Net Zero Energy? Vancouver’s CIRS is a Work in Progress

Sep 7 • Articles, Métacité, Sustainability, VANCOUVER • 2492 Views • 12 Comments on Net Zero Energy? Vancouver’s CIRS is a Work in Progress

When it comes to achieving net zero energy, we may still be more green than we think.

 ©  Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

© Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

Architect: Perkins+Will /// Completion: 2011

By Deidre Miller…

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) is on the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus. Planning for “the greenest building in North America” began in 1999 and it opened for occupancy in November of 2011.


During the ten years that the CIRS was in the works, the project saw other universities come and go as partners and the site was relocated twice. Several corporate sponsors joined up and provided funding through the extended process of planning and design, and government grants helped, too. The final design process took place in 2008 and 2009, and the building was constructed in 2010 and 2011. 

 ©  Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

© Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

The CIRS is not meant to be a one-off, expensive showplace for cutting edge technology. It is intended to introduce solutions that can be adapted to other sites and other purposes, and its cost was similar to what a university would normally pay for a building of its size and use. It was designed and constructed under a classic design-bid-build project management structure. An integrated design process (IDP) kept university representatives, architects and engineers working in harmony, and the use of building information modelling (BIM) kept all the aspects of the design accessible to the team.


The CIRS was constructed under two certification programs: LEED and the Living Building Challenge. It goes beyond the requirements for LEED Platinum and was one of only four certified Living Buildings in North America when it was completed. The energy modelling that was part of the design process predicted that it would be better than net-zero when in use, that is, that it would generate more energy than it used.



 ©  Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

© Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

The CIRS has many sustainability objectives that are not directly related to energy conservation. Its design maximizes the use of renewable, nontoxic and recyclable materials. Water conservation and a healthy interior environment were both major concerns, as well. Its design helps to control storm water drainage, and it includes a vegetated green roof and green wall. Wood is plentiful, renewable and inexpensive in British Columbia, and for those reasons, the CIRS was designed with a timber frame.


The CIRS’s energy use strategy is focused on advanced mechanical systems and renewable energy generation. The building envelope has an average R-value of 20, which is equivalent to a 3.5 RSI or a U-value of .286. To aid in energy savings, it’s equipped with heat recovery ventilators, which transfer heat from exhaust air that’s being expelled from the building to supply air. It’s equipped with ground-source heat pumps in a geo-exchange field, and it also has solar collectors that preheat the domestic hot water.


Its renewable energy generation system consists of solar-voltaic panels that double as window sunshades, helping to limit summertime solar gain.



Vancouver is the most temperate major city in Canada. In fact, it essentially has a European climate. It is almost an exact match to London, both in temperature and in level of precipitation; it’s mild and rainy.


Graph by author

Graph by author

Is the CIRS Net-Zero?

The data for the CIRS’s first year of operation is publicly available, and it isn’t net-zero, at least not yet. It does, however, use a fifth of the energy of a typical Canadian university building its size, and its energy intensity is lower than that of other Vancouver green buildings. For example, the new LEED Gold North Vancouver City Library has an energy intensity of 134.5 kWh/m2 compared to the CIRS’s 100 kWh/m2. 


Why is the CIRS not living up to it potential? It’s primarily because the building’s mechanical systems aren’t performing as well as expected. The heat recovery ventilators only managed to return 147 MWh of energy over the course of the year, while the predicted value was 906 MWh. In addition, electricity usage has been around 20 percent greater than expected.


The CIRS may not be a net-zero building yet, but it is unique in that it will be continuously evaluated and improved, and its use data is being made available to the public. It is a laboratory for green building design and management, and it has the potential to help solve the problems that can prevent a building with impressive energy modelling predictions from performing up to spec in the real world. 


You can view the latest performance data for the CIRS here, on the building performance page of its website


Deidre Miller is an engineer with an architecture degree who has lived in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and worked in building design, evaluation and regulation.

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  11. […] September article at Sixty7Architecture Road is up: Net Zero Energy? Vancouver’s CIRS is a Work in Progress. It’s a short piece illustrated with quite a few of the gorgeous photos that the University […]

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