Busby + Associates Architects is one of the busiest and most highly-regarded design firms in Canada and, arguably, the greenest. At its helm is Peter Busby, who didn't start out wanting to be an architect, but rather studied the arts with a major in philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. Thanks to an influential professor who turned him on to architecture, and his own insights into how architecture could address some of the ethical issues raised by his study of philosophy, Busby returned to school to pursue the profession in which he is today making significant contributions—not only because of the buildings his firm designs, but in the way it designs them. As a four-time winner of Canada's top design award and a leading force in establishing Canada as the first country outside the U.S. to formally adopt the LEED™ Green Building Rating System, Busby + Associates is on its way to defining what an environmentally responsible architectural practice should be. We recently sat down with Peter Busby to discuss his many successes and the challenges ahead.
What sorts of issues were raised in studying philosophy that led you to believe that you could make a difference through the practice of architecture?
Peter Busby: I felt that I could contribute through the bigger picture issues related to social responsibility and the differences between right and wrong. For me these differences are apparent—doing things from a hedonistic point of view versus doing something for the larger community. These questions are part of the history of philosophy and I certainly thought that, going forward, maybe some of the more ethical standards could be applied to life, quite actively, through architecture. This thinking is consistent with my present position as I try to build a green architecture awareness in Canada and show others how to make better places for people to live and work and, therefore, make a better country.
Your firm's mission statement lists sustainability as its first commitment. How did your interest in green design come about?
Busby: There are a basic set of values that are imbedded in the study of philosophy to do the right thing. That was furthered by my experiences working for Norman Foster in Europe, where environmental issues were already being developed within his practice in the early '80s. He had a profound effect on me, no question about it. The high quality of the work that he was doing, and is still doing, clearly aligned with what I was thinking in terms of doing the right thing. Upon my return to Vancouver in the mid-'80s, I saw what was being done to this very beautiful part of the world—in the suburban, industrial and residential areas and in downtown. The stuff that was getting built, the trees that were being cut down just seemed wrong.
Then in the late '80s I had a chance to do a residential subdivision and turned to Ian McHarg's book, Design with Nature, as the prototype for how to produce a green development plan. Although it didn't get built, I was pleased with the product in that it preserved this beautiful part of the coast and saved most of the trees while still allowing development to proceed. Rather than a face-off between the conservation of nature and no development, versus development and no nature, we were able to show that you could have both. Thereafter, in looking to other projects, we started to acquire our own knowledge of these things and gradually, through the '90s, developed a pretty good portfolio of completed green projects.
If your attraction to green design is a moral or an ethical one, could you practice design any other way?
Busby: No, I couldn't. Certainly, the earlier projects that aren't that green were simply a lack of information. It's taken about 15 years to develop the knowledge base to allow us to do the more sophisticated sustainable projects that we do now. Ray Cole, a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia, was instrumental in inspiring me to look at the issues. Certainly, he's been a lifelong friend and an inspiration to us. We join forces on a lot of different things: presentations in Europe and Asia, collaboration on strategies to force governments to make changes—we have the same agenda.
How would you define the impact this emphasis on green design has had on your professional life? How has it affected the growth of your firm and its activities?
Busby: The most profound impact has been over the last five years when there's been a general interest in environmental and sustainable design amongst institutions. It started with universities, and then cities, and now it's catching on with some large corporations. We're getting a lot of work because we have the best portfolio of completed green buildings.
At the same time, we're lecturing 30 to 40 dates a year on green buildings and environmentally sustainable communities. It's a strong part of our practice to do the right thing and I've had a role in the public aspects of the development of the green design industry in Canada. I've been instrumental in setting up the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC) and in getting LEED licensed in Canada, so that it can become a good benchmarking tool across the country.
It sounds as though you're single-handedly greening Canada.
Busby: Well, no, I can't take all the credit for it. There are a lot of other good practitioners out there. But, certainly, we're in the forefront.
Do you feel that Canada is moving in a better direction right now than the U.S., environmentally?
Busby: My answer to that is mixed. It's probably not as straightforward as you might expect. Canada certainly had the pioneers with men like Niels Larson, Dr. Ray Cole and Steven Pope, who were out there 15 years ago singing this song. They were largely government funded and while they didn't get much built, they did establish a number of important things in North America. What happened on the West Coast of the U.S., with the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the LEED tool, was paralleled in Canada. A group of environmentalists from the Cascadia region of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver developed a center of excellence and it went from there.
The Americans were better organized, however, than we have been. The USGBC's a very strong and well-ordered group. There are a number of other organizations within the U.S. that have started a tidal wave of improvement in green building design that's caught up with Canada and surpassed us in the last two years just by virtue of their sheer volume. In Canada, progress has been more limited and the West Coast center of excellence hasn't really spread that far across the country. It is now, but we're lagging behind.
That said, I do think that the Canadian government has taken a more progressive position on Kyoto than has the American government. There's a commitment to reducing the energy and greenhouse gas impacts of buildings that is supported by the federal government, and is largely being picked up by the provinces. Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia are all looking at implementing ideas that come from the federal Kyoto commitment, so I do expect that we will make more progress than the U.S. for the next couple of years given the difference in the attitudes of the principal administrations in the two countries.
What's the hardest thing about being a green architect or designing green buildings?
Busby: The hardest thing has been the resistance in the marketplace—resistance from developers who don't really get it, resistance from engineers who would rather do their traditional design, the lack of openness to new ideas and the lack of acceptance. It's diminishing now because clients are seeking us out for our expertise and we don't have to convince them anymore. Engineers are also learning, but every once in a while, I'll come across an engineer who says, "We're not going to put operable windows in our buildings because of heat loss." I still meet these turkeys and I just roll my eyes and find another engineer.
Technically, in our climate, the most difficult thing is to balance the need for daylight penetration and sunshine, which is essential for people's comfort, with the needs of computer users for glare control and darkness around their screens. It's always a challenge to balance those two requirements. I think the solution ultimately will be better computer monitors that are actually embedded into the work surfaces so they become part of the table, rather than an object that needs to be shaded because it doesn't put out enough luminance to be seen properly.
You have said that green buildings have no cost premiums, Yet most people would argue with that. Can you explain what you mean?
Busby: Deeply green buildings, not just superficial approaches, can usually be brought in on budget because you're trading off mechanical systems for architectural and other solutions that obviate the need for them. So, if you try to do a 10-percent improvement in energy efficiency, you usually end up spending more money. But, if you go for a 40- or 50-percent improvement, you can bring it back to the original budget because you're eliminating systems and simplifying things. The greener the building, the more likely it is not to cost extra. In fact, I think USGBC has published data that LEED Certified buildings usually come at a cost premium, whereas LEED Gold buildings don't seem to. Also in the larger context, if you look at a 75- or an 100-year life of a building, the operations, maintenance and worker productivity figures will always prove that green buildings cost clients less, ultimately.
It sounds as though LEED plays an important role in your practice.
Busby: It's modifying our approaches and adding to the number of things we consider important. I do think that LEED has to move to performance-based measurements. We have to establish benchmarks and then measure the performance of buildings against those. In Holland and parts of Scandinavia, for example, you don't get a building permit unless you guarantee that your residential building will not consume more than 70 kilowatt hours per square meter for the operations of the entire building. After a year of operations, you get your deposit back if it's successful. LEED has to become more sophisticated in terms of absolute performance, but it's already doing a great job of transforming the market. That's task one, and then we can start to move toward more progressive goals.
What advice would you give fledgling design professionals who want their work to make important contributions to architecture and to society?
Busby: Most of the kids that are coming out of school right now have some interest in environmental issues and I encourage them to get out there and keep banging away on that door because most of the firms are not that sympathetic to green design. There's lip service paid to it and there's a lot of greenwash going on. The principals of all the big practices should make a statement and become LEED accredited and show their younger peers they mean business. I was the first person to get accredited in my office and now we're about 50 percent LEED accredited.
Which of your accomplishments are you most proud?
Busby: I'm proud of having created some good architecture that's evidenced by satisfied clients. I'm also proud of having won the Governor General Award four times, which is the top design award in the country. I'm very pleased with the kind of leadership role that we have been able to establish in our industry in Canada and with the fact that a lot of younger architects think we're doing the right thing, come to work for us and add to our firm. It verifies that we're tapping into today's needs and wants—the correct direction for architecture today.
Much of my career has spanned a whole lot of -isms in architecture: post-modernism, ad hocism, deconstructivism. I shunned each and every one of them as they came forward and pointed out that they were just fashion dressing and were really missing the point about the contribution that architects should make. I used to call it "six-inch architecture" in that architects were just involved in the outer six inches of buildings, and they left things like civic issues and the interiors to others. It was an appalling abdication of our responsibility. So, I'm proud that a lot of that is dropping away now, and there's new interest in the fundamentals of building design, energy efficiency, materials use, systems, etc. This whole environmental movement has really gone to the core of re-establishing the true direction of modern architecture that began in the '30s. I'm very pleased with that.
It's a good time to be working.
Busby + Associates Architects Ltd.
1220 Homer St.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Canada V6B 2Y5