Vancouver Convention Centre honoured by AIA

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has named Vancouver Convention Centre West (VCCW) among its 2011 Top Ten Green Projects, announced last month. Sustainability Solutions Group, the sustainability and LEED consultant for VCCW, led the project to a LEED Platinum rating, the highest level of certification by the Canada Green Building Council. VCCW is the only Canadian building on AIA’s list and is the only LEED Platinum convention center in the world.

“Our strategy was to generate a sense of investment in all members of the design team—engineers, contractors and architects—in reaching our sustainability targets,” says SSG co-director Jeremy Murphy. He says the firm’s success is built on that kind of engagement. For the water conservation plans, for example, the team was “asked to picture a drop of rainwater wanting to spend as much time as possible on the roof.” This reversal in thinking about the function of a roof led the team to design Canada’s largest “living roof,” where rainwater, instead of being sloughed off into the sewage system, is welcomed (and collected) both for building use and as the fundamental resource for the creation of new green space.

The six-acre living roof features 20 species of indigenous flora pollinated by local bees (and their beekeeper), and provides a nesting habitat for migratory and resident birds.

But the building’s subtle elements are perhaps even more exciting. Capitalizing on its location at the intersection of Vancouver’s downtown and adjacent ecosystems, VCCW is designed to protect and engage each environmental interface: landscape, marine and human. An artificial marine habitat skirt preserves salmon migration routes, and roof angles follow view corridors to the harbour from downtown streets. Meeting rooms take advantage of daylighting and open onto city and waterfront vistas. Local glass and wood used in construction support the local economy, encouraging growth in the sustainable building products sector. (“That’s huge,” says Murphy.) VCCW’s inlet location supplies the building’s energy: a high-efficiency sea water pump powered by renewable hydro electricity provides cooling and heating. The building treats its own wastewater, which is later used to flush toilets. The catering kitchen sources its food locally, (and donates leftovers to neighbourhood organizations).

“The final product,” says Murphy, “reflects the effort to contain everything onsite, to close the loops on these systems—food, waste, energy, water, economy.”

The sheer size of the VCCW “makes [the Platinum] LEED rating a true achievement,” says AIA. The $883 million development, built on 14 acres of land and eight acres of water, is the largest project on this year’s AIA Top Ten list.

“That’s where we like to be: on the leading edge of green building,” says Murphy. SSG is currently consulting on five socially-assisted apartment buildings—not the kind of structure that typically qualifies for LEED certification. “We push the boundary. In this Nanaimo project, we’re trying to integrate environmental stewardship and a concern for social justice.”

Yuill Herbert, SSG co-director, emphasizes the concern for environmental justice that went into VCCW’s design. “Creating habitat for both humans and creatures, in a time when habitat is more often destroyed, is important symbolism.” The convention centre sits on a former industrial site. “The additional benefit,” says Herbert, “is that it is beautiful.”

Vancouver Convention Centre West is not the first project SSG has guided to an AIA green building award. In 2009, Synergy at Dockside Green, a 1.3 million square foot mixed residential, office, retail and commercial space in Victoria, BC, was honoured on AIA’s list; SSG is the only Canadian firm whose work has appeared on that list twice.

A national workers co-operative, SSG extends its commitment to sustainability to its corporate structure. “We understand that ‘sustainability’ includes social and economic dimensions, and we wanted a business model that represents sustainability in how we organize ourselves,” says Herbert. “The workers co-operative is a proven model of non-hierarchical organizing, although it is not a model we see often in our sector in Canada.”

SSG has offices in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax. The seven-year-old group offers sustainability consultation services for buildings, communities, campuses and organizations. Herbert, who lives in Tatamagouche, says being placed on AIA’s list is particularly satisfying for him as a Nova Scotian. “I’m inspired by the history of the co-operative movement in Nova Scotia, and it’s exciting to be part of that legacy.”

Client: British Columbia Pavilion Corporation

Budget: $883 million

Size: 1.2 million ft2

The Project:
Vancouver Convention Centre is one of Canada’s largest convention centres. It served as the Media Press Centre for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In 2002, and again in 2008, the VCEC was awarded the International Association of Congress Centres (AIPC) “Apex Award” for the “World’s Best Congress Centre.

Innovations and Achievements:


  • Former marine industrial area, mostly contaminated and covered with cement.
  • Created a habitat skirt which provides new habitat for marine flora and fauna through carefully designed shelves located at different depths in the intertidal zone. It is home to barnacles, mussels, seaweed, starfish, crabs and in particular Salmon.
  • Building includes a 6 acre living roof and an overall decrease in site imperiousness by 35%. The living roof includes 400,000 plants, all native species. Irrigation is provided by treated black-water from on-site.
  • All lights are cut-off to ensure that the building minimizes light pollution


  • Achieved an energy efficiency rating of 65% better than the Model National Energy Code for Buildings.
  • Peripheral spaces are passively ventilated.
  • Air conditioning is reduced by 30% due to an in-slab radiant heating/cooling system fed by ocean water through twin heat pumps, which also heat the building.
  • South and west facing building facades use solar shading systems.
  • Natural lighting is used throughout the building in rooms such as the ball room and meeting rooms (unusual for convention centers).


  • Sewage is treated on-site using a bioreactor system with an ultraviolet membrane.
  • Over 16 million litres of greywater are reused annually in the toilets.
  • Blackwater is treated to tertiary standards and discharged into the ocean.
  • Reduced water consumption by 73% over the base case.