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Greenings from Earth !

Par Benjamin Cliquet
21-04-2011

Building the future

Building the future
(In Vancouver, architects try to innovate)
"We work at the intersection of the human and the system." To reduce building sector's GHG emissions, Vancouver's authorities want to develop new technologies that make it easy for inhabitants to change their behavior.

"Vancouver has the vision to be the greenest city in the world by 2020. To get there, we’ve defined 10 long-term goals, each associated with a 2020-target. After talking citizens and stakeholders, we’ve created a draft action plan to meet our proposed targets." That is how begin each short video presenting these 10 targets which are :

1.Green economy

2.Climate leadership

3.Green buildings

4.Green transportation

5.Zero waste

6.Access to nature

7.Lighter footprint

8.Clean water

9.Clean air

10.Local food

After spending two months in Vancouver, I write about these targets. If you cannot wait to know more about it, here the official website of the project.

The third long-term goal about green buildings is one of the backbones of the Vancouver Greenest City project. The building sector is responsible for more than half of GHG emissions in the city. To talk about the solutions to reduce this share, I met Lyn Bartram. Researcher and assistant professor in the School of Interactive Art and Technology at SFU, she was also a member of the Green Building working group for Vancouver Greenest City. She explained to me the different choices they made to reduce buildings’ emissions.

Vancouver has the ambition to "lead the world in green building design and construction". To get there, they set two targets :
- require all buildings constructed from 2020 onward to be carbon neutral in operations ;
- reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in existing buildings by 20% over 2007 levels.

Buildings are responsible for more than half of Vancouver’s community-wide GHG emissions

The major issue of the green buildings’ team is to reach the housing existing stock. If they used new green technologies, these buildings should be retrofitted and that’s an expensive solutions for inhabitants (even if there are many incentives that they can apply). That’s why the city prefers banking on changing behaviors. "A green building is a building that is used sustainably", explains Lyn, arguing that a very efficient and green building with different good technologies could be useless if the inhabitants open windows while warming rooms and never switch the lights off. They would "defeat the purpose". "The building is just an envelop that has capabilities". So they try to find solutions to help people use their house more effectively. It’s the best way they found to reach a wide range of housing existing stock.

The idea of occupant behavior is an increasing but new area of interest for architects and building designers. The technics they are looking for are, for example, adaptive heating systems and other technics to "tune the buildings". These questions were dealt with for large buildings but now they want to apply it at a residential scale. Vancouver relies on information technologies, like "smart meters". These devices can tell you which part of your house uses more energy, and then you can use your iphone to turn into a saving energy mode. You can even use your iphone to turn lights on and off ! So they try to make easy to use less energy by using these new technologies.

These technologies are often controlled by computer or iphone, devices which are cheaper and cheaper but, I think, still not affordable for some parts of the population. "The good news is that almost everybody has a computer" still argues Lyn. Anyway, they are looking for "small, lightway, wireless technologies that make it easier to integrate a system of awareness and control and just patching these into a computer you already have." It can be applied for lights and heat.

In practical terms, if the device informs that the dish washer uses too much energy, you can turn it in an energy saving mode : it makes the dish washer run "when there is the right amount of power available and when it’s most efficient". So they experiment technologies that can say "this is a good time to use your appliances" as opposed to more automatic ones automation that says "this is when your appliance turns on". "There is a delicate balance between user control and automatic control." And Lyn concludes as if we were in Matrix or Terminator : "we work at the intersection of the human and the system." The installation of these technologies is still a pilot project and they don’t know if people will accept to live with these devices. They hope it will have the same effect as the counter on cars that remind you how fast you drive, without being annoying. As you can imagine, the biggest bareer will be to get people accept to live with.

Social mixity downtown, is it an issue ?

"If you are going to build a brand new highly efficient stock, you will raise housing prices". Moreover, western Canada is an inmigration spot. So demand for housing is increasing and it will be in the next 20 years. But "even if the prices stay how they are we have an economic diversity issue" admits Lyn. Eugene McCann (you know him now), deplores that "neighbourhoods with poor or low-middle class people are often identified by developers as problems". Nevertheless, he considers that it’s not "necessarily a problem" that wealthy areas of Vancouver are wealthy, "no one says that some poor people should move into these areas". I guess downtown Vancouver is mostly for upper classes and it’s not going to change soon. Maybe I identified a problem that is not one.

The aspect of green neighbourhoods is very important to save energy, according to Lyn. It’s different from a neighbourhood of green buildings. If it’s a neighbourhood of new green buildings, then they will be very expensive and only rich people can occupy it. "Whereas if it’s a green neighbourhood of people living sustainably, then you have community gardens, people competing with each other in a friendly way to be the most efficient on the block..." explains Lyn with enthusiasm.

One of the main characteristics of Vancouverism : the research of density

In Vancouver, it’s not very dense, out of downtown and out of skytrain corridors. And it’s hard to introduce density and keep the neighbourhoods livable, so that people still want to live in. "People worry less about density than about the fact that it will increase parking issues, take away the quality of their back lanes" and about the fact that high buildings could make shade on their homes. Lyn considers that it’s "way too early" to build high buildings in these areas with low density.

See you soon, Be green, Ben

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