Is the World’s Greenest Building in Vancouver?

Delving into the idea that human activity can one day make the bio-physical environment better

February 1, 2012

By David Macfarlane

If there’s one thing that sums up John Robinson, it is his disinclination to believe that any one thing can ever sum up anything. He has never been very linear, and most subjects he sets spinning—in either lecture or conversation—intersect with the other subjects he has in orbit. Robinson is a burly, grizzle-bearded, professorial-looking professor in both UBC’s Department of Geography and its Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability; and a question about the genesis of a new building on the UBC campus can lead him to off-the-cuff dissertations on politics, economic theory, energy policies, and international trade. Admittedly, these are not surprising tangents for him. As a young man—and as the son of an Ontario Superior Court judge—Robinson thought he was destined for a career in law. He has the kind of analytical mind and delight in the cut and thrust of argument that would have made him a formidable jurist. But in the late 1960s he heard Monte Hummel, now of the World Wildlife Fund, give a talk at the boarding school in Southern Ontario that Robinson and I both attended, and an entirely new destiny was revealed.

He was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in the early 1970s, when books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth were very much in the air. Taking advantage of the university’s capitulation to student demands for a less-structured curriculum, he pieced together an unorthodox program of studies. He was a committed environmentalist by 1975—the year he wrote a thesis refuting the commonly held view that Canada faced an imminent natural gas shortage. His research for an undergraduate course helped alter the Mackenzie Pipeline debate. Three decades later he was a key member of the team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for its work on climate change. He is a respected, much-published expert, honoured with a Trudeau Fellowship in 2009. But an expert in what, exactly? It’s a question he himself posed in his 2010 Trudeau Foundation Lecture. Robinson called his paper “On Beyond Zebra,” and in it he drew to his audience’s attention the similarities between his own career and the quest of Dr. Seuss’s young protagonist for an alphabet that “starts where your alphabet ends.” His own quest for answers to the environmental crisis, along with his interdisciplinary disposition, introduced him to the new and exciting realm of sustainability. He came to realize that it would “not be enough to marshal strong scientific arguments in favour of changes in behaviour and policy. Rather, what was at stake was the concept of rationality underpinning the whole modern enterprise.”

Robinson’s thinking about environmentalism leads him naturally to subjects as various as 19th-century

erman philosophy, English Romantic poetry, American Transcendentalism, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, the online game World of Warcraft, medieval alchemy, and the songs of Randy Newman. There can’t be many geographers who, in discussing Aldo Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac, connect the dots between Hegel, Baden Powell, and B.F. Skinner, but Robinson’s world-view comprises unexpected intersections. That world-view finds its practical application in what has become the interdisciplinarian’s discipline. Sustainability is a concept that had already been staked out by academics such as Janine Benyus, Robert Frosch, Brad Allenby, and John Ehrenfeld. And while Robinson’s thinking allied him with many others in his field, his singular achievement has been in crossing from the conceptual to reality. His commitment to sustainability finds its physical expression in the extraordinary CIRS (Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability) building that opened last fall on the UBC campus. It would be an exaggeration to say that Robinson built it. But it would not be entirely untrue.

PERCHED ATOP A DESK in a UBC classroom, Robinson is speaking to 14 graduate students about angels. The course is called Development of Environmental Thought—not a subject in which you’d expect to hear much about angels, but one that raises a question Robinson poses to his class. When he’s asking a question, his voice often conveys hushed amazement at the unexpected answer he has in mind. “What if,” he says, “human activity could…” He takes a storyteller’s delight in leaving the payoff momentarily hanging in the air.

Interdiscipline is not only in his nature: it’s in his physical representation of his nature. When he speaks, he underlines his words with a series of rhythmic hand gestures that seem to have as their essential purpose the description of a realm beyond the obvious. As a concept is presented for consideration, alternative ways of thinking about it are suggested by the ping-pong of his hands as he explores transcendence and imminence, the differences of the founding myths of the United States and Canada, the distinction between preservationist and conservationist.

I recognize this body language from our adolescence. The boarding school we attended, Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, can be imagined by bringing Hogwarts to mind. We were 16, and he was dismayed—shocked—to learn that I had not read The Lord of the Rings. He’d read the trilogy closely by then, a number of times. In fact, by Grade 11 he was familiar with translations of Tolkien’s Finnish, Norse, and Icelandic sources, and he had so internalized the revelatory nature of the heroic saga it was already part of his own personality. Even then, he often held a question’s interrogative centre of gravity until the last beat of a sentence—revealing it in a burst of inflection as if brandishing a magical sword.

“What if the future…has already happened?” This was the kind of thing that came up fairly routinely in conversation with the 16-year-old Robinson. And this habit, of both speech and thought, has not left him now that he’s nearing his 60th birthday. His grad students come from a variety of disciplines—physics, mechanical engineering, chemistry, forestry, journalism, anthropology—a mixture of interests that Robinson enjoys addressing. The question he puts to them is intended as revelation as much as pedagogical device. “What if human activity…could actually make the biophysical environment…”—and here, for the second time in a single sentence, he pauses a few beats—“better?”
Robinson is executive director of the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability and was the moving force behind the 12-year campaign to build an appropriate home for the idea of regenerative sustainability on the UBC campus.

And he continues to use CIRS as a beachhead of sustainability in a campaign that will eventually transform the Point Grey campus. As remarkable as CIRS is, it is, as Robinson points out, “just the beginning. We have the opportunity here to make the entire campus a living laboratory on the possibilities of sustainability.” CIRS is Robinson’s intellectual and academic home. It’s as if his career-long trajectory could find no single place to settle, until he invented it. The handsome, four-storey, wood-and-glass structure on UBC’s West Mall, designed by the celebrated architect Peter Busby, might just be the greenest building in the world, though that’s a description Robinson doesn’t much like. Not to say CIRS isn’t green. It is. Very. It’s a building with its own technical manual—a glossy, well-produced, 25-section booklet that you’d keep in CIRS’s glove compartment, if it had one. It has spreadsheets. It has schematics. It has headings such as “Challenges,” “Goals and Targets,” and “Technical Guidelines.” According to the manual, “CIRS was designed to be the most innovative and high-performance building in North America at the time of its construction. Integrated building systems, comprehensively monitored and centrally controlled, are designed to meet goals of zero carbon emissions, water self-sufficiency, net-positive energy performance and zero waste.”

Robinson is deeply committed to his own family, so it says a good deal that he speaks about the CIRS building with the same kind of amazed affection that he uses when he speaks of his love for his wife, Deborah, and their five grown sons. He can hardly contain his delight at the cleverness of a building that, even with the process of its construction and eventual decommission included in the equation, actually improves its environment. It is efficient, comfortable, well ventilated, and bathed in natural light. “CIRS goes beyond what I think of as the old environmental agenda—doing less bad,” he says. “For example, CIRS will be net positive on energy, carbon emissions, water quality, and structural carbon. Adding a 60,000-square-foot building to the campus will reduce campus energy use, reduce campus carbon emissions, improve the quality of the water flowing through our site, and sequester more carbon in the building structure than all the carbon emitted in building and eventually decommissioning CIRS.”

Robinson is as happy to talk to the staff of the Loop Café and Kitchen about whether the linguine stir sticks are working out as he is to meet with Alberto Cayuela, the CIRS project manager, about the building’s rainwater harvesting and filtration system or its green roof or its capture of waste heat from the building next door. He and Cayuela both take a pleasure undiminished by repetition in the tours of the building they conduct, proudly pointing out to visitors the warm, abundant presence of wood (much of it from forests infested by mountain pine beetle), the solar aquatics biofiltration unit, the heat pumps, and the energy-exchange systems. But in the long term, as Robinson is quick to say, the building is not the point. The purpose of CIRS is to inspire anyone who enters—students, faculty, staff, or visitors—to take its lessons and use what it teaches to surpass its own achievement. As the manual states: “It is an open place for researching and teaching sustainability; supporting collaborations between academia, government, industry, professionals, non-governmental organizations and the public; and spreading the seeds of sustainability through its interactions with a wide range of people.”

“GETTING AND SPENDING, we lay waste our powers,” William Wordsworth wrote in 1807. “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” These lines—from “The World Is Too Much With Us”—are a description of the dislocation between humanity and the natural world. That dislocation remains the legacy of the Industrial Revolution and it sits, as a loss to be somehow regained, at the heart of the environmental movement today. But Robinson, who has watched the slogans of environmental activism clash with the directives of industry and capitalism throughout his academic career, is not convinced that the battle has got us very far. What he envisions is a shift of paradigm—a term frequently used in his lectures, his writing, and his conversation—as transformative as the revolution the digital world has brought to human communication. “The barriers to sustainability are never technical,” he says. “They are always about the rules of the game.” And because he believes that changing the rules is possible as well as necessary, he is more inclined to read Wordsworth’s lines as evidence of powers we could be using (if only we were clever enough not to waste them) than as an elegy for powers we have lost. That, in a nutshell, is Robinson’s notion of regenerative sustainability—an environmental philosophy that believes we have the capacity to address global ecological imperatives more by ingenuity than by sacrifice. This is not about cosmetic green “add-ons.” He is sometimes moved to repeat a comment made by the British environmental consultant, Tom Burke, about the new growth industry of “green bullshit.”

Robinson’s notion of sustainability is of a new structure of production, resource management, and commerce that is deeply integrated into architecture, industry, and the economy. In this, he agrees with the architect William McDonough and the chemist Michael Braungart who, in 2003, wrote: “We see a world of abundance, not limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision. What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of creativity, culture, and productivity. That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?” Robinson does not doubt the importance of the CIRS building’s evangelical mission. He thinks that the evidence of approaching catastrophe has not proven to be a very effective tool for the environmental movement. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize an approaching catastrophe when he sees one. Implied in his irrepressible enthusiasm for the extraordinary building he helped create is a warning: if CIRS does not soon become much less extraordinary than it now is, as he puts it succinctly, “we’re fucked.”

Robinson is at his most animated when he’s describing something improbable. He lets a young man’s enthusiasm for the deftly, wildly ambitious take over from the measured, plodding tones of a middle age he has never fully embraced. Under the heading of “Vision and Leadership” in the manual, he’s quoted in full stride of an idealism undiminished by age. “It’s crucial not to be guided too much by what is possible. If it’s possible it’s boring, and we don’t want to be boring. So let’s figure out what is impossible and get as close as we can to that.”

The CIRS building is so innovative, so radical, and so demonstrative of Robinson’s own environmental and academic beliefs it could almost be a Borgesian construct of his own mind—a kind of Being John Robinson. As buildings must in the future—if, that is, there is going to be a future—it has sustainability deeply embedded in every detail of its construction and operation. And yet, for all the achievement of CIRS—a structure that, he says, “has already redefined our future”—it is the process of its planning and design that he regards as the most revolutionary. It was, in many ways, the logical outcome of his interdisciplinary approach to…well, everything that has defined his life and his career. The technology on which CIRS depends is not, in itself, extraordinary. “Off the shelf” is Robinson’s description. And the construction costs entailed only a 25 percent premium over those of a Gold LEED building—UBC’s minimum standard.
What CIRS did was to bring together the disparate expertise of its many partners and planners, most of whom had never come close to such collaboration with other disciplines and trades before. And this is why Robinson believes that a revolution as deep and radical as the one he sees being ushered in by the concept of regenerative sustainability is possible: we already have the skills, the knowledge, the resources. But with the rare exceptions of achievements such as CIRS, we have never brought these tools together and aligned them toward the objective of real, transformative sustainability. It’s as if we have a playing field, goal posts, players, and a ball, but have never organized them into a game of football.

“Include industry partners as complete collaborators,” as the CIRS manual says, “along with the architect and engineers, in the design of the building and its systems to help ensure the best application of products and the optimization of systems.”

So what is CIRS’s long-term objective? “Well,” says John Robinson, with a chuckle that manages to be both self-deprecating and unrestrained by modesty, “to change the world, actually.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.