Nature + Nurture

Hughes Condon Marler Architects’ UniverCity Childcare Centre merges education and development to create a living laboratory in pursuit of the Living Building Challenge


There is a city on a hill in Burnaby, British Columbia. The city is UniverCity; the hill is Burnaby Mountain; and much like the proverbial city upon a hill, its purpose is to be an exemplar for the rest of us. Here, at 1,214 feet above sea level, you’ll find a relatively isolated test community putting front-of-the-pack sustainability into practice.

UniverCity is a part of Simon Fraser University (SFU), a top-ranking Canadian university named after a Scottish American who crossed borders in the early 19th century, traded fur all over Canada, and helped chart out much of British Columbia in the process. SFU’s main campus is here atop Burnaby, laid out according to a 1963 master plan by architects Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey (it was an early project for Erickson, one of British Columbia’s major 20th-century architects, and he delivered the style for which he would become well known: modernism executed in concrete). Although a residential development was always part of the mix—Erickson and Massey originally put it to the west of the campus—for 30 years that land remained wooded and wild. “Until a decade ago, SFU was essentially a commuter university, a weekend wasteland where no one was here unless they had to be,” says Gordon Harris, president and CEO of SFU Community Trust, an entity created in the 1990s to change exactly that.

Planning began in 1995 with then-SFU president John Stubbs at the helm, this time with 160 acres to the east of campus. Stubbs set two values down even before the first cornerstone, and they haven’t changed since: UniverCity is to be a model sustainable community, and the development should create wealth for an SFU endowment for teaching research. It combines two sectors that are often left apart: public and private, or in another sense, research and development. Governmental agencies and educational institutions often invest in testing supremely sustainable technologies but do so purely in the name of exploration (and usually, therefore, on a lack of return). On the other side are developers, who, being unfunded by grants and endowments, invest in green building as far as it gives back in profit. The UniverCity project would be about taking idealism out of the ivory tower and throwing it into the streets.

SFU donated more than 320 hectares (about 1.2 square miles) of land to the city for inclusion in the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and in return got zoning approval for what would become UniverCity, and in 2000, design and master planning was awarded to Hotson Bakker Architects (now DIALOG). The first residential building went up in 2003; its residents arrived the next year, and a grocery store, school, hospital, cafés, and restaurants all followed. Currently, there are approximately 3,400 residents living in the community with plans for a total population between 8,500 to 10,000.

Surprisingly, the residences—many of which are offered at well below market rates resulting in a comparatively affordable community in one of Canada’s priciest regions—aren’t all just de facto student housing. About 20 percent of residents are currently students with faculty members and other professionals connected to SFU making up another 20 percent. The remaining 60 percent, however, are people who just want to be there. “It’s a livable, affordable, and sustainable community that’s well-served by transit, central to the region, and 25 minutes from downtown Vancouver without having to cross a bridge,” Harris says. Plus, there’s the view.



Attracting long-term residents and not frightening them off by the experimental nature of UniverCity is a balancing act, and buildings are of an understated, modern-day West Coast design. “We want to build a community that’s livable,” Harris says. “We’ve seen other projects where it’s obvious that they’re different. We’re trying to be different—without being obvious.” Still, the community is currently implementing a number of initiatives that aren’t run-of-the-mill at all, like a district energy system serving residences via an underground piping network, which will be fueled mainly by recycled construction wood and will save nearly 2,000 tons of greenhouse gases. A green zoning bylaw—the first of its kind in North America—dictates that all new buildings built by the trust’s development partners must be at least 30 percent more energy-efficient and 40 percent more water-efficient than the national requirement. If developers exceed either standard by 50 percent—say, doing 45 percent better on energy—then the trust doles out a higher density limit it holds in reserve as an award.

Soon, however, UniverCity’s greatest claim to fame may be the UniverCity Childcare Centre. The small, 5,700-square-foot project, designed for 50 preschoolers and nine staff, is striving for green building’s most rigorous, ambitious, and erudite certification: the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Designed by Hughes Condon Marler Architects (HCMA), the Childcare Centre was completed in 2012 and is currently undergoing a yearlong trial period assessing its performance. Only after it proves to be completely energy- and water-independent, among a number of other requirements, can it achieve LBC status. If all goes according to design, the child-care building will be the first LBC-certified project standing on Canadian soil—and only the fifth in the world.



The “Living Building” was first defined by Jason McLennan, CEO of the Seattle nonprofit International Living Future Institute. Instead of inanimate objects that suck away our resources, imagine buildings that give back. A living building could be thought of the way you would a tree, which, even as it “consumes” water and sunlight, breathes into the environment and replenishes something essential.

The most current version of the LBC certification system starts with some familiar suspects: site, water, energy, and materials. Then it adds three more—health, equity, and beauty. Health deals with air quality and “biophilia,” an attentiveness to developing a greater bond between the end users and nature. Beauty requires “design features intended solely for human delight” and mandates the availability of educational materials relating to the project. Equity constrains scale to human-sized, rather than car-sized, developments, and mandates an equal-access policy to transportation as well as air, sunlight, and waterways.

Within these categories—called “petals” in LBC parlance, each of which contains “imperatives”—architects, developers, and clients find some pretty cut-and-dried performance requirements. To partially fulfill the Site petal, the project can only be constructed on previously developed sites. There are also mandatory agricultural allowances in percentages of project area. Energy is even more straightforward. From the manual: “One hundred percent of the project’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis.” End quote.

HCMA had never designed a project like this before. Although the Vancouver-based firm had completed a number of LEED projects in the past and is known for a commitment to sustainability, HCMA partner Karen Marler says it was immediately apparent that LEED and the LBC were nothing alike. “LEED, I would say, is very prescriptive,” she says. “They tell you what you need to do and how you need to get there. Whereas the Living Building Challenge is very performance-based. They tell you how the building will have to perform, but they don’t tell you how to get there. So it has been a very interesting and informative process.”

Take the Materials petal. Rather than earning points for certain sustainable or certified materials, you get a “red list” of the materials and chemicals you can’t use, even in part. No asbestos, lead, mercury, cadmium, HCFCs or CFCs, halogenated flame retardants, phthalates, PVCs, petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, wood treatments containing pentachlorophenol or arsenic, the list goes on. The materials that you do use are up to you, provided of course that you meet the other imperatives for the certification of sustainability and fair labor in raw materials and appropriate sourcing restrictions.

If you’ve ever asked a manufacturer, “What’s in this product, exactly?” you won’t be surprised to hear that avoiding red-listed materials was by far the most challenging piece. “Many felt that it was proprietary information,” says Kourosh Mahvash, a sustainable research leader at HCMA who took on the work of picking up the phone and calling manufacturers of materials under consideration. What ended up working best was to simply send over the red list and ask for confirmation that nothing listed was in the top-secret recipe.

The project turned into one of the most collaborative experiences the firm has ever had. “In the LEED process, we effectively tell the general contractor and subcontractors what to do and how they have to do it,” Marler says. “But during the Living Building Challenge, they become an important part of the whole process. I heard from the electrical subcontractor on the project that he had never spoken with an industrial designer or manufacturer before, [but on this project,] he got to go all the way back to the source to get confirmation that the fixtures didn’t contain any of these red-list materials, and to ensure they came from within a certain radius of the project.


As if LBC wasn’t a challenge enough, the SFU Community Trust had a second requirement: the building needed to be designed to integrate with a Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Reggio Emilia is an Italian city whose educators and residents, after World War II, inspired a worldwide child-as-an-empowered-individual-type pedagogy. Reggio Emilia child care dictates that there are three teachers: the instructor, the parents, and lastly, the environment itself.

In this approach, the children have to be given an amount of control over their space. So HCMA conducted a sort of focus group with the children during the design process. The results were predictably adorable. “We heard things like, they want to go up really high, they want to go fast, they want water to play with, and they want to play in the sand,” Marler says. “They want a fire-breathing dragon tunnel.”

So what do you find at UniverCity Childcare? “Up really high” plus “water to play with” translates to rooftop puddles of safely filtered rainwater. “Fire-breathing dragon tunnel” and “going fast” becomes a two-story outdoor slide sloping from the roof to the play area.

The thing about having “cutting edge” as a part of your mission is that the edge keeps moving forward, and you have to move with it, or, as Harris says, “the world keeps catching up to you.” Next up at UniverCity? Maybe a high-speed mountainside gondola, which would carry residents to and from the regional SkyTrain transit hub. It would also cut mountain diesel bus routes and greenhouse gases in half. As the worldwide building community gets greener and greener, UniverCity keeps looking for new ways to be a city upon a hill.


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