CEI Architecture: Building a Beacon of Site-specific Sustainability

The CEI Architecture (CEI) team believes in building stronger, healthier communities by continually challenging itself to rethink its design approach. Design professionals at CEI embrace a truly collaborative, inclusive and evidence-based design philosophy that gives the project’s end-users a say in its creation. In turn, CEI’s listen-first approach has made it the design expert of choice for projects that aim not just to make an architectural statement, but for projects that aim to anchor the community as well.

“We love taking on projects that we know will require a lot of creativity to unwind,” says Richard Bolus, senior partner at CEI. CEI operates three offices in British Columbia with headquarters in Vancouver and additional outposts in Victoria and Kelowna. CEI’s team of 90 design professionals provide architecture, planning and interiors design services in both public and private sectors, with specialists heading up departments for healthcare, education, aviation, sports and recreation as well as residential, office and commercial projects.

Inclusive collaboration is the name of the game at CEI, and the company has always remained open to partnering with outside design professionals and the project’s end-users alike. Design charrettes are common at CEI, and not only because of Bolus’ involvement in the National Charrette Institute. This is because CEI has been built upon a foundation that values input from every concerned party.

“We know that not everyone will get what they want, but our goal is to get input from the whole of the community, including those who might be opposed to the project,” expands Bolus. “We want to understand that group’s mentality in particular because they may actually be able to make it better.”

Collaborative, Inclusive

Such was the case when CEI was selected to design Okanagan College’s $27.6 million Jim Pattison Centre of Excellence, which was completed in 2011. CEI invested three days to hold a charrette in 2009 that involved over 40 participants. The first day served as a general brainstorming session where the participants explored the site and its possible limitations, which were then incorporated into three possible design options. These options served as a starting point of the second day of talks, where only one option was selected for further refinement and discussion through the third and final day.

The charrette process was particularly important to the success of the Centre of Excellence as Okanagan College opted to go beyond LEED Platinum certification and pursue Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification as well. The LBC certification process addresses many of the same issues as LEED certification, but has 16 mandatory and exacting prerequisites. The LBC also requires projects to be monitored for performance at capacity over the course of one year to verify that energy and resource saving projections are being realized.

“Funny enough, the project didn’t even start out as a Living Building project,” recalls Bolus. “When we presented the possibility of LBC certification to Okanagan College, we half-expected them to say, ‘Yeah that’s fine, but LEED Platinum is our option.’ Except the college only wanted to hear more about the program and we could not have been more excited to work with a college that was prepared to entertain something so ambitious.”

Bringing a Building to Life

The Centre of Excellence is currently the largest project of its type pursuing LBC certification with just over 6,780-square meters of space, and Okanagan College plans to use the building itself as part of the curriculum. But achieving net-zero energy and water consumption in the building requires a three-pronged approach to conserve, capture and create. This approach inherently requires a heavy support from the building’s end-users to be successful, which is why the charrette process was so critical to CEI’s design. “We’re dealing with a building that will inherently modify the behaviors of its occupants and you need to have their buy-in,” asserts Bolus.

And, indeed, the building has been designed to consume less energy than a typical LEED Gold-certified building, but achieving such a feat required the design team to completely rethink the way a building’s systems operate. Instead of a traditional HVAC system, CEI opted to outfit the building with a ventilation chimney to draw air through the building. CEI also included as many insulating features as possible given the region’s mostly cold-leaning climate, including argon-filled, triple-glazed windows and curtain wall systems, a highly insulating building envelope, and by using single leaf doors and vestibules wherever possible to reduce the amount of associated air leakage. Crews also installed a high-efficiency heat recovery system that reuses exhausted air to preheat incoming fresh air.

The complex air circulation system also required that all working spaces be located within 30 feet of operable windows to supplement day lighting and ventilation. CEI opted to capitalize on the building site’s north-south orientation by installing a large overhanging roof, complimented by a series of sunshades to reduce glare and thermal gain in high-angle summer sunlight and encourage thermal gain during low-angle winter sunlight.

Efficiency in Every Angle

Hot water is heated using vacuum tube solar panels and CEI has incorporated a number of innovative products to power and light the building. As the primary source of power, the building has been outfitted with the largest array of photovoltaic panels by a nonutility in the country. Deeper planned indoor areas will be illuminated by a series of tubular light pipes and a prototype sun-tracking system capable of concentrating sunlight ten-fold and ducting it horizontally into the building. The building’s energy use will be metered and displayed throughout the building via LED displays showing comprehensive performance data and simple red, green or yellow indicators for at-a-glance inquiries, which will hopefully encourage resource conservation by the building’s end-users.

LBC certification requires the building to be monitored in operation for at least 12 months, but the building has already been honored with a number of accolades, including the 2012 Canadian Green Building Award, the 2011 TechGREEN Award and the 2012 Green GOOD DESIGN Award. Perhaps CEI’s biggest achievement in building the Centre of Excellence, however, has been expanding the parameters for acceptable building materials within the LBC guidelines. The LBC stipulates that building materials should come from local sources whenever possible and there is also a long list of banned building materials.

Both LEED and LBC require wood used to be certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and CEI opted to use locally sourced wood from mountain pine beetle infested forests. The problem was that even though the mountain pine beetle has damaged large swathes of forests leaving the timber still structurally sound, the wood was not FSC certified. “It was a really a breakthrough for us to get the beetle-infested timber certified under LBC requirements because the province has a lot of it,” admits Bolus. “Of course, we’re really excited about it, but so is the lumber industry.”

Even if it takes a bit more tinkering to certify the Centre of Excellence as a Living Building, CEI has managed to ensure the building sets a high standard for sustainability-minded projects. At the end of the day, CEI Architecture has managed to create a beacon of site-specific sustainability, outfitted with all the necessary tools to shape the minds of tomorrow’s sustainable building industry.