Minds over Matter: Trends in New Construction, Curricula and Food Systems at Universities across Canada Are Making Smarter and More Sustainable Campuses

By Williamson, Ben | Alternatives Journal, November-December 2013 | Go to article overview

Minds over Matter: Trends in New Construction, Curricula and Food Systems at Universities across Canada Are Making Smarter and More Sustainable Campuses


Williamson, Ben, Alternatives Journal


THERE ARE SOME THINGS you will find on almost every university campus in Canada. There are the chants of orientation week, quiet corners in libraries, goofy mascots and long lines for coffee in the mornings.

But the postsecondary landscape is always changing. One trend is the push to reduce the ecological footprints of campuses and their student bodies. In the last decade, many Canadian universities have made the jump from small standalone initiatives to integrated campus-wide plans that touch on everything from energy use to community gardens to end-of-term furniture swaps.

Holistic Infrastructure

Integrating food, waste, energy and water systems for a more efficient campus requires universities to move far beyond retrofitting old buildings with more energy efficient windows and light bulbs. New buildings have gone up that were designed right from the start to have the smallest footprint possible. The mix of futuristic and ancient technology is really ingenious.

For example, the Social Sciences Building at the University of Ottawa takes a high-tech problem-the vast amount of heat produced by servers in its data centre-and routes it back through the building to meet 80 per cent of its heating needs. The simplest and most beautiful feature of the building is a green wall, where five stories of living plants filter the air.

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver also uses waste heat to generate warmth. It has a green wall too, but the chocolate vines (aka Akebia quinata) that grow outside the building provide shade and cooling in the summer. In the fall and winter, they lose leaves to let in more sunlight.

Green roofs are a popular concept. Of course the presence of plants can help lower any building's carbon footprint by taking a little C[O.sub.2] out of the air. Green roofs also counter the "heat island" effect-the raised temperatures in urban spaces that come from all the heat-generating activities and devices of humans.

The soil and plants filter and slow rainwater to reduce runoff and make it easier to use as well. The Canal Building at Carleton University in Ottawa, the University of Windsor's Centre for Engineering Innovation in Southwestern Ontario and the CIRS at UBC all have green roofs that are used to capture rainwater. These buildings are also fitted with sensors to let students see the difference between how green and conventional roofs impact each building's energy, heat and water balance.

Sustainable Strategy

Of course, big-picture systems thinking considers more than the physical buildings. Progress can be made with activities as well, from expensive programs and technology to student-led education campaigns aimed at changing the culture on campus.

Whether to follow provincial emissions rules or to show environmental leadership, universities are getting serious about shrinking their greenhouse gas footprint. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, spent $1.5-million in 2011 on energy efficient retrofits. They recover more than 10 per cent of that investment each year in reduced energy needs, and those annual savings are used to do more retrofits, saving even more.

Cape Breton University is aiming to get in line with Nova Scotia's target of 40 per cent renewable energy by 2020 with two big projects supported by a partnership with Cape Breton Explorations Ltd. and a $36-million private infrastructure fund. A 5.4-Megawatt wind turbine farm has almost been completed, and in March 2012 CBU began the process of switching its main energy source from coal to cleaner-burning biomass. The biomass will come from municipal green waste and local wood suppliers, and it's expected to produce energy not just for the campus, but it could also provide 20 per cent of the town of Sydney's power needs.

This is a great example of how sustainable energy and sustainable economics can go hand in hand. …

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