For the fifth anniversary of the Centre for Sustainable Development, learn the story behind this flagship project led by Équiterre and its Executive Director Sidney Ribaux, assisted by a team of professionals and various partners who believed in the dream.
How did the idea of the Centre for Sustainable Development originate?
The idea arose from discussions between environmental groups in the early 2000s. We thought it would be great to have a place to come together, discuss sustainable development and hold meetings. At the same time, Équiterre was wondering how it could move the building industry forward in terms of reducing environmental impact. Plus, the Équiterre offices were awful—bordering on unsafe. So the board of directors made a decision: we would relocate, and the new location would be a model of sustainable development. This need for suitable office space resulted in Équiterre taking on a leadership role in the project.
We started looking for a new workplace: land to build on, or buildings that could be renovated. Other environmental and social groups joined us and the project gradually took shape.
What was your role in the project? And Équiterre’s role?
My job was therefore to mobilize people. I had to acquire the tools we needed to complete the project: find partners and persuade them to share their expertise, convince Hydro-Québec to give us land, talk a lot of people into funding the project, and convince the seven other founding organizations to get onboard, which was a challenge in itself. Many had concerns because of the financial risk involved: work conditions would improve tenfold, but the rent would increase too. For example, we’d always planned to include a daycare in the project, but it took seven years to take the project from idea to completion! The daycare was unsure whether to renew its lease and wondered about relocating elsewhere. People needed a completion date, which was hard to give as everything was changing all the time. Some organizations quit the project because the timeline no longer worked for them.
What where the greatest challenges?
- The set-up phase: The challenge was staying optimistic, as we suffered many setbacks. Turning the dream into reality was not plain sailing. We were starting from scratch. It was a highly innovative project, both with regard to the type of building and the fact that we were an NGO wanting to build a green building. There were no funding programs for this type of project, so we had to convince the government to provide financial support, and we were turned down on several occasions. If I hadn’t been 100% sure the project would work and therefore able to convince everyone else, I doubt we would have succeeded. In projects like this, trust is key. It would only have taken one or two partners to withdraw their support to bring down the house of cards. That was the challenge : convincing people we could carry the project through.
- The design phase: The biggest challenge was putting aside our environmental ideals and opening our eyes to the reality of construction. We had a vision of a highly-insulated building with solar panels on the roof and wind turbines, but in the end we had to face reality. At the time, solar power was not cost-effective, so we would have spent money on things that were not environmentally or economically beneficial. Another challenge was staying within the budget. It was interesting because all of a sudden, we were on the other side of the fence; we were usually the ones criticizing developers, but this time we were the developer. We had our sights on creating the greenest building in the world, but we had to modify our objectives to fit the budget.
- The construction phase: Even though we had the right team to make it happen, the toughest part was pushing hard to get the green building we wanted—one with LEED certification, which was relatively new in Quebec. It was only the team’s second LEED building and most of the subcontractors had no LEED experience.
What aspect of the building gives you and the team the most satisfaction?
For me, after five years, it’s not actually the building. Yes, it’s an amazing feeling to have successfully created it; it has given me a feeling of pride I’ve rarely experienced. But what I’m most proud of is the life we’ve managed to create inside the building: a meeting place, with 22 organizations on site that collaborate on projects, organize programs, pool resources and provide new opportunities for innovation in sustainable development. It is a meeting place that attracts people from all walks of life: business, government, NPOs, etc.
What is your vision for the future of green building?
Today’s issue: the meeting place is working so well that we’ve run out of space! We should have made it bigger. My wish for the future is that, with our partners, we can expand— elsewhere, across the street, next door—so that this sustainable development hub can continue to fulfil its mission. There’s a great need, and what we’ve created isn’t enough.
I wish that governments would go even further with regard to buildings—public, community and private. They should set an example with the buildings they manage, such as schools, by bringing in energy efficiency programs, for example.
My ultimate goal is for the Centre for Sustainable Development to become the standard, nothing special, because this will mean we’ve minimized the environmental impact of buildings. We’ve already managed to cut the energy use of a typical building by half, so if we can reach net zero energy use, we should!
Our initial objectives were ambitious—to create a common workspace and meeting place for all sectors and educate people about sustainable building practices—and we have achieved them all.