates the possibilities in sustainable design and construction, serving as a catalyst for change. Its structure and environmental systems were chosen to be practical, economical and transferable. The project team created a Technical manual that accompanies the CIRS website [cirs.ubc.ca] which includes ongoing updates and actual performance data from the project, as well as the construction documents.
Demonstrating how sustainable development might be approached and applied across the campus, CIRS has strengthened the legitimacy of the campus sustainability goals and inspired the idea of campus infrastructure as a living laboratory of applied sustainability. Moreover, it has demonstrated the power of integrating academic research with physical campus infrastructure, and the benefits of extending the reach of a project outside institutional boundaries.

>>>   Project credits

  • Executive Director John Robinson, University of British Columbia Sustainability Initiative
    Architect Perkins+Will
    Structural Engineer Fast + Epp
    Mechanical Engineer and Electrical Engineer Stantec
    Civil Engineer Core Group Consultants
    Geotechnical Consultant Trow Associates Inc.
    Landscape Consultant PWL Partnership
    Interior Design Perkins+Will
    Code Consultant LMDG Building Code Consultants
    Building Envelope Consultant Morrison Hershfield Limited
    Acoustic Consultant BKL Consultants
    Audio Visual Consultant MC Squared System Design Group
    Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment Haworth
    Construction Management Heatherbrae Construction
    Owner Representative UBC Properties Trust
    Wastewater Consultant Eco-Tek Ecological Technologies
    Rainwater Consultant NovaTec Consultants
    Photos Martin Tessler

>>>   Project performance

  • - Energy Intensity [building and process energy] = 420MJ/m2/year
    - Energy cost savings relative to NMECB = 68%
    - Potable water consumption from municipal sources = 0L/occupant/year
    - Potable water consumption savings relative to reference building = 100%
    - Recycled material content by value = 20.5%
    - Regional materials content [800km radius] by value = 30.5%
    - Proportion of construction waste recycled = 89%

>>>   Materials

  • - Structure: Glulam by Western Archrib consisting of Spruce Pine Fir wood, 50% of the wood components being FSC certified; exterior multiple-ply cedar panels by Silva Panel, masonry and stone, curtainwall, TPO and vegetated roofing, vegetated facade by Green Screen
    - Interior: Flooring - finished concrete, carpet tile, raised flooring; painted drywall, wood panels and solid wood finishes, suspended ceiling systems
    - HVAC: Solar aquatic biofiltration system, building-integrated photovoltaics and solar collector array, heat recovery system captures waste heat from adjacent building for transfer to heat pumps, geo-exchange wells


Jana Foit, Architect AIBC, LEED AP Associate, Perkins+Will, is the Higher Education Practice Leader for the Vancouver office of Perkins+Will and has worked on multiple projects at the University of British Columbia consecutively for the past eight years.

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