Vancouver's Green Building Brain thrives on shared data

The open-source, user-generated compendium boasts over a thousand examples of environmentally sensitive design and construction

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      It’s a Monday afternoon at the Recollective office in Chinatown, where a trellis covered with plants divides the open-concept headquarters of the sustainable-building consulting firm. The place is quiet as the office clears for the day, but members of the Open Green Building Society are just getting started. As is customary for the multidisciplinary group of green-building experts, technologists, and designers, participants tend to meet after working hours, and almost always over drinks.

      The crew consists of Recollective principals Brenda Martens and Eesmyal Santos-Brault, as well as members of the Vancouver Design Nerds, a local network of designers and artists. Today, Web developer Kalin Harvey and graphic designer Alex Grí¼nenfelder represent the Design Nerds. Members collaborate on a range of projects; they’re unified by a shared interest in building a more socially just and environmentally sustainable world.

      Over beers on Recollective’s rooftop deck, the group discusses the Green Building Brain, an open-source, user-generated green-building compendium that celebrated its first birthday this summer. Several similar databases predated the Green Building Brain, according to Grí¼nenfelder, but they’ve ended up with a small number of listings because of a lack of contributors.

      “We realized, for this to actually work, it had to be open to the public—to everybody—to contribute, and that we had to work together with other organizations,” Grí¼nenfelder told the Georgia Straight.

      The project features exportable, mashup-friendly data on a range of issues central to the green-building industry, including community amenities, housing diversity, job creation, and, of course, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. All data is shared through a Creative Commons licence.

      “It’s really easy to go in and edit, update, and track changes,” Santos-Brault said. “We follow, in a way, the Wikipedia modelof open data, open source.”

      The database includes many green buildings in Metro Vancouver, from pioneers such as 1978’s Kitsun Housing Co-operative and the first-of-its-kind Light House Sustainable Building Centre to more recent landmarks like the Woodward’s redevelopment.

      The Green Building Brain lies at the intersection of Vancouver’s sustainable-building and open-data communities, part of two emerging fields that have come of age alongside each other in the past few years. Their connectedness was tacitly acknowledged but not fully articulated until recently. Vancouver’s open-data leaders frequently work with the city’s green-building pioneers, and the Green Building Brain marks a fresh fusion of the two industries.

      The City of Vancouver, Vancity, and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation are sponsors of the Green Building Brain. The beta version launched in June 2009 at the Canada Green Building Council’s national conference in Montreal and locally at the Open Web Vancouver conference.

      Now, after a little over a year of operation, the Green Building Brain features documentation for more than a thousand sustainable buildings around the world. The spirit of openness that defines the project may seem radical and even dangerous to some in the industry, but for Santos-Brault it simply makes sense.

      “Giving away information is actually a good business move,” he said. “We’re not concerned about losing business. When we talked about this [the Green Building Brain], pitching it to other colleagues, they thought we were crazy: ”˜That’s business suicide,’ they said.”

      According to Santos-Brault and Martens, sharing information is key for strengthening the green-building industry, a growing field in which capacity has not kept up with demand.

      The most significant barrier facing the industry is knowing where and how to improve, Martens added.

      “This is green building 1.0, and there’s going to be lots of mistakes made and a lot of experimentation going on,” she said. “What doesn’t happen in our industry is the dissemination of what doesn’t work and why, so that we can get on to the next phase of green building.”

      That hurdle also exists in the evolution of the Green Building Brain. It currently takes the form of a celebration rather than a critique of green buildings, but that should improve with time as more users connect through the site. One key feature, Martens said, is the Green Building Brain gives users tools to mould the conversation to fit their interests, rather than telling them what’s relevant.

      “We don’t want to impose any sort of specific criteria or any specific standards or systems to qualify buildings for inclusion,” Grí¼nenfelder said.

      Instead of acting as a definitive list of green buildings, the project provides an open forum for debate about sustainable construction and its future. As for what lies ahead for the Green Building Brain, Martens and Santos-Brault hope to see more quantifiable data on the performance of buildings.

      “That’s some of the data people hoard,” Martens said. “Developers and property managers don’t like to share that information.”

      The time could be ripe for landlords and developers to relinquish control of such trade secrets—a daunting but liberating process embraced by the open-data community.

      “It’s kind of a philosophy that says, ”˜There’s value here, so let’s not let that value die. Let’s just let it have a life,’ ” Harvey said. “There’s so much good information out there, and it’s just a matter of making it accessible.”