The Greenest Building in Vancouver

At the heart of the ambitious renovation of the VanDusen Botanical Garden lives green-geek heaven

January 2, 2012

By James Glave / Photo: Lucas Finlay

When the VanDusen Botanical Garden Association decided it was time for a new visitor centre, in 2000, the idea that the building should be the greenest in the city—one of the greenest in the country—did not even make it onto the whiteboard. They had enough to deal with just raising the facilities to the level of adequate. “The existing buildings were built in the 1970s,” explains John Ross, project manager for the Vancouver park board. “They were small, not very efficient, with single-glazed windows and not much insulation, so they were expensive to run.” There was also little on hand for families—mums and dads couldn’t even get a cup of soup for their kids on a rainy day—and the library and educational program facilities were inadequate.

The garden, on 22 city-owned hectares off Oak Street, is managed jointly by the nonprofit VanDusen garden association and the park board. An early design for a new visitor centre proved useful for fundraising purposes, and when the partners sent out an expression of interest for architects, Peter Busby was among the respondents. “They brought energy and enthusiasm,” recalls Ross of the Busby Perkins + Will presentation. “They were quite interested in green buildings. That was an aspect the committee hadn’t considered.”

All the more surprising, then, that the recently opened $21.9-million centre should turn out to be a green overachiever. Early on, Busby’s team decided LEED Platinum just wouldn’t cut it. Instead of merely shrinking the building’s footprint, they set out to build something revolutionary. The centre’s water-harvesting roof, which evokes a series of giant orchid petals, is crowned in part with a glittering array of solar-thermal tubes. (The building is broadly modelled after a flower.) Below, a gently curving rammed-earth wall—a massive and sensual structure that will likely endure for centuries—beckons visitors.

According to a 2005 study, Canadian buildings—in their construction, operation, and disposal—account for one-third of our nation’s energy, use 50 percent of its extracted natural resources, create a quarter of all landfill waste, and cough out 10 percent of all airborne particulates. Thanks to natural-gas furnaces, Vancouver’s homes, schools, and offices spew 55 percent of our city’s global warming pollution—considerably more than our cars. Badly designed or built buildings can sicken occupants by exposing them to mould, or toxins and carcinogens like formaldehyde and asbestos. Buildings can bar people with disabilities, degrade ecosystems, and gradually drain the life and soul out of those who work within their walls.

The new visitor centre does none of those things. It harvests rainwater to flush toilets, transfers the heat of the sun into the floors or stores it in the earth (offsetting electricity usage), and naturally ventilates itself in summer by exhausting excess heat through an aluminum cone built into the pinnacle of the atrium. It treats its own sewage. It contains plenty of locally sourced materials, and uses nothing from a “red list” that includes asbestos, mercury, and vinyl.

It was Busby who suggested pursuing a Living Building Challenge certification—one of the most stringent green-building standards anywhere and “a reminder of where we need to be,” says Eden Brukman, vice-president of the Portland, Oregon–based International Living Future Institute, which oversees the program.

According to Brukman, there are about 90 registered Living Building projects across North America. The list includes schools, homes, and a notable wastewater reclamation facility in Rhinebeck, New York. “We had a tour there recently; we had 50 people walking through this water treatment facility,” she recalls. “There were people so comfortable with the intent of the space, they were actually crying.”

Much as I love green buildings (I built one in my front yard), I can be a bit of a know-it-all when it comes to the standard playbook. Ho-hum, another heat-recovery ventilator. But my guides on a recent tour—Jim Huffman, associate principal for Busby, Perkins + Will; and Rebecca McDiarmid, project manager for Ledcor Construction (the builder)—saved the best for last.

Stepping carefully over compressor hoses and taut mason lines, we headed down a dim cinderblock hallway and entered the mechanicals room—essentially, VanDusen’s utility closet. The cramped space is an orchestra of expansion tanks, pumps, and manifolds connected via banks of gleaming copper pipe.

McDiarmid took the lead. “The silver box is the heat-recovery unit,” she said. “These are giant hot-water and expansion tanks, those are the pumps for geo-exchange system, this is the equipment for the black-water treatment. The purple pipe is for the non-potable water supply from the rainwater tanks.” This is green-geek heaven.

By integrating energy, waste, water, and ventilation systems, the pipes, pumps, and boxes around me embody the potential of a different path. These systems and technologies will one day enable not just a new kind of building but a truly sustainable city. This crowded space—in a botanical garden’s visitor centre—is not merely a utility room. It’s a 21st-century transformation engine.

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