Ask the Expert: CaGBC Lifetime Achievement winner Cornelia Oberlander talks about the evolution of green landscaping

We spoke to recent CaGBC Lifetime Achievement winner, 92-year-old Cornelia Oberlander about her long and storied career in landscape architecture.


Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Sustainable building in North America has been steadily growing in acceptance over the past few decades, now with most major cities adopting green building mandates. As with many great movements, there are leaders who adopted and supported it years before it became popular. Ninety two-year-old Cornelia Oberlander is one of those leaders.

As a preeminent landscape architect with a deep commitment to sustainability and a career that has spanned over 60 years, Cornelia has contributed to the designs of many high-profile buildings in both Canada and the United States, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Chancery in Washington D.C., and the Vancouver Public Library. She also pioneered vegetated (green) roof design in Canada.

As the 2013 CaGBC Lifetime Achievement Award winner, we spoke to Cornelia (who is currently working on updates to the Vancouver Library's green roof) about her fascinating career and what advice she would give to emerging green builders.

1) You’ve had an extremely accomplished and interesting career. What is one of the biggest highlights that stand out from your experiences in green building?

The work on the CK Choi Building for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia (1992-1995), was the first building that did not connect to the storm or sanitary sewer in British Columbia. It is built of recycled material and is limited on its site by an existing Douglas Fir forest (limiting footprints). It has a greywater trench with plants that clean the water and the woodland is restored with indigenous plants.

2) Green roofs seem to be your passion. Where did you learn about them and why do you think they are an important element of sustainable building?

Robson Square, the Provincial Courthouse Project, a three block project in the middle of downtown Vancouver by Arthur Erickson Architects taught me to develop green roofs for our growing population. Robson Square is a park on top of a building and accessible to all citizens. This has been the beginning of my work on green roofs such as the Vancouver Public Library (1992-1995) and VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitors Centre (2007-2010).

All green roofs contribute to the biomass of the city. Inaccessible green roofs contribute to visual pleasure and all green roofs insulate the building against the cold and heat and help to diminish stormwater runoff if constructed correctly. All green roofs need a great deal of research to be effective regarding plant selection and maintenance. 

3) What is your advice to someone young who is just starting out in this now burgeoning industry, or someone already in the industry but who is looking to make a big impact?

The Bruntland Report, 'Our Common Future' emphasized my direction in Landscape Architecture to a better understanding of building green. I only work on collaborative projects with other architects and consultants to achieve a complete fit of building and site with sustainability goals in mind. My website:, for example would give a young person the idea of how the career of a Landscape Architect developed from the 1950 to today. For other examples I look at the literature of notable landscape architects such as Lawrence Halprin, Garret Eckbo, Dan Kiley and later publications of those not only interested in design but also sustainable development, and social and environmental responsibility.

For all involved in the green building industry it is essential to network with international professional to research and learn about the best ways of implementation. It is necessary to take well educated risks to advance the profession. It is essential to look at past and future projects - this communication will help the next generation to learn about the work of with others and establish a social network.