Canada’s greenest prof

Vancouver might just be home to the greenest building in the world. Meet the geography professor who brought it to life.
The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC Expand Image

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.”

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(Photo: Marina Dodis)

He was not necessarily joined by other environmentalists in this holistic attitude, however. Circa 1970, Robinson remembers, North American environmentalism had two distinct flavours that corresponded roughly to the west and the east. In the west, you had wilderness preservationism. “Tree huggers,” he says, not without fondness. “This is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. It’s Thoreau: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’ Ultimately, the argument was that we need wildness for our spiritual needs.”

In the east, meanwhile, you had “conservationism,” much more oriented to human utility. “The Wise Use movement is a conservationist product,” says Robinson. “In Canada, we were conservationists from the beginning. The dominant impulse here is about use value not about inherent value.”

Both sides of this debate were wholly focused on the ecological environment. Given Robinson’s interest in broader change, he was never entirely happy with this narrow approach. When the World Commission on Environment and Development (a.k.a. the Brundtland Commission) released its UN-sponsored report in 1987, Robinson responded strongly. Radically combining three concepts of sustainability — ecological, social and economic — the report suggested to the young scientist a new way forward.

“If we’re rich and focused on human well-being but poison ourselves, that’s not going to work,” he says. “But then, who cares about fixing the environment if we’re in a world of poverty racked by war?”

Robinson’s intellectual evolution was not quite complete, however, and perhaps CIRS would never have come into being had he not taken one critical further step. Even within the new and burgeoning sustainability literature, of which the Brundtland Commission was arguably a crucial catalyst, Robinson saw what he refers to as a “prevalent narrative.”

“It’s basically the concept of limits,” he says. “It leads to strategies of harm reduction and mitigation. Reducing the bad things. That becomes the largest frame.” And for two reasons, he passionately argues, this doesn’t work. First, it’s not enough. You can reduce emissions to zero, you can participate in Buy Nothing Day and other acts of personal constraint, but this won’t address the social aspects of sustainability, such as poverty. “You can’t ignore development,” says Robinson, “because the two greatest causes of environmental damage are great wealth and great poverty.”

Perhaps more important, he argues that approaches to sustainability based on limits and harm reduction — warnings and dire projections calling for constraint — simply don’t create behavioural change. “The literature on motivation is very clear,” says Robinson. “The information-deficit model doesn’t work. The idea that we change our behaviour because we change our attitudes, because we change our values, because we get new information is just fundamentally wrong.” Research has borne this out in multiple fields, which Robinson counts off on his fingers: health promotion, social psychology, energy efficiency, applied cultural anthropology, community-based social marketing. “As one of my grad students says: ‘The best evidence that the information-deficit model doesn’t change behaviour is that you can provide people with endless information showing that the model doesn’t work, and they still continue to produce these studies.’”

If telling people about an impending climatechange disaster won’t alter behaviour, then what will? Here is where the most recent evolution in Robinson’s thinking, and the CIRS building of which it is an emblem, takes shape. What we need, insists Robinson, is a program of “regenerative sustainability.” We need to start living in a way that eliminates the damage we cause going forward — across ecological, social and economic lines — and also begins to improve the physical and social environments around us. Not only does this approach necessarily go further than mitigation, it more reliably attracts participation.

“It’s exciting, and it’s way more motivating. I’ve given talks on this a couple of dozen times. I’ve never had a point that resonates more, that people get more interested in, because it’s positive. Can we have regenerative buildings?” Robinson eyes are alight with curiosity and enthusiasm. “How about transportation systems, cities, industrial processes? Could be we regenerative in steelmaking? I don’t think we know, because we haven’t examined those questions. And I think it’s the job of universities and academics to really engage these questions.”

Universities are the perfect “sandboxes,” as Robinson puts it, for this kind of experiment and exploration. They are organically suited to the role. They’re scaled to the size of neighbourhoods. They’re owner-occupied. They’re mandated to teach and do research. Bring on the policy-makers, he says, to consider the regulatory frameworks required. Bring on the private companies with ideas they’d like to test with a view to future commercialization. Bring on the public to tour the projects being tested and to get excited. And, perhaps most innovative of all, bring on the students, who within a couple of years should be able to get undergraduate minors in sustainability while working toward degrees in virtually every department at UBC, from engineering and computer sciences to dance and English.

There should be no specifically “green” jobs in Robinson’s regenerative approach. Sustainability should be part of everybody’s job. “We’re training sustainability ambassadors,” affirms Alberto Cayuela, associate director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative, as he tours a group of engineering students through the constructed wetland water-filtration system at the front of CIRS.

On clear days in Vancouver, the glass flanks of CIRS rise sparkling in the sun; on the city’s frequent rainy days, its inner works rustle pleasantly with harvested water. One hundred percent of the building’s water demand is satisfied by rain. Five hundred tonnes of carbon are sequestered in its building materials, more than were expended in its construction. Two hundred and seventy-five megawatt hours per year of surplus energy are produced from scavenged sources, including the energy harvested from a heat-leaky building next door. And as for the human factors, Cayuela says that the UBC psychology department currently has six different experiments under way to test the building’s ability to change attitudes.

“Does being here make a person more likely to recycle?” he asks. “Do you learn better with skylights and displacement ventilation in the lecture hall?” The questions are open. But as if to immediately punctuate the confidence Cayuela projects, we are approached just then by one of his administrative staff, who apologizes for interjecting but feels she just has to share her own experience. A long-time sufferer of respiratory problems, she explains that her move across campus from one of the older library buildings six months ago has changed her life, literally.

“The air in this building is clear,” she says. “I can breathe.”

It seems almost imaginary, the idea of buildings as net contributors to the environment in the ecological and human ways that comprise Robinson’s “regenerative sustainability.” But even the use of the word “imaginary” wouldn’t faze Dr. Sustainability. “One of my students,” he says with a smile, “a guy with two degrees in piano performance, who runs an arts festival in Newfoundland where they do nature appreciation during the day and concertos at night, says that maybe the challenge of sustainability isn’t to prove the world more real — rubbing people’s noses in the parts per million and the hectares — but to prove the world more imaginary.”

Robinson lets the remark sink in, then continues. “Because we don’t want this world!” he says, gesturing widely. “We want a different world that doesn’t yet exist.”

The impulse to regenerate, then, does not depend on forecasting. Forecasts are always wrong anyway. “Who cares what the most likely future is if we don’t like it,” says Robinson. “We need to be looking at less likely futures, something I call backcasting. In my whole career, one of the things I’m proudest of is this concept: creating images of how the future can be different and figuring out what we have to do to get there.”

Robinson has to go. He has meetings to attend. He has projects under way. CIRS is a pinnacle accomplishment, but one suspects he has much more to come. Converting all of UBC to the regenerative model is a real objective for him. But then so, too, is “proselytizing” to other universities around the world, which should all, in Robinson’s view, be embracing the same challenge.

In parting, he provides a working definition of sustainability that captures a long journey to this moment, to CIRS, to the strange combination of its practical and symbolic functions, to all that it represents. “Sustainability,” says Robinson, “is the emergent property of a conversation about the kind of world we want to live in that’s informed by some understanding of the ecological, social and economic consequences of different choices. It’s not a scientific concept we can just give people. It’s a normative, ethical judgment that people need to make.”

He pauses. In other words, people have choices in this matter. They can embrace a regenerative vision of the future. They could also choose to live in what Robinson refers to as “William Gibson domed cities.” Both choices are plausible, and Robinson understands that scientists can sketch the “what-ifs” and the “if-thens,” but they don’t choose. People choose.

Then he finishes: “But I’m very optimistic about our ability to make radical changes. That’s why we built CIRS, to show people that it’s possible. People have no idea it’s even possible!”

Which is exactly what’s going on among the people watching the CIRS dashboard, looking up with fascinated engagement at evidence of the building’s inner workings. They’re seeing what’s possible.

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