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What can you do with 1.4 million sq feet of toxic waste land?

Build an Olympic village of course. Not just any Olympic village mind you. How about the world’s first ever sustainable Olympic village? That’s the precise task Canterbury University graduate Roger Bayely—who moved to Canada in 1967—was assigned with when his firm Merrick Architecture won the project brief. On a recent visit to New Zealand, Bayley elaborated on the mammoth and rather complex task of building the Southeast False Creek (also known as Millennium Water) Olympic Village in Vancouver. 

The Southeast False Creek project came with a hefty $1 billion (NZ$1.2) price tag, covered an area of about 1.4 million sq feet, and was the largest single excavation undertaken in British Columbia history. As the design manager, Bayley brought together five architectural firms and over 40 engineering and service companies to develop a common vision of a new way of community development. 

“We began with an integrated design programme where we had about 160 people attend a three-day workshop programme, where all the concept ideas were thrashed out and a set of principles established around each of the sustainable and green building design parameters. These parameters defined how the programme moved forward,” he says. 

As part of the project brief, the City of Vancouver required the development to have 50 percent living roofs or “greenroofs”. The buildings also reuse rainwater to flush toilets and irrigate landscaping, and public transport is only a step away. And then there’s the sewage. A rather clever system—costing $28 (NZ$35) million to implement— that takes heat from untreated sewage to provide heating and hot water to the village and surrounding neighborhood. 

Bayley estimates the sustainable elements increased the cost of the project by 6-7 percent—not too high when you consider the energy saving outcomes. The village reduces energy load by 50 percent, with one building even reducing its energy load to zero. 

But before all these features could be put in place, Bayley and his team had to contend with an enormous amount of toxic landfill material that originated from the area’s history as the centre of a ship building industry. Bayley describes the process:

“We went over the whole site on a six meter grid. We drilled a hole into the backfill material on that grid and then sampled that, so we knew exactly where every different type of pollution was. As they dug that sector out, it was loaded on a truck and sent to the right place. It was an effective way of doing it.” 

As part of his role, Bayley ensured that all elements—from water and energy use, to community planning—contributed to the overarching goals of the project. This involved extensive public facilitation to engage stakeholders in embracing new approaches and liaising with the client team to ensure that sustainable and green building initiatives were adopted for the project. 

When it comes to building sustainably, he says the building industry is very sensitive to the costs incurred, which makes it by no means a simple task. But by the same token, he says, “I don’t think we have a choice anymore.” 

He says the building industry has well and truly begun to accept green building practices. And—most importantly—the industry now has the capacity to deliver these practices. “It’s becoming more and more widespread in terms of people’s understanding about what the issues are what changes need to be made.” 

With 2,800 athletes having graces the village over the course of the recent Winter Olympics, Southeast False Creek is now home to a new waterfront community comprised of residential, commercial/retail and public space.

The scope of the Southeast False Creek development zone within the context of Vancouver

Green roofs

The official development plan for Southeast False Creek

Rooftop solar panels supplying the cooling system

Net Zero building