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UBC students design ‘Instagram worthy’ carbon-minimal building

The 2,400-sq.-ft. building ‘emitted nearly zero’ carbon emissions during construction
A nearly zero carbon emissions building designed by students at the University of British Columbia that was two years in the making has officially opened April 13, 2023. (Photo: UBC Faculty of Applied Science)

A nearly zero carbon emissions building designed by students at the University of British Columbia that was two years in the making has officially opened.

Described as “Instagram worthy,” the 2,400-sq.-ft. building, called Third Space Commons, “emitted nearly zero carbon emissions during construction.” That’s a feat “that many view to be the final frontier facing carbon emissions reductions across the global building industry,” notes UBC.

The building was designed by the 60-student team at Third Quadrant Design.

Two of those team members are Katie Theall, the project’s architecture lead, and Agustina Flores Pitton, a civil engineering student and engineering lead.

Theall said the team focused on three key principles for the project, which included re-using as much as possible, how much carbon could be processed and stored on-site and sourcing as low-embodied carbon materials as possible.

She noted the drywall used is the lowest-embodied carbon in North America currently, and the siding is sustainably harvested forestry.

Flores Pitton said in aiming for nearly zero carbon emissions has “many challenges.”

“Everybody has to be on board for a project like this because it’s so atypical to how we’re constructing right now. It’s making sure that people are truly being consistent with accepting the low-carbon principles of the project.”

However, the building can be an example to the rest of the construction industry, explained Flores Pitton.

“We just need to think differently about the way that we construct. We need to think about adapting for the use, using the existing building stock that we already have that is aging and think, ‘OK, how do we adapt to new climate conditions,” she said. “I think that if students can do it, with obviously a lot of partnerships and support along the way, then the industry for sure can accomplish something similar.”

The thermal insulation for the building is made of hempcrete – a mixture of hemp fibres and lime which captures carbon from the atmosphere as it sets. It eventually turns into a concrete-like material but one that’s made primarily out of a renewable, carbon-sequestering natural fibre.

Dr. Adam Rysanek, an assistant professor of architecture and landscape architecture who advised the team, said fixation on carbon reduction came from experience where the construction industry, the public and teaching and learning is moving, as well as where experimentation in academia needs to go.

He said it’s about knowing the missing link in regards to carbon emissions, which is not just about energy but instead about emissions that are being brought to a site.

Rysanek said it’s like “diving into the wild west” of carbon accountability, and there’s no real precedent yet, but the hope is the team’s work will be looked to for future projects.

“There’s no better success than to have something that will certainly speak to how we design buildings in the real world.”

Theall said the hope is to also get government buy-in from this project that helps with policy, “so that it’s easier to do it in industry and then it’s encouraged and supported because there’s requirements of innovating.”

But she said sometimes it’s not yet at a point where it’s an industry standard, “which means sometimes it’s more challenging to implement.”

READ MORE: ‘Long overdue’: B.C. introducing new powers to limit emissions of new buildings

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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