Peter Busby’s Green Mission

The greenest building that Canada’s greenest architect has ever built is hard to find. It’s on a Gulf Island whose name I’ve promised not to reveal, reached only after a ferry ride, several hours on the road, and then a boat trip across the glittering water on this breezy day.
It’s hard to find, too, because of my own misconceptions. I make landfall, see a modernist cathedral of a house facing the shore, and think this surely must be it, this angular blue structure with soaring windows and a peak jutting into the ocean air. It looks so geometric compared to the other places in the ragged row, which range from unreconstructed shacks to Ye Olde West Coast Recreation Property. I knock at the door. No, no Peter here.
As I discover once I’ve been redirected, that is not the kind of house Peter Busby would ever build or live in. Vancouver’s prince of starkly elegant temples of contemporary design lives in a 1960s cabin remodelled with local driftwood and rocks. It’s painted deep yellow with barn-red trim, colours I’ve never seen on any of his Vancouver structures-not the alien-cocoon-shaped glass-and-metal SkyTrain station at Brentwood, not the severely beautiful concrete-and-glass Pivotal building at the north end of the Cambie Bridge, not the sleekly ovoid dark-glass Sheraton Wall Centre, not Bob Rennie’s art-gallery-like condo of polished concrete, not any of their two dozen oh-so-modernist siblings scattered around Metro Vancouver. A carefully nurtured fig tree grows through a hole cut in the scuffed wooden deck.
A more careful observer would have seen the Busby touches immediately. The row of vertical windows along the front of this carefully recycled house has the rhythmic regularity of his urban designs. Inside, driftwood logs form pillars and beams, which create the same muscular sense of framing that his massive concrete slabs do elsewhere. And the logs, plus the fireplace made of rocks that he demanded his four kids scavenge for one summer (“You want lunch? Two rocks. Dinner? Another two rocks”), are classic echoes of his commercial efforts to construct the 100-mile building by making heavy use of local wood.
And then there’s the less obvious but essential Busby quality to it: it’s completely off the grid. A solar panel powers the music system and the cellphone rechargers. The fridge and stove run on propane. It has a rainwater-collection system for the many plants. The house was built for maximum use of light.
“It’s my escape from the other world. In the wintertime, there’s nobody here,” says the 56-year-old Busby, one of Canada’s leading green architects, president of the Canada Green Building Council, new board member at BC Hydro, and recipient of the Order of Canada, as we sit on the deck by the fig tree during one of his rare weeks not in Chicago or Toronto or the Middle East.
But the cabin also represents, modestly and in miniature, what Busby is trying
to do in Vancouver and around the world. The towers he’s designing for the Dubai International Finance Centre are at the opposite end of the architectural and aesthetic spectrum from this cabin. But the underlying principles are the same. Eight vertical-axis windmills will generate 30 percent of their energy. As exposed to the sun as anything in the Arctic, they will have a complex system of solar shading. A hundred invisible ideas will make them less harsh on the environment.
That’s because the cabin and the towers and everything in between are all part of the same ambitious Busby master plan, the one based on the ideas about right and wrong he took from philosophy classes years ago. It’s Busby’s intention that, in the not very distant future, everything will be designed synergistically to create the perfect green building/neighbourhood/city, where buildings covered in photovoltaics will be giant standing batteries that produce energy instead of just consuming it, where the environmental damage that erupted so quickly in two generations will be reversed, and where a fundamental human conflict at the root of our planetary problems will be resolved.
“The Victorians developed this notion that nature’s over there and we’re over here,” Busby says in his John Malkovich voice, a distinctive blend of muted and forceful. “As part of that, nature was conquered, nature was subdued, nature was ploughed under to create urban systems. We now know better. Now it’s time to declare peace.”

In public, Busby, with his clipped grey hair, rimless accountant glasses, and perpetual suit and tie, comes across as the archetypal businessman, an Arrow-shirt model brought to life. He could easily travel back to 1965 and pass for his father, a British engineer who emigrated to Canada and ended up working at Nortel, first in Toronto, then in New York. His personal life matches: he lives in an unexceptional Point Grey house (not yet quite off the grid) with his occupational-therapist wife of 37 years, Catherine, the Newfoundland-born girl he met in his tough Scarborough high school. Even here on the island, Busby still looks more like an engineer on a day off than a revolutionary, with the golf shirt, the khaki shorts, the restless energy of the alpha male who just has to be fixing something at all times.
But the conservative image is a disguise Busby has deliberately cultivated since he left his 1970s “absolute hippie” and philosophy-student self behind and transformed himself into an architect. Underneath the businessman’s uniform, there’s still an idealist who urges people to change the world and whose thoughts about global warming rival those of the gloomiest CBC science experts.
Listen to what he had to say to the graduating students at Ryerson University in Toronto this June, when he was given an honorary doctorate recognizing his pioneering work.
“Since 1997 the polar ice cap has halved; in 10 years it will be gone,” Busby warned them. “The Arctic will absorb sunshine, not reflect it; the tundra will melt and release millions of years of stored methane. Deserts of the world will double in size; rising oceans will flood billions. Only the rich or the powerful will have energy. There will be another 200 nuclear power plants ticking away, haunting us with their futures. And it will be hot in Toronto, very hot.”
Speeches like that have turned Al Gore and David Suzuki into folk heroes. Busby hasn’t achieved that kind of fame, even though he makes those kinds of speeches and even though leaders in B.C.’s sustainability field describe him as someone who led the way in the city and province.
“He was way out on the bleeding edge for years,” says Mark Holland, a veteran B.C. sustainability expert who knows the difference between real visionaries and architects who got green religion 15 minutes ago.
Busby has designed two projects that are North American pioneers in sustainability: the massive mixed-use Dockside Green in Victoria, which has the highest environmental rating on the continent, to be completed in 2015; and the still-to-be-built Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of B.C., a radically innovative building that is being designed so that everything in it-the chairs, the windows, whole sections of the building-can be studied and modified to increase its sustainability quotient. He’s also about to design the new Van­Dusen Botanical Garden to incorporate a unique interaction between plants and buildings. And he’s working on two hospitals: St. Mary’s Sechelt and the new St. Paul’s. Health is a sector he’s itching to get at because hospitals are about the unhealthiest buildings around, environmentally and in every other way. (Watch for surgery rooms with skylights coming to this town soon.)
His is the only architecture firm in town that has a team of researchers and a biologist on staff to work on the broader issues he thinks that the new, more holistic approach to green architecture should address. And he dedicates 20 percent of his time to unpaid environmental advocacy. In spite of all that, he ranks low on the enviro-celebrity scale Partly it’s because he spends most of his time sweet-talking engineers and preaching to city councillors in committee rooms and offices.
“The amount of traction Suzuki’s had in his life, the number of people he’s communicated to, it’s fabulous. I can’t do that,” Busby says wistfully, as we finish our afternoon on the deck with a question about who his heroes are. “But in my world-architects, engineers, city councils, people who write building codes-I can do what I can do.”
A more complicated reason why he hasn’t been canonized is that he’s taken his mission to groups that some environmentalists would classify as an axis of carbon-emitting evil: condo developers, Wal-Mart executives, the B.C. Liberal government (pre-conversion), Middle Eastern financiers. Early on, he decided that if he was going to make a difference, it wouldn’t happen through one beautiful little green boutique project after another. (As his close collaborator Blair McCarry, a Stantec engineer, puts it: “It’s easy to go work with the zealots, but you’re not changing anything. You do another fuzzy green building and it doesn’t get replicated.”) Which is exactly how Busby began. After being inspired to do environmental design by UBC professor Ray Cole and spending three years in the firm of international superstar Norman Foster in London and Hong Kong, Busby came back to Vancouver and set up his own practice on the most run-down part of Granville. There, he spent 15 years doing nice, uncontroversial green projects for early adopters, often in the suburbs. But in the late 1990s, he jumped at the chance to design his first significant downtown building, one he hoped would set a new environmental standard.
The Wall Centre proved to be a brutal process, and Busby got fired by famously mercurial developer Peter Wall “four or five times,” according to an associate. Along the way, Wall decided he wanted darker glass on Busby’s building, a decision that resulted in a lawsuit from the city,
a concession from Wall to finish the top in clear glass, and the lasting legacy of a weird two-toned building visible to every casual passerby in downtown Vancouver.
In 2005, Busby went to a B.C. Liberal cabinet meeting with an elaborate paper he’d cooked up-along with Bruce Sampson, Hydro’s sustainability vice-president, and John Robinson from UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, among others-on how to turn B.C. into a magnet region for environmental design and sustainability. “They looked at us like we were Communists,” he says. They were thanked and sent on their way, having put in four months of planning work.
Shortly after that, he agreed to work with Wal-Mart to design a store for Vancouver that would be the behemoth chain’s greenest ever. For some, the Faustian undertones of that piece of work were just a little too sulphurous. Busby admits there were people in the community who were agog at what he was doing. One of his architects quit. “She said, ‘I can’t work for somebody who’s working for Wal-Mart.’ ”
And now his firm’s biggest commission is in a place not renowned for its public crusade to save the planet. The World Wildlife Fund has identified Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East, as the planet’s most extravagant squanderer of energy, with its indoor skiing, road- and mall-based culture, and predilection for air conditioning and chilled pools.
Neither the negative noise nor the lack of public recognition seems to have slowed him. (Though he is a little jazzed that Vanity Fair called last month and talked to him for an hour. Stay tuned.) As he’ll cheerfully tell you, the Wall Centre turned out to be 10 percent more energy-efficient than any other building of its time. The Liberal government has turned into a national leader in promoting environmental goals. Wal-Mart has adopted throughout its empire over 20 of the 34 suggestions Busby submitted while he was designing the (still-unbuilt) Vancouver store. And in Dubai, he’ll put in as much green stuff as he can, no matter what the client knows or cares about.
“If you can move everybody 10 percent, you’ll have a huge impact. You know, clearly I need to do the leadership projects, but then you’ve got to kind of snowplough everybody else along,” says Busby, who has honed the black art of making the business case for environmental design, keeping the costs down, marketing his concepts with slick and sexy graphics, and, if necessary, sneaking in the green stuff. Whatever it takes to get those doubting bottom-liners to buy in.
The snowploughing seems less and less necessary these days, as everyone lines up. As a result, environmental innovation is accelerating at a superheated rate. Slapping on a few solar panels and a living roof is so last century, not to mention the expensive way to go. Instead, each building that gets planned eclipses the one that just went up, with new and different techniques for reducing energy use, the UBC research centre being the apotheosis of that. And the best work demands that architects work in intimate collaboration with other disciplines, something Busby has mastered over two decades of working with engineers like McCarry. He’s surfing the crest of that wave with ferocious intensity that doesn’t let up for even the smallest details.
UBC’s John Robinson has seen that intensity many times. It started with a white-hot inspirational conversation the two had years ago, when they spent an afternoon in a coffeeshop imagining the most perfect sustainable building ever. And he sees it regularly as that imagined building becomes the research centre.
Robinson remembers one afternoon when 20 people were brainstorming about the centre. The problem that day was how to control glare through shading. It’s one of the ongoing issues in green building, as architects have included more daylighting to reduce the need for artificial light. Busby was playing the role he takes on in these kinds of groups, a brusquer and more impatient Socrates of the development world, challenging them with one question after another.
“Peter was pushing very hard on Blair to do better,” remembers Robinson. “He kept saying, ‘This just won’t do. It’s got to be way better.’ ”
It wasn’t enough just to prod the group verbally. Instead, he ended up on his feet, in front of the board, marker in hand, sketching out a new design in quick strokes, asking, “‘Why don’t we do this?”
In those moments, there’s a glimpse of the young man who spent several years studying philosophy and then found, as he worked at summertime construction jobs to pay his way, that he wanted to build, that he loved to have a hammer in his hands, a toolbelt strapped on. If the ultimate question in philosophy is “Why?” the ultimate question in building is “How?” Architecture was a way to combine the intellectual skills of the former with the practical tools of the latter, to address the best, most Socratic question of all: Why don’t we do this? And here’s how.