What does it take to be a Living Building?

The UniverCity Childcare Centre has won several design and sustainability awards in its first year of operation and continues to undergo its certification to become Canada's first Living Building.  But there's more to a building than design, green features, and awards… a building is where most of us spend most of our waking hours.  As our lives move on and we get older, we tend to accept the buildings we work in as a necessary part of our lives and we don't question what we are given – or if we do, it rarely matters in the context of full-scale renovation.

But when you're a kid aged 3 to 5, these are the formative years of your life!  These are the years when the building may project upon you a different outlook.  When the environment and the people around you may help to shape your understanding and expectations for your own future.  I have two children aged 8 and 10, and what they absorb on a daily basis is astounding to me.  Much of it is learned – classically, from their environment, and from shared behaviour. 

However, children are rarely skeptics and mostly optimists.  And when they occupy a space, they do so expecting that the adults are putting them somewhere safe and fun and rewarding.  They aren't asking, "is this building causing pollution?"  Or "is this water safe to drink?"  Fortunately for Canadian children, this is mostly a given.  So, the idea of changing their baseline – their expectations – of what is normal started to brew as we began to think about providing a new childcare facility in a new sustainable community in partnership with a very creative Faculty of Education and childcare provider – the SFU Childcare Society.

At UniverCity we have Canada's first green building requirements.  Yes, requirements.  All buildings must perform 40% better than code for energy and water efficiency, they must use predominantly locally available materials, and they must provide a healthy indoor environment.  Developers are doing this at UniverCity at a cost that is comparable to conventional buildings.  So as we ask the developers to do more, we always endeavor to do a step (or two or three) better.  

We did this with VanCity Enterprises in Verdant, Canada's first LEED Gold and Built Green Gold wood frame building, sold to faculty and staff at a discount to market rates.  We did this with Liberty Homes on the Hub, with a LEED Silver mixed-use building and Nesters Market's first green store fit-out.  We did this with the Burnaby School District on Canada's first LEED Gold retrofit of an existing building into the Highlands Elementary.

So what was next?  Well, if kids were growing up in Verdant and then going onto Highlands Elementary, we were missing that early childhood link to help them reset their frame of mind and change their expectations as to what a building can deliver.  We stumbled upon the Living Building Challenge and thought, what if?  What if these kids could spend 3 years of their lives resetting their normal – expecting that we treat and re-use our rainwater, expecting that we generate the energy we need, expecting that you can eat the building and not get sick, expecting that the building will still be there for their children and their grandchildren.  

So, we decided it was a challenge worthy of our attention and expertise.  With the help of HCMA architects, Space2Place Landscape Architecture, Fast+Epp Structural, and MMM Electrical, we set about delivering what we hope will be Canada's first Living Building.  A building that ultimately gives as much as it takes – and ideally it gives more, because it gives kids a chance to change their expectation for the built environment.

When we got this opportunity, the question was never "what should the building look like?"  Rather, it was the question, "what kind of place would I want my kids to live in 8 hours a day?"  I think the UniverCity Childcare Centre is that kind of building.

Energy, Education, Human Habitat, Sustainable Communities, Environment

About the Author

Dale is the director of development for the UniverCity Project at SFU. He serves as a board member for the International Living Future Institute and is helping UniverCity to create Canada’s first Living Building. He is a father to 2 wonderful little kids, and tries to live an active and sustainable lifestyle as a model for his children.

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