Building for the Environment

I recently got to go on a “Green Building Tour” of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and learned a little bit about the history of the CNSC and the construction of the current building.

Being uniquely located near both boreal forest and Arctic tundra habitats, Churchill attracts a large number of researchers, particularly in the summer. In 1976 a group of local stakeholders decided there was a need for researchers to have their own space in Churchill (apparently, the hotels in town were becoming frustrated with soil samples in bathtubs and animals in the rooms). Thus began the CNSC.

The first location for the CNSC was on a marsh, closer to town. When the Rocket Range closed in the 1980’s, the CNSC moved from the marsh to the building that the rocket researchers used to live in. That building is still there, right beside the current CNSC, and used for researchers, maintenance, and storage.

The third and current home of the CNSC, where I’m staying, was designed in 2008 and built in 2011. Here’s the front of the building:


Here’s the old rocket building, beside it (it lives to the left of the CNSC):


The new building was designed with the environment strongly in mind. It includes lots of small touches and design features, such as composting toilets and quick shut off taps for sinks and showers. There’s also a light switch for each row of lights, shared rooms, and big windows – a reduction of light pollution that’s good for the environment and for aurora photography! To further help preserve the dark sky, all major lights in the building get turned off past 7pm. You can still turn on your room light (there are excellent window blinds) and the hallways and stairwells are lit with small red lights, but other than that, the building is completely dark. It’s rather bizarre the first couple days,  everyone walking around and feeling their way through the darkness, but you get used to it. The CNSC is 23km out of town, and it’s very dark out here, so you really notice when any little bit of light escapes. It’s also made me a lot more aware of how strong light pollution is, and how much it can diminish the night sky.

One of my aurora photos taken at the CNSC – that glow in the bottom left corner is the town of Churchill. It’s crazy how much light pollution is created by a town of just 800 people; you can see how this light takes away from the stars all around it. From town, everything is harder to see as well – I saw the aurora from town one night, and it was still visible, but looked very hazy.


The CNSC building was designed to LEED Gold Standard (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and is a worldwide system for rating green buildings). However, at the LEED inspection after being built, the CNSC lost two points and ultimately got bumped to Silver – which is still pretty good. The points they lost: one point was lost for not using local wood in the building’s broad lumber pieces (the biggest trees around here are sticks in diameter). The second point was lost for not adding any landscaping to the outside of the building (which gave me a good laugh, because the CNSC is in a desert/Arctic tundra environment that’s covered in layers of snow and ice for most of the year).
They did get one point for having a bike rack. You know, in case any of their employees want to bike the 23km to work… during the six weeks of summer each year.


Some other cool features of the building:

The sides of the building are built at a slant, to allow for shade in the summer when it does get hot (only three rooms in the building have air conditioning). Both the front and back of the building are slanted:


The building is also raised about three feet off the ground so that snow can blow under. In the old building, snowdrifts would blow up against the walls, and eventually would build so high that they’d end up with things like polar bears on the roof.

This dark blue panel, on the side of the building, uses solar energy to help heat the building. It also shows off the CNSC’s logo, the “birdfish”, which is supposed to symbolize the CNSC’s study of marine life, life on land, and life up in the air (birds).


One of the CNSC’s latest projects is the Rocket Green grower, located in a unit beside the building:DSC_0125.jpg

Within this unit, they’re growing plants via hydroponics (in water). It’s a “growcer” – a company in Ottawa makes them, and there are several more in similarly remote, northern communities where access to affordable, fresh produce is often slim. The CNSC’s growcer is highly productive, harvesting 350 pieces of produce a week (a “piece” would be a whole head of lettuce, or a bunch of herbs). The pieces feed the centre as well as two grocery stores, one restaurant, and forty families in town, who buy memberships to get a set number of pieces each week.
It was fascinating to see how they’ve managed to incorporate so many green measures into every day at the CNSC. As one staffer put it, the building’s design is their way of working to “walk the walk.” The CNSC and the people I’ve met here have all been very conservation and environmentally-minded, and it was cool to see how they’ve implemented that into the building.