Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

Slated for Vancouver: The Ultimate 'Sustainability' Lab

Backers want a centre to teach, research, design and 'shift the economy.'

Caroline Dobuzinskis 3 Jun
image atom
As planned: Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

[First of a two-part series on the ‘greening’ of BC campuses)

In Vancouver's industrial no-man's land, a group of visionaries is building a research centre to host four educational institutions. By 2010, developers of Great Northern Way Campus anticipate the area will be a showpiece for urban sustainability.

Now standing on campus just two blocks from the railroad are three 1960’s style box buildings housing classrooms and offices. But plans are for a bold, glass-walled Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability to stand adjacent on a 19-acre plot of land donated by construction equipment company Finning International.

CIRS was originally planned to be completed by 2006, in time for the World Urban Forum’s arrival in Vancouver. Now the goal is to have it built by early 2007. University of British Columbia professor Dr. John Robinson is leading the CIRS project, which has begun to attract interest from private companies wanting to move into the building when completed.

Great Northern Way Campus will also host four post-secondary institutions: UBC, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia Institute of Technology and the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. These Lower Mainland post-secondary institutions have already demonstrated their own interest in promoting sustainability in education, facilities, and operation.

“The region is a hotbed for sustainability,” Robinson told The Tyee. “To have the idea of a building that will actually change the direction of the economy, will engage the citizenry more actively than anyone has ever done, will test sustainability at a more profound level, those are exciting ideas and that is why people are so committed.”

BC Hydro, Science World, and the Greater Vancouver Regional District have participated in volunteer task force meetings. But the masterminds behind the project are Robinson and Vancouver’s environmentalist architect Peter Busby. The two have collaborated on CIRS from the first fundraising and public planning stage in 2000. They see the Great Northern Way Campus anchoring a mixed use neighbourhood including the “tech parks” of a “sustainability precinct.”

Simulators and roof gardens

Robinson, the former director of UBC’s Sustainable Development Research Institute, has a long resume of teaching, researching and designing environmental solutions. “He has five boys, from high school to university. He wants a future for them,” said Herman Mah, director of operations and communications for the Great Northern Way Campus. “I think John also wants to make a difference.”

According to Robinson, CIRS is to include a 100-seat theatre to show simulation software, a data and modelling lab for analyzing global systems and gardened “green” roofs. There will be a natural ventilation system and window lighting almost entirely throughout. In contrast to more traditionally sterile university facilities, CIRS will be a brightly-lit learning environment that takes into consideration the health and comfort of its occupants.

“Every piece of the building, down to the cladding, the paint, the furniture, the materials, everything will be a research test bed for sustainable building technologies and services,” Robinson told The Tyee. “We want to put into the building the most advanced technologies really working anywhere.”

But what CIRS will finally look like depends on funding. Plan A is a $23.5 million 3-story model, while Robinson is hoping for a $50.9 million 5-story model. With a $4.5 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and additional grant funding from UBC, funding is halfway to the smaller model. UBC's Life Sciences Centre has shown that sustainability in building can be done elegantly and efficiently. But UBC had $172 million to work with on that building.

Robinson expects the rest of his required funding to come from private sources and partners. CIRS will work closely with affiliated organizations and will lease space in the building.

“People talk about P3s—public, private parternships. We are like P5s,” said Robinson. “We are bringing the NGO and research centres into that mix and that changes the whole dynamic of it.”

New way of teaching

Robert VanWynsberghe, assistant professor at UBC’s Institute for Health Promotion Research, has high hopes for the Great Northern Way Campus. In its first academic year, the campus will focus on teaching urban sustainability, arts and culture and digital technology—particularly video game technology. After three years of advocating for a sustainability degree program at UBC, the Great Northern Way Campus will be an opportunity for VanWynsberghe to test his curriculum.

Without some of the restraints of a more traditional post-secondary institution, he anticipates that faculty will work as much with students on projects as on their own research.

“Everything changes when you orient yourself towards sustainability because you are actually saying that people have to think and direct their attention towards making change, whereas in the past it was just towards illuminating and expanding minds,” said VanWynsberghe.

Over the past two summers, VanWynsberghe worked with group of students in helping to plan the Central Valley Greenway biking and walking trail. The trail is currently under construction as an alternative transportation route through New Westminster, Burnaby and Vancouver (including the Great Northern Way Campus). The project was a pilot class for the Great Northern Way Campus, with lectures held at Science World.

Many BC universities are already familiar with similar sustainable education initiatives, with students and faculty collaborating on projects. UBC., SFU, the University of Victoria and University of Northern British Columbia have all signed on to the Greening the Ivory Towers Project.

The program calls for schools to improve their sustainability rating in areas such as energy consumption and social conditions. In a characteristic grounds-up approach, Lindsay Cole’s 2001 master thesis provided the framework.

“Very much at the core of any sustainability project is that it has to include all stakeholders, not just students, otherwise it won’t be implemented,’ Cole told The Tyee. Cole is a graduate of Victoria’s Royal Roads University.

French fries into fuel

In the past few years, sustainability coordinators have been introduced on staff to several Canadian universities. They serve as liaisons between university staff, faculty and students to address concerns about sustainability.

At U.B.C., students recently found a way to reduce the levels of heavy metals in the water with a compost material. Staff at the university had consulted coordinator Brenda Sawada at the Campus Sustainability Office with the problem. The Office is funded entirely by energy savings from the university’s retrofit program—the largest such program in Canada.

Sawada coordinates UBC’s Social, Economic, Ecological Development Studies program (SEEDS). As part of SEEDS, students are also investigating ways to turn oil from the cafeteria’s French fries into biodiesel.

At the Emily Carr Institute for Art + Design, sustainability also has a strong influence on student projects. In the Industrial Design program at Emily Carr, students have recently designed innovative product models for biodegradable diapers and low-emissions transportation options.

According to Alan Boykiw, head of Emily Carr’s industrial design department, the Great Northern Way Campus will be an opportunity to combine Emily Carr’s expertise in design with university research knowledge.

“The CIRS initiative is going to be very exciting because now we can actually work with scientists,” said Boykiw. “We don’t have a big lab [at Emily Carr] with test tubes with scientists working on new materials, but wouldn’t it be great if we could?”

Aiming for Olympics

Still the vagueness of sustainability remains a point of hesitation. “It’s really breaking new ground and that’s why we are going kind of cautiously—in terms of Great Northern Way Campus partnership and the concept of sustainability itself,” said Marshall Heinekey, dean of academic planning at BCIT. BCIT already runs a “green roof” program at the school, a sustainable building design method.

But planners see Great Northern Way Campus as an opportunity to demonstrate sustainability. Dr. Robinson plans to use GB-QUEST, a simulation game he designed with two former graduate students, to explain the concept to visitors to the campus.

“As you make changes, you are flying through a landscape to see the changes on the ground,” said Robinson. “It’s very hard to get your head around the idea of sustainability so these tools, these games are a way to show how these things all connect.”

At a more concrete level, planners anticipate the area will be a developing sustainable city by the time the 2010 Olympic games arrive. “It’s not meant to be a place that shuts down at five, but a 24-7 community expected to be very active in the arts and technology,” said Herman Mah.

One of the existing buildings, now a welding factory, will be transformed into a black box theatre for students and local performers. A local dance company has already expressed interest in performing there. And, in addition to the Greenway trail, Great Northern Way Campus developers are anticipating high-tech employers, retail businesses and work-live condominiums to sprout up in the False Creek flats area.

“We think, at the margin, we can shift the direction of the B.C. economy slightly towards more sustainable products and services,” said Robinson.

[Monday: How other BC campuses have pushed the envelope on green building.]

Caroline Dobuzinskis is a Vancouver journalist.  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Do You Think Trudeau Will Survive the Next Election?

Take this week's poll