Green Acres?

May 2, 2008

 

GO SELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN

UniverCity at Simon Fraser University

It's tough to go first. In 2002, when building began on the initial phase of what will eventually be more than 4,500 units with 10,000 residents atop Burnaby Mountain, green dreams were deflated by economic realities. “When we started the project, developers in Vancouver weren’t willing to do it,” says lead architect Norm Hotson, who attended those early meetings. “Later, though, they realized they had to start doing it because the public started to demand it.”

The university and the developers—which have included Millennium, Intergulf, and Polygon—were concerned that the project would create massive changes in how water flowed down the slope and into the Stoney Creek watershed. In response, they devised one of the leading stormwater retention and purification systems in the country; the claim it’s 97% successful in maintaining the same runoff as before development. “The stormwater runoff and how it was dealt with would set the tone for the community,” says Gordon Harris, head of the SFU Community Trust, the university agency charged with overseeing the development of what is essentially a new Burnaby suburb.

The first phase of UniverCity is being completed this year, and planners admit it has not achieved the energy-efficiency standards that are becoming the norm. The developers were reluctant to incorporate energy-saving measures into construction, so the university created green building “guidelines” instead of regulations. Some buildings include elements like geothermal heating, but other green touches like dual-flush toilets and in-floor radiant heating were dropped. The second phase, due for completion in 2015, will be more energy-efficient, as it will meet guidelines adopted in 2008. The trust won’t demand compliance with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an international standard that measures buildings’ energy efficiency and environmental sustainability) because of concerns that, though it’s the global standard, it’s “cumbersome” in the context of wood-framed houses, mixed-use buildings, and local conditions.

UniverCity won the American Planning Association’s inaugural National Excellence Award for Innovation in Green Community Planning this year, and intends to apply for LEED’s newest “Neighbourhood District” certification. The soon-to-be-built daycare centre will attempt to achieve “Living Building” standards, which would make it completely self-sustaining.

But can green buildings outside the urban core really be environmentally sustainable? Planners point out that 30 percent of residents are connected to nearby SFU, and 30 to 40 percent of residents commute to work or school using transit. A diesel bus shuttles residents from the town square to the SkyTrain station, and Harris hopes that one day a gondola service will link the two stops.

SHIFTING GOALPOSTS

Former industrial lands, Southeast False Creek

After more than a decade of planning, Southeast False Creek was supposed to be a model of sustainable development. But during the long process of design and construction, the goalposts were moved: as other green initiatives progressed by leaps and bounds, Southeast False Creek chugged slowly along its own track. “What we were originally committed to was impressive and world-leading at the time,” says Dave Ramslie, the city’s sustainable-development program manager, “but because the industry is rapidly evolving, it’s not as impressive as it seemed.” Criticizing the development, the surrounding architecture, and the lack of low- and medium-cost housing has become a local pastime. Yet most of the environmental goals set forth in 2005 have been met, including that all residential buildings meet a minimum of LEED Silver standards, that a neighbourhood power plant provide efficient energy, and that the development make real progress toward carbon neutrality. But planners compromised in some places rather than face a protracted battle. Gone is the requirement that 50 percent of roof space include vegetation (insurers worried about leaky condos); ditto a plan to burn wood chips as a cleaner fuel source (neighboring residents claimed it would up air pollution). “We were on a constrained timeline, and we just weren’t able to educate ourselves, and then the public, on going this way,” says Ramslie. Still, Southeast False Creek will be powered by a slightly less efficient heat-transfer set-up that feeds off the sewer system. And, insurance concerns or no, all housing in the Olympic Village will have green roofs.

 

THE COLOUR OF MONEY

Planned community, East Fraserlands

Southeast False Creek is municipally driven, and UniverCity has an academic component. East Fraserlands, on the other hand, is what Vice President of Development Norm Shearing calls a “pure market-driven project.” The 132-acre development is being built by ParkLane Homes under the guidance of the City of Vancouver to meet a range of sustainability goals, a method similar to the one used in Southeast False Creek. ParkLane is willing to meet the environmental goals, but not at too high a cost. “What we haven’t done in East Fraserlands,” says Shearing, “is promise to do anything that we haven’t proven out economically.” The property itself, at the southeast corner of the city along the north bank of the Fraser River, is former industrial mill land that had to be cleaned of contaminants before development could start. The project is similar in size to UniverCity, with about 10,000 residents ultimately filling 6,500 residential units, a further 250,000 square feet of commercial space, two schools, two daycares, two after-school centres, 200,000 square feet of office space, and a “full public-art initiative.” Energy-efficiency guidelines are similar to those the city required for Southeast False Creek, with LEED Silver requirements for all buildings and a LEED Gold target for the community centre. Currently under examination is what energy source to use for the Neighbourhood Energy Utility: the sort of biomass system that was rejected at False Creek; the same heat-transfer system that’s going in there; geothermal power; or garbage incineration to produce electricity. Shearing argues that small improvements to a large-scale project can do far more environmental good than any single homeowner possibly could achieve.

The developers are in the process of getting the land rezoned; they plan to start construction on the 20-year project in 2009, completing the first phase by 2011. Marina Khoury, an architect with Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, which is overseeing East Fraserlands, says the development is a world environmental leader. “This is about making entire communities sustainable,” she says, “rather than just the buildings.”

Company principal Andrés Duany, a well-known advocate for higher population density combined with marketable architecture, is the project’s lead designer. In an interview last year with Thetyee.ca, Duany argued against an environmentalist movement that targets cities. “Urbanism is environmentalism by other means. The environmentalism of urbanism is not about more green—it’s about having people willingly living in high density.”

Duany cites London as an example. “Even intelligent environmentalists present London as a problem. But London is part of the solution.”

A disused CPR rail line that divides the property is expected to be converted into a commuter line, though no details are available. There will be a fish habitat and extensive green space, including marsh and wetland areas, and a “sanctuary island” with no human access. The developers also have what they claim is the “first urban songbird strategy,” meant to attract a wide variety of songbirds to the area.

 

THE MEANING OF GREENING

What exactly is a “green” property? Can you really measure how sustainable a project is? Is a place “green” if it’s surrounded by conservation lands, as UniverCity is? If it includes buildings that have high rates of energy efficiency, as some do in Southeast False Creek? Is a project intrinsically green if it accommodates a large, high-density development that includes enough basic environmental features to make a measurable difference? There’s an added complication when you consider the popular argument that to be green a community must be economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable—that it cannot limit itself to just one of those factors without, by definition, becoming unsustainable.

These days, as developers find ways to make buildings more energy-efficient at lower cost, sustainability experts are moving away from building-specific guidelines in favour of community-wide ones; LEED’s future expansion into “neighbourhood” standards is one reflection of that movement.

“The question we have to ask,” says Alison Aloisio, an urban planner who serves as UBC’s sustainable buildings advisor, “is whether the region is better off or worse off because of this development.” She believes that an entire community’s ecological footprint is the best way to determine a home’s environmental impact; yet few North American municipalities, if any, have devised a way of making that assessment accurately. “I don’t think we’re really asking the right question,” says Aloisio, “and even if we were, I don’t think we’re at the point where we’re able to answer it.”

As living in a green building and a green neighbourhood becomes more desirable and more widespread, Aloisio points out, the very word “green” begins to lose meaning. And as everything gets marketed as “green,” the pressure will subside on developers to keep pushing the sustainability envelope, and on municipalities to keep strengthening their green standards.

So how do we keep upping the sustainability stakes? For starters, Aloisio wants to see real-estate listings that include green accounting, allowing potential buyers to compare the environmental impact of living or business space as easily as they now compare square footage and prices. “We’re still happy with buzzwords and concepts,” she says. “We don’t yet have the sophistication to demand the follow-through, the evidence that it actually works.”

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