The Churchill Northern Studies Centre Goes Green in a White World

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre Goes Green in a White World


 South facing windows over the entrance flood the central atrium with natural light. (Photo Credit: CNSC)


By Mary Kuhner


Celebrating 35 years of research and education at the edge of the Arctic, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) recently cut the tape on its state-of-the-art 27,000 square-foot facility. In keeping with its mission to understand and sustain the North and to live sustainably on the fragile tundra, the new building - with arching wooden interior ribs - has been aptly dubbed "the upside down ark" by locals. On track to obtain Manitoba's northernmost LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, the CNSC reduces both the high cost of operating in the North and reliance on outside services and utilities.

Green Construction: Creative and Responsible Solutions

Executive Director Michael Goodyear touts the Centre's design process and self-sustaining features:


"Although LEED-certified construction provided us with a framework for decision making, we tried to stay away from 'chasing' a particular level of certification. Not all energy-efficient technologies are appropriate, practical or cost effective in northern settings like Churchill. On the other hand, because we are essentially 'off the grid' except for hydro-electric power, creative and responsible solutions are required - especially when managing water and sewer. The Centre's water comes from a nearby lake and the sewage is treated on site using bio-filters and below-ground filter beds. This technology is very useful to us but wouldn’t be cost-effective for residential areas in the South with access to centralized municipal infrastructure. The CNSC, however, pays 10 cents per gallon to have our waste trucked to the nearest sewage treatment facility. The more we can treat on site, the better. In the end, we will likely achieve the high end of 'gold' certification."


To minimize the amount of water consumed and waste produced, the ultra-low water use system uses composting toilets and low-flow water fixtures. The Centre has already achieved a 45 percent reduction in water use with each person using only 18 gallons of water per day. Mr. Goodyear notes that one of the technologies getting the most attention is the potential for grey-water recycling. Upon final code approval, "all waste water from the sinks and showers will be treated and used to flush the toilets."


CNSC Biofilter

 The Centre's bio-filtration system uses bacteria to break down wastewater for release into an underground filtration bed. (Photo Credit: CNSC)

Smart Energy Choices

In a region where long days of midnight sun are offset by longer days of minimal light, the structure incorporates maximum use of available solar energy: ninety percent of the interior is exposed to natural light. This passive solar collector not only lets in light, but it retains heat through a super-insulated R40 building envelope and triple-glazed windows.


Daylight streaming through the central atrium supplements energy-efficient lighting and a South-facing exterior solar wall pre-heats ventilation air. This energy-saving and heat-retention technology also extends to the heat exchanger embedded in the shower plumbing: copper pipes capture heat from water going down the drain and use it to pre-warm water headed for the water heater.


Much more than a physical plant, "the ark" is home to researchers and students working in the biological, physical and social sciences as well as visitors drawn to Churchill's natural and historical treasures. It is one of the few settlements in the world where the great arctic bears and beluga whales can be encountered in the wild as well as rare birds and diverse plant communities.


Its position in the auroral zone makes it one of three top locales to view the northern lights. In addition, the area is home to diverse first-nation cultures and historical sites ranging from the 18th-Century Fort Prince of Wales to the 20th Century Churchill Rocket Range, the location of the Centre.


Upside Down Ark

 Glue-laminated wood columns and supports shape the "Upside-Down Ark." (Photo Credit: Penn-Co)

From Cold War Relics to Modern Research Centre

In true Churchill recycling style, old became new again when the CNSC purchased several buildings on the mothballed Cold War site from the National Research Council of Canada - ironically, a spot once considered for nuclear weapons testing. The Operations Building, which formerly housed upper atmospheric scientists, evolved to accommodate a wide variety of residents and visitors.


Originally designed as a multi-purpose structure with barracks - complete with a rodent-seeking "house weasel" named Wally - the Centre became increasingly inadequate to meet the 21st Century needs and expectations of its users. With climate change bringing greater numbers of researchers to the region, as well as eco-tourists eager to learn about sustaining northern species, "the increased expense of operating a poorly insulated, energy-inefficient facility was becoming prohibitive," according to Mr. Goodyear.


He further explained that when funding became available for a purpose-built research and education facility through a grant, the CNSC Board was able to demonstrate its commitment to users and to the surrounding environment. Using an integrative design process, Board members, staff and clients developed an environmentally focused design in collaboration with Integrated Design project managers, Prairie Architects and Penn-Co Construction.


Given cold temperatures and the year-round danger posed by wandering polar bears, the quality of the indoor environment is significant. Foresighted planning has created a self-contained living module that incorporates a wish list of amenities from users seeking greater comfort and elbow room. Dormitories and rooms accommodate 88; and 12,000 square feet of space house scientific laboratories, a commercial kitchen, and administrative offices.


Researchers now share their specialties in classrooms instead of a common area, and when programs are going full tilt, residents and guests can mingle in the 100-seat cafeteria instead of eating in shifts. Fitness facilities and an outdoor deck have been added to help stave off cabin fever between excursions in addition to an aurora dome for exploring the shimmering curtains of light in northern skies.


The former Centre in the historic Operations Building will be recycled for a second time. "There are plans to extend its useful life by 25 years through modest renovation," Mr. Goodyear explains. "It will house many of the service functions (maintenance and contract research) of the CNSC. These areas will require less energy in some cases and will allow for many of the mechanical systems to be located away from the residential and teaching functions of the new building."


What will become of Wally? "He'll probably still have run of the old building, but he'll have to find creative ways of getting into the new one!"


CNSC Lounge

The use of wood helps warm the lounge and solar atrium spaces. (Photo Credit: Prairie Architects Inc.)


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