Gordon Harris: Building a Sustainable Community

On March 1, Gordon Harris, President and CEO of Simon Fraser University (SFU) Community Trust and an urban planner with more than 30 years experience, will be the guest speaker for the prestigious Brenda and Samuel Gewurz Lectures on Urban Design at McGill at 5:30 p.m. in room G10, Macdonald-Harrington Building, 815 Sherbrooke West.
Gordon Harris, President and CEO of Simon Fraser University (SFU) Community Trust.

Gordon Harris is an urban planner with more than 30 years experience in the industry. He has planned everything from downtown Toronto office towers to post-conflict townships in the Balkans. Now, as President and CEO of Simon Fraser University (SFU) Community Trust, he oversees the development of UniverCity, an award-winning sustainable urban community adjacent to the university – and one of the West Coast’s most interesting experiments in developing a brand new sustainable community. On March 1, Harris will be the guest speaker for the prestigious Brenda and Samuel Gewurz Lectures on Urban Design at McGill at 5:30 p.m. in room G10, Macdonald-Harrington Building, 815 Sherbrooke West.

Q: What makes the UniverCity community on Burnaby Mountain a model for sustainable development?

There are several aspects that make the UniverCity community both noteworthy and unique, starting with SFU Community Trust’s approach to community development. Throughout each stage of UniverCity’s design and development, the Trust has worked with key stakeholders to ensure that the new community would integrate residential, commercial and academic uses in a manner that benefits the university while fostering innovative solutions to sustainable living.

Acting as a trustee of the lands that comprise UniverCity, the Trust oversees the provision of zoned, serviced, and subdivided sites to developers on a prepaid, long-term (99-year) leasehold basis. Already home to 3,000 people, UniverCity will ultimately reach a population of more than 10,000.

That may sound like a conventional, high-level land-development function; however, the sites and services we provide – and the high standard we demand from those developers – sets us apart. After consulting with the development community, the Trust worked with staff at the City of Burnaby to bring in the most comprehensive set of green building bylaws in North America for the next stage of development at UniverCity. Under these new bylaws, all new buildings must be at least 30 percent more efficient than conventional buildings.

As well, going forward, we are working on developing one of the largest sustainable neighbourhood energy utilities in Canada for Burnaby Mountain that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 67 per cent.

Q: I understand that you’re looking at ways to ‘fly’ students to campus each day. Can you explain that?

It may sound that way, but we aren’t asking students or community members who normally take the bus to grow wings. TransLink, the Metro Vancouver transit authority, estimates that more than 50,000 people commute back and forth to the campus every day. Of those, 34 per cent use transit. We are working with TransLink to come up with a more sustainable and weatherproof way to transport people to and from Burnaby Mountain.

If we want to achieve a sustainable state, we have to start thinking about challenges in new ways. Therefore, the system we are currently looking into is a high-speed gondola, which would move up to 3,000 people an hour in less than half the time it takes to cover the same distance by bus. This could see a gondola system accommodating a significant proportion of the approximately 25,000 transit trips to and from Burnaby Mountain each day, and would initially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,870 tonnes per year. As a gondola is also cheaper to operate, replacing those diesel buses could also save TransLink millions of dollars each year.

Q: Universities obviously have a strong emphasis on adult students, but I understand that the UniverCity community on Burnaby Mountain aims to teach children as young as three about sustainability. How are you going to do that?

At UniverCity, we aren’t building sustainably to simply lighten our footprint for future generations; we are planning to teach children in the community about living sustainably and allow them to experience it for themselves. The community is home to a large number of young families – in fact, 29 per cent of households have children. To accommodate their needs, in September we opened the community’s first elementary school, and we are currently constructing a new childcare care, both located at the heart of the community, only a five-minute walk from every home.

The elementary school is housed in a university building that was renovated to LEED Gold environmental sustainability standards, featuring solar panels, an outdoor classroom, rainwater collection systems and lots of natural light. As well, the school’s curriculum emphasizes sustainability using the building and the UniverCity community as a teaching tool.

The new childcare centre, for youngsters between three and five years old, is currently being developed as one of the first buildings in Canada to meet the Living Building Challenge™. To achieve that, it must meet a demanding set of guidelines that require the building to generate more energy annually than it uses, to recycle or collect more water than it consumes, to be built free of toxic materials, and to obtain the majority of its materials from within a 500-kilometre radius. This is no small feat, particularly when trying to source materials, like playground slides, close to home.

Q: Shouldn’t affordability factor into sustainability? Sustainable products are generally more expensive, which make them less accessible to a lot of people.

There is no reason for sustainable housing to cost more than traditional homes. In fact, at UniverCity “green,” energy-efficient condos are being built for considerably less and the homeowners save money on their utility bills because the buildings are at least 30 per cent more energy efficient.

For example, UniverCity’s award-winning Verdant project is a groundbreaking model of both sustainability and affordability. Developed in partnership with Vancity Enterprises and reSource Rethinking Building and completed in 2007, Verdant is 60-unit wood-frame building that offers family-oriented housing priced 20 per cent below market. The environmentally friendly building is one of the most energy-efficient wood-frame buildings in Canada and was constructed for approximately $145 per square foot (a conventional wood-frame condo building would have been closer to $200 a square foot).

In the case of our new childcare centre, it is being constructed at between $100 and $150 less per square foot than other similar centres in Greater Vancouver.

Finally, the new neighbourhood energy utility will see residents in newly planned housing units pay less for heat and hot water.