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Sustainable Urban Development - Building Priorities Briefing

Denis Du Bois briefs us on his trip to Canada where he spent two days exploring sustainable building and urban design strategies at Dockside Green, the University of British Columbia, and the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver BC. (podcast) (photos)


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Program notes

Hybrids are great, but Americans need to do more than make our cars run cleaner. We need to revisit how our cities work, from urban planning to public transit systems.

To see this in action I headed northwest with two dozen city officials, urban planners, architects and developers. We got insider tours of the 2010 Olympic Village, the Dockside Green mixed-use development, and pioneering green buildings on the campus of the University of British Columbia. Along the way we met visionaries and learned about their strategies to use urban planning to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

(Spot interview: Luis Borrero, architect)

Joe Van Belleghem photo on EnergyPriorities.com

Joe Van Belleghem, Developer of Dockside Green.

Dockside Green

Dockside Green is a celebrity among green developments in the western hemisphere. It's not that anything Dockside did was revolutionary -- it's all been done before -- it's that Dockside combines so many sustainable features in an entire neighborhood.

We're having lunch in Victoria with Carola Bloedorn, Director of Development for Dockside Green...

Dockside Green photo on EnergyPriorities.com

Green roofs on the buildings of Dockside Green provide insulation, community and habitat. They are irrigated with graywater from the development's on-site treatment plant.

(Sound bytes: Carola Bloedorn)

After lunch we take a water taxi across the harbor to Dockside Green.

(Spot interview: Mayor John Marchione, Redmond, WA)

The development is the vision of Joe Van Belleghem, who meets us at the dock and leads us to a rooftop patio in the completed phase, called Synergy.

From 8 floors up, Joe asks us to look straight down at Synergy's green roofs and garden patios. Flowing slowly past the buildings is a small creek.

(Sound bytes thruout: Joe Van Belleghem)

Joe is proud of his green roofs. They and the creek are part of a water ecosystem that has gained Dockside Green international media attention.

Excess water flows into the harbor through a man-made creek. The residential units on that creek sold out quickly, and at a premium.

Dockside Green photo on EnergyPriorities.com

Water leaves the treatment plant clear, but plants in this creek continue cleaning it on its way to the harbor. Units facing this creek sold out quickly, and at premium prices, says Van Belleghem.

Setting the world record for LEED Platinum points took more than green roofs and graywater recycling. This development incorporates a long list of other features like recycled building materials, renewable energy, energy efficiency, low-VOC finishes, daylighting, natural ventilation...

But even with the ultimate wish list for green buildings, it's not the buildings that make this place stand out for me. It's how the development sits within its urban context. It's the attention to land use, density, transportation...

The triple bottom line for Dockside Green isn't compromising the economics for environmental and social features...

An interesting budgetary footnote is that the city of Victoria doesn't have sewage treatment, which put Dockside Green in a position of either treating blackwater on site, or dumping raw sewage into the harbor. Most developments don't have to cover the 4 million dollar cost of building their own sewage treatment plant, but Dockside avoids city sewage bills for residents and development cost charges for sewage and stormwater.

Dockside Green photo on EnergyPriorities.com

The biomass gasification plant will convert waste wood to fuel, and use that to heat water for the development. The plant is expected to be online in spring of 2009. Initially, at least, it will produce excess heat that might be sold to neighboring buildings.

On the other hand -- when the city sold this property to the developer, both parties knew it was contaminated and clean-up was estimated at between 6 and 11 million dollars -- about equal to the price of the land. Dockside Green was very innovative about the cleanup, and it cost under 3 million, a fraction of the estimate. That sent 7 million dollars to the bottom line -- the financial one -- and these two factors are important when comparing Dockside Green's budget to any other sustainable development.

We left Joe Van Belleghem and started on our walk back to Victoria. Everywhere we go, we're walking or using public transit. Along the way we passed Dockside Green's biomass energy plant, still under construction. The plant will gasify wood waste and use the gas to heat water for domestic use and for the hydronic heat in the units.

(Spot interview: Darby Watson, urban planner, LMNArchitects)

Dinnertime gives us a much-needed break from walking, but it isn't a break from the discussions. Each table is buzzing, people are sharing their observations and what they've learned elsewhere...

(Sound bytes: group)

UBC CK Choi green building photo on EnergyPriorities.com

The CK Choi building at the University of British Columbia features energy-efficient lighting, daylighting, water-saving fixtures, and reclaimed building materials. Even the handrails were salvaged from a Vancouver building, and the stairs were adjusted to fit them.

UBC Green Buildings

It's early in the morning on day two. We're walking across the campus of the University of British Columbia. I'm talking with Robert Pantley of Natural and Built Environments, a developer. We're looking back on the first day.

(Spot interview: Robert Pantley, developer, Natural & Built Environments)

CK Choi
UBC was one of the earliest universities to adopt a sustainability policy for its facilities. Its green buildings comply with mixtures of LEED and UBC standards.

One of those buildings is the CK Choi building, which uses features like daylighting, composting toilets, waterless urinals, and reclaimed building materials. Its lighting system is 70 percent more efficient than a typical facility built at the same time.

What's interesting is that the CK Choi building was constructed in the mid-nineties -- When they put out the call for architects with green building experience, they got no response. This building was a learning project for those who eventually worked on it, and it later served as a model for the LEED rating system.

Dockside Green photo on EnergyPriorities.com

The Life Sciences Centre at UBC features a high atrium and ample daylight. The atrium originally was envisioned as being open, but realists about Vancouver's weather prevailed. UBC was one of the earliest universities to adopt a sustainability policy to guide future development. Its green buildings comply with mixtures of CaGBC and UBC standards.

Lis Soldano is a development manager for JC Mueller...

(Spot interview)

Life Sciences Centre
Our next stop is the university's Life Sciences Centre. It's a beautiful space with natural wood finishes and a high atrium bathed in daylight. In here it feels like it's not a typically rainy Vancouver day outside.

This was built just a few years ago, so it had the advantage of computer modeling of its lighting and thermal performance.

It has the disadvantages that come with being a research facility -- the mandatory fume hoods had to be equipped with sensors to keep them from sucking heat out of the labs. And researchers tend to keep unusual hours, so the lights and HVAC are almost always on.

(Spot interview: Jason Lynch, Building Manager, Redmond; Jessica Geenan, PSE)

Olympic Village 2010 photo on EnergyPriorities.com

Ian Smith, Manager of Development for Southeast False Creek and Olympic Village, explains the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Village (model at left) within the larger Southeast False Creek sustainable neighborhood (model at right). The foreground models aren't melting -- they're skewed by design -- and are preliminarily targeted for Canadian athlete housing during the Games.

Olympic Village

Our last stop of the day is the highlight of the trip for me. We're at the office of Ian Smith, with the City of Vancouver. Architectural models take up an eighteen-foot table in the lobby.

(Sound bytes thruout: Ian Smith, Manager of Development, Olympic Village & SEFC)

In 2010 the Winter Olympics will come to Vancouver. The athletes will live in an all-new, sustainable urban neighborhood, the sixteen green buildings that make up the Olympic Village.

Ian is the Manager of Development for the Olympic Village and the surrounding Southeast False Creek neighborhood -- over 6 million square feet of mixed-use development all together.

Urban planning debates over the 2010 Olympic Village site started with the 1986 World's Fair.

2010 Olympic Village photo on EnergyPriorities.com

The construction of this public waterfront is a bonus for Vancouver. The Olympic Village meets the harbor here. Even though this area is likely to be off limits to spectators during the Winter Olympic Games, we're likely to see this spot frequently in broadcasts.

But in 2004, the debate ended. Ian believes the early goal of sustainable development for this neighborhood -- which was nothing more than a run-down industrial sector at the time -- was a factor in Vancouver's selection as the host city for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games...

The Village will be home to 3,000 VIP athletes, where every building will meet or exceed LEED Gold...

But back then, the meaning of "sustainable" wasn't exactly clear. There wasn't a LEED rating system for mixed-use developments. The Canada Green Building Council was just getting started...

A district heating system will capture heat from sewers beneath the neighborhood. The warmed water flows from heat exchangers into insulated pipes that lead to radiant panels in the ceilings of the units...

Vancouver 2010 sustainable development photo on EnergyPriorities.com

Science meets sustainability. North False Creek and the site of the 1986 World's Fair look across the harbor at the Southeast False Creek development, which is a pilot for the LEED for Neighborhood Design rating system.

After the Olympics, the Southeast False Creek development will become home to 10 or 15 thousand people. The design of the neighborhood will allow them to live a life that's, well, more sustainable...

Ian takes us out the back door and into the construction site. We look up at the steel structures from what will soon be a beautiful waterfront walkway. The buildings are complete enough that I can recognize them from the models inside.

Standing here, snapping photos in the rain, I realize the next time I see these buildings might be on TV in 2010.

Answers raise more questions

I expected everyone to get on the train and sleep all the way home. But the Amtrak Bistro car was bustling and boisterous, and it was our group that was making all the noise!

I wonder what the effect it would have if every developer and urban planner could see what I've seen in the past two days.

These examples apply the triple bottom line principles to sustainable urban planning. They gracefully combine the social, environmental, and economic values of their communities. Each was a partnership between the city, the community, and the developer. The result puts Canada a step closer to solving the energy and climate crisis. And they're making sure their cities are places people can live sustainable lives.

We've seen innovative solutions to some interesting challenges. They raise some questions, too. Why do developers have to fight for variances from city planners to use proven solutions like these? Why are these examples the exception and not the rule? And why do we have to go to other countries to see them?


i was in vancouver and western canada in the summer (i'm UK based) on a reporting assignment for british and irish press and visited millennium water/olympic village among other projects. i didn't have as detailed access to the site as denis did but the location and sustainable proposals are indeed impressive as he attests. those who are interested to see other examples worldwide of credible sustainable residential developments might take a visit to the portal i founded and edit http://www.whatgreenhome.com

Wonderful article. Vancouver has made some terrific planning progress. It's managed to build one of the most 'human' cities in North America. Portland has done the same - and has a more eclectic design sense than Vancouver.

There are so many great things to discuss about both cities, and the support they have from developers. One example from both cities are 'live work' spaces. These are encouraged in street / sidewalk level units. This provides greater security - something that would be most welcome on Capitol Hill, the U District, Belltown, and Downtown. The stunning development along False Creek, just to the west of the development highlighted in this article, has 'live work' spaces. There are small terraces enclosed with wrought iron fences (easy to see through) set a foot or two above grade. It's the modern equivalent of the front porch. Instead of streets fronted by retail that goes dark after midnight there are people living just a few feet from the sidewalk. They have a vested interest in security for their neighborhood, and by the simple fact of their presence, achieve it.

Belltown residents complain about street crime and violence. What would it be like if every street level storefront had full time occupants?

What would it take to get the Seattle area to tip in the direction that our two big neighbors have?