Best in Class | The True Story of a Little Building that is Transforming the Industry

By: Randi Kruse

CIRS Building

December is often a time of reflection. Maybe it’s the long, dark nights or the prospect of another year passing. Perhaps our work has become less inspired or the international news has caused us to pause and wonder: is there reason for hope in the world?

I’d like to highlight a project that should give us all reason to hope, and more than that, new inspiration to push through perceived barriers and strive for excellence. The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, CIRS, is a building that transforms the way we design and build urban structures. CIRS is all about accelerating sustainability through experimentation and creative partnerships. It is a project that hopes to spark new ideas about how to make cities more sustainable, and because its goal is to promote dialogue, I’m going to need your help spreading the word.

CIRS is a spectacularly beautiful structure. With streaming light from the surrounding windows and pine beetle wood beams, it feels more like a cathedral than a university research building. Beyond the aesthetic, CIRS has shattered the leading environmental LEED building standards and has achieved a net-positive energy performance. By harvesting renewable and waste energy, CIRS is able to supply not only its own energy needs but also a portion of the needs of an adjacent building. The end result is that the addition of CIRS to the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus – a 4-storey, 61,085 square feet building – actually reduces UBC’s overall energy consumption by over 1 million kilowatt hours per year. Imagine! This is a building that improves the surrounding environment.

With such impressive technical achievements, you might think that CIRS is an architectural snob; that guy at the party who is so fully aware of his own success that he can’t be bothered to engage in conversation. Rather than relying on its display case of design medals, CIRS is active in the community and has developed numerous partnerships across public and private sectors. It is also a “living laboratory”, testing the effect that highly efficient design has on the usability of the space. Occupants of the building are asked for feedback about what it’s like to have the temperature centrally controlled, or how they would suggest adjusting the on-site waste water treatment system to reduce noise disruption.

Most of you are probably in the business of improving the performance of existing buildings, and a project like CIRS can offer numerous options that you may want to integrate into future retrofit plans. Have a look at the lighting features and think about how you can replicate the system design in your own context, or consider the energy sourcing and monitoring framework. These kinds of innovations can be adapted to fit into an existing structure – and they’ll have to be if we are truly serious about conserving resources and operations costs.

There are so many innovative design components to the building that I couldn’t fit them all into this short space, but I encourage you to take a virtual tour in the near future – or better yet, visit the place. A project like CIRS takes years to develop, and along the way there were many challenges and setbacks. Rather than giving in to the barriers, the leaders behind the project, particularly the principal John Robinson, strengthened the partnerships they had with key supporters.

Now I’ll ask you to join the conversation: What are you going to do differently in the New Year to bring more inspiration to your work? How can you draw from the incredible advances in building technology that CIRS demonstrates to significantly improve the performance of the buildings you manage? Talk amongst yourselves.

Randi is a social marketing and corporate sustainability planner with ten years of communications management experience.

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