Tips For Sustainable Development

An areal view of SFU’s UniverCity atop Burnaby Mountain.

It’s cheap to be green—if it’s not, your plan isn’t sustainable

There is a common understanding among people in the sustainable development movement: if we’re going to save the world, we have to do it on a budget.

That defies the misconception that being “green” is a luxury available only to the rich—the kind of people who can afford a plug-in electric as their second car. On the contrary, to be sustainable an action must be repeatable forever, without wrecking (or bankrupting) the place. So, sustainable development must be profitable development.

That is certainly the case at UniverCity, on Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain endowment lands. From the outset, SFU set two goals for this property. First, the university mandated the SFU Community Trust to develop “a model sustainable community,” one whose environmental and social successes could easily and affordably be replicated in other jurisdictions. Second, the trust was to raise money for the SFU endowment.

The plan is working. We currently have two dozen national and international environmental awards recognizing the quality of our planning and development. And we have already disbursed more than $30 million to the endowment, even while building $15 million in infrastructure that benefits SFU.

Here are a few of the principles that helped us lower our environmental footprint, while reducing (or, at least, not increasing) our costs.

Constrain development: Rather than sprawling across all of its 385-hectare property surrounding the campus, SFU donated 320 hectares to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, confining development to the remaining 65 hectares. This doubled the protected space on the mountain and reduced costs for everything from roads to sewers.

Reduce transportation costs: By clustering development around schools, services and the SFU transit hub we have created a convenient, walkable community.

Set building standards that reduce energy use and operating costs: All UniverCity construction must outperform the Model National Energy Code for Buildings by at least 30 per cent for energy efficiency and 40 per cent for water efficiency. And because those conditions are embedded in our zoning, there is a level playing field for developers; no one can get an advantage by building a cheap, inefficient building and underselling the competition.

Provide efficient infrastructure: Our neighbourhood energy utility, which will ultimately run on renewable biomass, supplies UniverCity buildings with hot water and in-floor heating, even while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting residents against energy price increases.

Reach for the stars: Our UniverCity Childcare Centre has a net-zero environmental footprint, generating more energy than it consumes and harvesting or recycling more water than it uses. Expected to be the first Living Building in Canada, we built it for 18 per cent less than comparable conventional childcare centres.

In general sustainable development is not an expense; it’s just a decision—and the best possible long-term investment.


Gordon Harris is president and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, which is the organization charged with building a model sustainable community on SFU’s endowment lands on Burnaby Mountain.