Building Life: Pioneer in global green building receives Order of Canada

Ray Cole
Photo Credit: Clare Kiernan

Ray Cole calls it a “personally conflicting time.” It was the early 1970s, a period of expanding environmental consciousness which, at least in the United Kingdom, resulted from the Great London Smog of 1952 and, more recently, the Torrey Canyon Oil Spill of ‘67 — the day the English Channel “turned black.”

But if the current of thought was beginning to shift, these environmental awakenings weren’t yet reflected in the academic world. As a result, Cole, a graduate student in the discipline of building science, felt caught between his narrow, technically-framed research and the broader societal questions being raised all around him.

“It was uncomfortable and difficult to resolve,” says Cole. “Ultimately, though, the latter would dominate my future work.”

This tension prompted Ray Cole, now a professor emeritus at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA), to spend four decades exploring how buildings intersect with social and environmental forces. In 2013, he received the World Green Building’s Chairman Award for his global contributions to the sustainability movement. And just this year he became a Member of the Order of Canada for “his skillful pairing of architecture and environmental sustainability, and ... leadership in the field.”

Yet this citation is somewhat deceptive. Despite his tenure as a professor and director of SALA — and despite being an Honorary Member of the Architectural Institute of BC and Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada — Cole was actually trained in science and engineering. “I am not an architect,” he says. “I haven’t got the necessary aptitude to be one.” Even so, he has deeply influenced not only the field of architecture, but also generations of North American architects.

“Ray came out of a traditional background in building science,” says Ian Cooper, formerly a professor at the University of Salford. “Yet he was always much more interested in social issues. This was very unusual.”

Over his career, Cole has shifted his focus and approach from examining the thermal performance of buildings to developing a broader, greener range of assessment criteria for buildings. He has provided the bedrock for LEED-Canada and other assessment tools which have, according to the academic journal Buildings and Cities, “influenced practices in North America, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe.”

Regenerative architecture represents the latest shift in Cole’s evolving research. No longer treated as a single isolated entity, as in green design, a building is now conceived and assessed based on its role in the energy, ecological and cultural flows and contexts in which it exists. A single building can now be a positive force: supporting resilient ecosystems and cultural communities, and contributing to sustainable patterns of living. “While sustainable architecture simply tried to do no harm,” says Ian Cooper, “regenerative architecture now strives to do some good.”

Cole, in his modest way, partly attributes this shift in his thinking to the countless researchers and practitioners he has worked with over the years — and to his students, too. Having received four awards for teaching excellence, Cole claims not to be any more imaginative than others. “But I have tried to be receptive to some of the more wild propositions offered by my architectural students, rather than prematurely dismissing them on the basis of current notions of practicality.”


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