B.C.'s first green communities broke ground a decade ago. What's it like to actually live in one?
In 2005, a B.C.-designed submarine called the Sawfish descended to the bottom of a hydroelectric reservoir near Powell River to harvest old-growth Douglas fir.
The trees had been perfectly preserved since 1931, when dam construction created Lois Lake; now, this high-quality reclaimed timber has been used to build Victoria’s Dockside Green, one of North America’s greenest mixed-use developments ever.
Across the Strait of Georgia, more than 350 metres above sea level, a single mountaintop residential building at SFU’s sustainable UniverCity development draws its heat from holes drilled deep into the Earth.
B.C. Experimental communities like Dockside Green and UniverCity serve today as a testing ground for green innovations and approaches, new and old, unproven and tried. But more than just green technology incubators or ambitious one-offs, such developments are above all else habitats for people, and demonstrate today how we all might be living tomorrow. These B.C. smart communities have reconsidered the use of space, heat and water in living spaces, and how such features not only contribute to sustainability, but to a livable habitat.
Density is the one thing that B.C.’s pioneering sustainable communities have in common. It’s hardly a novel concept: putting more people on less land (and in less square footage) reduces the need for energy, pavement and city infrastructure. It also encourages community – in such a place, you can’t help but know your neighbours. Throw in a variety of residential housing types, office and retail amenities, and the need to get in the car is dramatically reduced.
While compact urban living might seem a bit cramped to someone accustomed to their own house, the experience of Neil Tran in Victoria demonstrates the positive trade-offs of living in a space that is smaller and smarter. The 34-year-old web specialist moved with his wife and toddler to a 925-square-foot condo unit at Victoria’s Dockside Green last March, from a 2,200 square-foot home on a quarter-acre lot.
“I don’t really think of it as being so much smaller, because it is just better space that is better planned,” says Tran of his open-space-concept condo with lots of natural light. “When you go into one of these units, there’s plenty of room for a small family.”
The smaller space has vastly reduced Tran’s energy costs, and now that he is no longer preoccupied with yard and house maintenance, he spends much more time hiking and playing with his daughter.
“Condo living wasn’t even a choice for me up until I learned about Dockside,” says Tran, who describes himself as still young enough to be in “play mode,” but also responsible when it comes to the environment. “The only reason we picked it was because it had all these amazing green initiatives.”
“Amazing” aptly describes how the development manages water. Dockside collects and reuses 100 per cent of the storm water on site, in addition to treating its own sewage and reusing that water as well. When the estimated 2,500 future residents are housed here in about seven years’ time, Dockside will save 70 million gallons of potable water a year.
Tran says many of the green features of Dockside translate directly into enhanced livability – like an air exchange system that constantly refreshes the air, exterior sun blinds on the outside of the windows that automatically lower to keep indoor summer temperatures comfortable, and a “green roof” community garden.
Tran’s neighbour, Melinda Jolley, who was one of the first people to move into Dockside’s first residential phase, says the green-roof gardens provide a social outlet and connection to nature that traditional condo developments cannot offer.
“One of the nicest, unexpected features of the rooftop garden is how it brings you together with your neighbours and as a community,” says Jolley, who last year grew herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, kale and much more. “Otherwise you might only see your neighbours in the elevator or while getting your mail.”
Inside a cozy top-storey townhouse at SFU’s UniverCity development, Professor Maite Taboada has her thermostat set to a tropical 23 degrees, with the warmth delivered courtesy of the Earth.
“It’s slow to respond to new temperature settings if you turn it up or down,” says Taboada, a Spanish-born professor of linguistics who shares the townhome with her professor husband Oliver and toddler Adriana. “So we tend to keep it set at a constant temperature and don’t really mess with it much.”
One thermostat on each level of the townhouse controls the heating delivered to the entire floor by piping under the floorboards.
The geo-exchange system heating the 60-unit Verdant townhome development atop Burnaby Mountain relies on a field of 300-foot wells beneath the building; pipes circulate the Earth-heated water with the help of heat pumps, which increase the water temperature and transfer the heat to each unit via an in-floor radiant heating system.
Verdant is one part of UniverCity’s concentration of mid- and highrise buildings, townhouses, and condominiums, and office and retail space on just 80 hectares. When build-out is complete in about 20 years, there will be 10,000 people living there.
One of the most innovative things on Burnaby Mountain is a new approach to density: in what may be a first in North America, the City of Burnaby has legalized secondary suites within apartments; there are already 24 secondary suites in three separate buildings at UniverCity. Resembling the traditional hotel suites with adjoining doors, these condo secondary suites (also called “lock-off suites”) at UniverCity are minuscule by North American standards: between 240 and 285 square feet.
Such suites provide ready housing for students using a minuscule space and energy footprint, and because they currently demand astoundingly high rent (up to $750 a month), they provide a “mortgage helper” for families who otherwise could not enter the condo market.
The secondary condo suites are appealing to students, in-laws and family members, reports Gordon Harris, president and CEO of the UniverCity developer SFU Community Trust, who adds that the City of Vancouver is considering allowing them.
While Taboada’s thermostat is used to control the geothermal heating exclusively, the thermostat interface designed for Melinda Jolley’s Dockside Green apartment represents the latest evolution of an idea whose time has clearly arrived: real-time carbon-footprint monitoring.
In every unit of Dockside’s first residential phase (called Synergy), there is a thermostat-like device (called a “Mach-Stet”) connected to the suite’s hydro and water meters, heat fan and hot water tank. The system, which is also accessible online, automatically rolls all the data into a single number indicating carbon footprint, which can be compared from day to day, week to week, and month to month.
“It has helped me to be more aware of my water use especially,” says Jolley. “If I have a lot of baths in a week or two, and then start having quicker showers, I can clearly see the impact of those behaviour changes.”
There are signs that such real-time footprint monitoring will be mainstream in the shorter term. In a similar vein as the Mach-Stet, Google’s charitable wing Google.org launched its free PowerMeter web service in February 2009, which Google says will eventually provide the interface to allow consumers to track their household energy as it is consumed. The tool is still in the planning stages, and will rely on as-yet undetermined partner companies to build smart-meter tools to feed household data into the online program.
B.C. passed a law in April 2008 that legislated the installation of smart meters across B.C. by the end of 2012. While such meters would only measure and display electrical usage, the rationale is similar: people are more likely to change their consumption behaviour if they can actually see what it is costing them.
And unlike scavenged lake-bottom old-growth trees or tapping the heat of the Earth for home use, it’s an idea that is practical enough today to have already progressed beyond the gates of B.C.’s green sustainable communities.
Smart, sustainable and green on top
There are many types of engineered green roofs, ranging from rooftop gardens at Dockside Green, to landscaping approaches where a single type of drought-resistant plant is grown. (Generally, all green roofs will consist of a growing medium under-layered with drainage and filtering layers and a root-resistant membrane.)
Green roofs like the ones at Dockside are relatively new in B.C., but are common in other parts of the world like Germany, where 15 per cent of flat roofs are currently vegetated. But it’s only a matter of time until they become commonplace: not only do they insulate the roof, but they protect it from sun, wind and rain; they slow the run-off of storm water; and, when present across an area, they reduce the “heat island” effect in summer, when city temperatures can be two to three degrees higher than surrounding areas.
More than purely functional though, green roofs can be esthetically stunning, as evident at Wakefield Beach near Sechelt, one of B.C.’s “early adopters” of this green technology. Built by Wakefield Home Builders, the completed first phase of Wakefield Beach features 31 homes, each with its own green roof.
On each roof, sedum ( a drought-resistant plant) is grown in a three-inch deep medium made up mostly of pumice. Not only are these rooftop plants easy to maintain, they change colours season-ally – from pink and purples in spring, to yellow and orange in the fall.
Wakefield construction manager Ray Dierolf says his approach to green roofs is more akin to landscaping, except in this case just occasional weeding and annual drain cleaning are required. He adds that the roof cools the home in summer, keeps heat in during the winter, and retains 25 per cent of rainwater.