On the south shore of False Creek, develop a neighbourhood that is the model of sustainability, incorporating forward-thinking infrastructure; strategic energy reduction; high-performance buildings; and high transit access.
With those words in 1991, the City of Vancouver challenged itself to redevelop an abandoned brownfield site adjacent to its downtown core into a vision of what Vancouver – and all cities – could become in the future. Though many involved at the time will confirm they didn’t know exactly what “sustainability” meant or would look like, they understood it was a critical goal.
The willingness to set a vision and then reach for it, through community consultation, private sector collaboration, and eventually, the driving urgency of the Olympic deadline, resulted in the Millennium Water Olympic Village that stands on the shores of SEFC today. In chapters past, we have detailed the tangible steps of the development journey. Here, we include reflections and comments from those who were involved, as they consider where they have come from and where we all go from here.
SEFC and the Olympic Village establish a new model for Vancouverism. It’s one of the most interesting mixes of sustainability, urbanism, livability and vibrancy that we’ve ever seen. It dispels the myth that we do one type of building in Vancouver – the tower and podium. The message that sustainability can take many forms is going to be very powerful for us as a city. Models are only useful if they change business as usual, and the Olympic Village has already changed the status quo – how our zoning works, the way we perceive barriers to green design, the way we see passive design and urban agriculture, the way we think about urban form and density. Everything has changed.
The residents of this new community will be able to lead a matchless lifestyle for sustainability – very urban, very sustainable, very healthy, very safe and very vibrant. It’s usually pretty hard to get all of those components in one place. I think the careful planning in the Olympic Village has achieved a community that is more than the sum of its parts.
Brent Toderian, Director of Planning, City of Vancouver
We’ve learned an awful lot from SEFC. The City has changed its approach to sustainability – because of the learning, we’ve decided to declare ourselves a sustainable city. We’ve created an office of sustainability, we have our urban food policy which I would suggest came from SEFC, and it was because of SEFC that the City of Vancouver became involved in promoting green buildings and the work that contributed to the formation of LEEDTM BC and the Canada Green Building Council.
In addition, the 1.5 million square feet of the Olympic Village was all done through an integrated design process, so there has been a lot of learning, from developers to landscape architects to mechanical engineers to architects, about how to develop green buildings,
how to bring them in a more cost-effective way. Thanks to this project, we have hundreds of people who are versed in green building.
The other important impact was that we needed to develop a sufficient number of green buildings and green units so there would be choice in the marketplace, a critical mass. Now, people will be able to compare units that are green and not so green. The marketplace determines value, not the attributes of the unit, so having enough choice is important.
Ian Smith, SEFC Manager of Development, City of Vancouver
Let’s go back in history. I remember when there were no Olympics, no Athletes’ Village. There was an industrial site there, part owned by the City, part not. If you talked about sustainability at that point, most people wouldn’t know what you were talking about and the other half would think you were an idiot. Historically, if you looked at our policy framework, we didn’t have much on alternative energy, there was no urban agriculture, and so on. Since SEFC, those issues are now at the forefront.
Larry Beasley, Former Director of Planning, City of Vancouver
Throughout this project, we had a level of cooperation with other agencies that we don’t always have, and I think the key was that from the start we said, ‘Let’s not talk jurisdictional lines. Let’s have a process where our goal is that everyone agrees, where we make decisions based on everybody accepting that the solution is the best one given the circumstances.’ It was a very good process. I hope we can continue that, because it made a lot of sense.
Tilo Driessen, Park Planner, Vancouver Park Board
Sustainable design is not about getting to the top of the mountain, it’s about moving the mountain to where it should have been in the first place. When we started doing the main master planning [for SEFC] in 1997, we wanted to create the new normal – it was a very humble and absolutely global ambition that we had, a simple desire to completely change the way everything is done.
Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture
This project was a watershed of learning in this industry in Canada. It brought in the energy of the community. It was innovative because of all the free advice of hundreds of people.
Mark Holland, Principal, HB Lanarc
Future buildings and cities will look and feel similar to the development at SEFC, where technical and design innovations result in buildings and communities that minimize the impact on the environment, maximize comfort and enjoyment for the residents, and function better in countless subtle yet significant ways. The future involves extending the integrated design process beyond buildings to designing our communities, benefitting from economies of scale so our neighbourhoods work better in everything, from how we heat our homes to how we get to work. The SEFC development is a pioneer in rethinking sustainable neighbourhoods in Canada.
Lance Jakubec, Senior Consultant, Research and Information Transfer, CMHC
Up until the last 150 years, the world evolved very slowly because we had no ability to tap into this wonderful thing called fossil fuel – we used common sense to define how life would be. As soon as we were able to tap into this great medium, we started to ignore a lot of things including the laws of physics and common sense. What is passive design anyways? If you’re sitting under the hot sun what would you do? Put the shades up!
But instead, since fossil fuel is so cheap, we decide to burn fossil fuel to have cold air blowing in our face while we have the sun on our head. Or we have windows that don’t open and we rely on a mechanical system to deliver fresh air, instead of having windows that open and letting nature be nature. The more I have been working in the field of green building, the more I feel like we’ve totally ignored common sense and the basic laws of physics, and have ended up designing systems to fight it instead of designing systems to work it.
SK Lai, Managing Partner, Cobalt Engineering
Health is not the absence of disease – a person can be terribly unhealthy without being subjected to a disease. It’s the quality and richness of one’s life that is at the core of health – it’s a survival-rich strategy. In SEFC, the herring have quietly moved back in. Why? Because it’s safe, and it’s healthy.
Patrick Lucey, Senior Aquatic Ecologist, Aqua-Tex Scientific Consulting Ltd.
It’s a long-term process to change our society. Hinge Park [the recreation and water treatment facility] is part of that, I believe. We’re experimenting, we’re learning and we’re educating the public. I don’t know what the long-term outcome will be, but I think we’re changing our society in ways that are really, really positive. You couldn’t have built this park 30 years ago because you wouldn’t have got anybody to buy into it.
John Clelland, City of Vancouver Engineer
This is a damn exciting time. I’ve been doing this for 16-18 years, and this is the time of the most rapid change ever. You should have tried selling green buildings 15 years ago – that was a challenge. You can get depressed and say we’re moving slowly. On the other hand, we are accelerating. I’m quite encouraged about the future, and that’s after a long time of heavy slogging.
The green roofs and the rainwater toilet flushing are just another paradigm shift we have to go through to get to sustainability. We equate it to the situation 20 years ago, when we would put wild grasses on boulevards, and the public would call the parks department to ask why they weren’t taking care of the boulevards and mowing them. Attitudes change, but it takes time. Hopefully the paradigm shift will happen here too.
Peter Kreuk, Principal, Durante Kreuk Landscape Architects
This development shows us there is an alternative to densifying the city that doesn’t involve slim tall buildings and streets that are always 66 feet wide. More important is livability. I think the people of Vancouver need to see and experience a neighbourhood with narrow streets, more like Europe. This project will help us visualize spaces that we could densify in Kits, in Kerrisdale. Tower and podium is a model for downtown. This is an urban design model for other areas of the city.
James Cheng, Principal, James KM Cheng Architects
We need to look at buildings as parts of a larger system. Interconnectedness, collective efficiency and performance-based design are all values already present in nature. This [Net Zero] building should be considered as a small step towards better built environments for people, and a more responsible link to natural systems. More than a stepping-stone to something, this project can be considered as a serious revision of how buildings are currently being designed versus how buildings used to be designed before we went off track and started depending on cheap fuel and sophisticated technology. The new paradigm is re-understanding that design is still at the core of great buildings.
Esteban Undurraga, former Partner, Recollective Consulting
It was a bit daunting at first. We would go to these meetings, and people had different perspectives, sometimes a bit at odds. For some City staff who had been so focused on sustainability, it was a real eye-opener for them to think about the various aspects of marketing. And from our team’s perspective, it was really interesting listening to the passion of these folks. At the end, everyone was open-minded, everyone listened, everyone embraced everyone else’s ideas and a lot of people learned from each other. And now when we talk, everyone speaks a common language. That’s a legacy of this project.
Shahram Malek, Principal, Millennium Development Corporation
What it did is challenge us as a group and as individuals to come up with better ideas to enhance performance, with longevity in mind, and as close to zero maintenance as you can possibly provide. We were trying to live creatively in what can be done. If we’re not being creative, we’re not going to meet the challenges we face.
Doug Dalzell, General Manager, Keith Panel Systems
We all inspired each other. There was no one champion. Everyone fed off each other. The workmanship on the project is phenomenal; people took so much pride in absolutely everything.
Margot Long, Principal, PWL Partnership Landscape Architects
This project definitely raised the capacity of the industry locally. With the size of this project, there were many contractors and sub-trades involved, so it gave them the ability to learn from one another, and the application of these technologies became more familiar. Education on how to do these things was definitely part of the project.
Dave Fookes, Engineer, Morrison Hershfield
What we may see in the next round of sustainable community development is onsite sewage treatment, except it will be called ‘WERCs’ – Water and Energy Recovery Centres. If we take this one step further, not only do you have wastewater treatment on the site, and streams and wetlands on the site, but that water literally comes through the soil on the green roofs of the buildings, down through the soil on the green walls of the buildings, and by the time it gets through all that soil to the basement, it’s drinking water quality again. You’ve truly completed the cycle. And that, of course, is nature’s system.
Patrick Lucey, Senior Aquatic Ecologist, Aqua-Tex Scientific Consulting Ltd
We’ve learned in SEFC that to change the world, we have to manipulate things we never manipulated in the past, that we’ve never thought of manipulating before. For example, how energy was delivered was always a given; in SEFC, we’re forming our own energy utility. Now, a real challenge is genuine middle-income affordability; I don’t think we’ve headed there very well. We have to start modelling a new sector of housing, a private market non-profit sector. I tell young people this is the struggle they’re going to have because I’m pretty sure green construction is in the bag. And the only way we will always be at the cutting edge – no matter how much we celebrate – is to also be critical.
Larry Beasley, Former Co-Director of Planning, City of Vancouver
It’s been great for me to see what people are capable of when challenged. Now, our challenge is to see everybody step up here and figure out how they can refocus their developments and their attitudes to not necessarily duplicate this, but to meet those energy-saving challenges, meet those design challenges, create great places for people to live and work in a sustainable place. I believe that is what people will look forward to in the future and it’s helpful that we started down that path with Millennium Water.
Hank Jasper, Project Manager, Millennium Development Corporation
There’s an original vision for this area that is still completely valid. The challenge now will be for the City to stick with its vision as the rest of SEFC is built. If they keep to the vision and policy statement, this will be an amazing neighbourhood. It will be truly phenomenal. You’ll sense it.
Margot Long, Principal, PWL Partnership Landscape Architects
The Olympic Village is turning out to be the jewel of the Games”
VANOC CEO John Furlong, on CBC’s The Hour, December 2009
Ultimately, this is not just about sustainable building. The question before us is how we, as social beings, as many tribes living on this delightful piece of hardware floating through space, collectively take responsibility for its wellbeing at every level in a way that’s real, practical and doable.
Environmental issues are in some ways less critical than what we’re doing at the community level. At that level, we’re densifying the city and making much better use of existing resources by tying into transportation systems, bringing people closer to their employment opportunities, preserving agricultural land by not spreading out. That’s where SEFC’s contributions lie. We’ve demonstrated that you can take an inner city precinct and you can provide a livable, residential community that fully supports the working opportunities that people have in cities, and we’ve created an environment in that city that is healthy. That’s the lesson here, I think, and the example I hope we take into the national and international marketplace. The fact that we put blinds on the outside of our buildings, well, that was fun, but Europeans have had blinds on the outside of more sophisticated building envelopes for years and years. But if you go to the centre of many cities you won’t find the kind of community or neighbourhood of the type we’re talking about in SEFC.
So the real lesson of SEFC is not about individual buildings; it’s about community. In building this, have we built a better community from the social point of view, in terms of the relationships that exist in it, and the livability and the value to life? Have we at the same time contributed to our environmental resource issues and have we contributed to an economic environment that helps people sustain their livelihood? The real issue lies in understanding community building in relationship to the massive urbanization of the global population that’s underway. SEFC has begun to define many of these issues in a constructive way. It shows us what can be done.
Roger Bayley, Millennium Water Design Manager