FROM A DISTANCE the new Joggins Fossil Centre building blends into the landscape like camouflage. Its green roof, planted with local grasses, blows in the breeze along with the meadow that surrounds it, its angular outline clad in yellow sandstone assumes the shape of the cliff face below.  The Fossil Centre is more than just a museum. It is a monument of sorts, a tribute to one of the greatest scientific treasure troves on planet Earth.

Here on the shore of Chignecto Bay, ancient fossil beds meet serendipitously with one of the greatest regular forces on the planet: 60 foot tides that are the highest on earth. The bedrock that lies under the small Cumberland County village of Joggins is the same coal-aged strata that underlies much of Northern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, a vast coal deposit that created a coal-mining industry in communities like Springhill, Pictou, Glace Bay and Sydney Mines. But at Joggins, the tides slice through a fresh layer of strata every year like a meat cutter slices through a hunk of pastrami. Every spring they reveal more of a petrified carboniferous forest where ferns the size of trees once grew in lush groves, where giant sow bug-like creatures as big as Vespa motorbikes once skittered across the musty forest floor.  The fossil cliffs of Joggins even attracted the great 19th century geologist Charles Lyell, the creator of the theory of uniformitarianism that would inspire his friend Charles Darwin and his ideas about evolution –a place so unique on planet Earth that they have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A unique place deserves a unique interpretive centre. The Joggins Fossil Centre opened this year to serve as the focal point of UNESCO Site. It is already living up to its lofty purpose, says John Crace, an architect with the Halifax firm WHW Architects and one of the building’s designers. “Right now, people who visit the Joggins site ask about the building as much as they ask about the fossils,” he says. “That may wear off over time, but its something we’re very proud about.”

There’s much to be proud of in the Fossil Centre’s design. A closer look reveals that not only does the building assume the shape of the Joggins cliffs but it also traces out the shape of an old coal mining pithead structure, an architectural tip of the hat to the region’s glory years when Joggins was a booming mining town. But external design is only one aspect. Inside, it is one of the “greenest” structures ever to open its doors in the province. For starters, the grass-covered roof collects the rainwater that is used to flush the building’s toilets. Rooftop solar panels and a wind turbine provide electricity and hot water while computer operated lights are carefully controlled to conserve power during hours when the centre is closed. A high performance building envelope provides insulation and the centre is designed so that large sections can be closed off to preserve heat in the winter. It’s a testament to Nova Scotia-created green technology, says Crace.

“We knew when we started this project that this was a place where the world would come to visit, so we all agreed when we started the design process that we would build a pioneering building, a showcase for local design innovation.”

Local design innovation has come a long way in the last five years. Rising fuel prices and changing sensibilities have caused Nova Scotian architects and builders to rethink the inefficient structures of old in favor of smart, energy efficient buildings that do everything from flush their own toilets to turn out their own lights. In the process they are doing a lot more than just saving their clients money. They are transforming the neighborhoods around them and leading a new paradigm shift in the architecture industry. Two years ago it was hard to find a truly green building in Halifax. Now there are a number of world-class examples – like Research In Motion’s new technical support centre, a  $230 million masterpiece that is being heralded as one of the most significant new buildings in the province in decades. And General Dynamics Canada’s state-of-the-art building in Dartmouth.

Unlike Joggins, the Caldwell Road area of HRM doesn’t come with a lot of natural wonder attached to it. So the architects who designed the new General Dynamics Canada Halifax Facility had to add some to the blueprint, in the form of a massive 25-foot-high natural stone waterfall that greets visitors entering the lobby. It’s an eye-popper, and the babbling water has a soothing effect on the building’s tenants, but the waterfall has another practical function as well: the water that passes through it will help cool the building in summer. Built, owned and managed by the Millbrook First Nation, the facility is being leased to General Dynamics Canada as a software design centre for the new Maritime Helicopter project and also as the company’s East Coast headquarters.

The facility is packed with green features. The extruded aluminum exterior walls and hermetically sealed glass panels create a highly insulated envelope. Halographic film lights and computer controlled lighting systems conserve energy. Taps, faucets, drinking fountains and toilets are all automatically controlled to reduce water usage, and the building is designed with moveable walls so that offices can be reconfigured quickly without the need for new building materials and costly construction. But the most impressive feature of all, according to General Dynamics Halifax facility general manager John Cody, is the geothermal heating system. “When we planned the system oil was selling for around $40 a barrel,” says Cody. “We calculated that it would take us about 12 years to pay for the system. With the price of oil today, it looks like we will have it paid off in three to four years. It turned out to be a very wise decision on our part.”

To be truly great, a building should have a profound effect on the neighborhood that surrounds it. The new Nova Scotia Community College’s Waterfront Campus certainly fits that criteria. Anyone who sits on Halifax’s harbourfront in the waning daylight and looks across the water at the reflective wall of windows staring back knows that the NSCC Waterfront Campus has certainly has certainly changed the city’s skyline. But its also transforming its immediate neighborhood. Architect Keith Robertson says the design team looked at such factors as public transit when choosing a site for the building, and even reduced the number of parking spaces in the lot outside to cut down on car traffic and encourage alternate transportation. They used special lighting to reduce nighttime light pollution. And much to the surprise of some people in the neighborhood, the building managers don’t mow the property lawns, in order to encourage the growth of native plants on the property

But it’s on the inside that the NSCC building truly shines. The entire facility centers around a huge multi-storey atrium that bathes the interior in natural daylight and affords spectacular views of the city. The construction of the Waterfront Campus makes it one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in Eastern Canada, built of recycled steel and cement additives. It uses half the water of a similar-sized building, with state-of-the-art heating, cooling and window systems throughout. “We realized that when we were building it that this building was extraordinary, and it could become a marker for so much more that we could do,” says NSCC president Joan McArthur-Blair.

Now NSCC is well into the construction of Waterfront Campus Phase II – an annex that is packed with even more environmental innovations, like geothermal heating and cooling, solar steel cladding to allow passive solar heat into the building, and one of North America’s first interior bio walls, a living, plant-covered wall that will clean and filter the air inside the building. NSCC is even planning to install up to seven different types of green roofing material on the roof of the building to study how each of them stand up over time.

Office buildings aren’t the only ones going green around Halifax these days. On the other side of the harbour, Mountain Equipment Co-op, the giant outdoor retail chain, recently turned a moth-balled movie theatre into the greenest retail building in the province. The company chose the old Paramount Theatre partly as an effort to save the 70-year-old building from destruction, but also because the location meshed perfectly with MEC’s green ideals. They wanted a retail space that would generate a minimal carbon footprint – close to the city’s major foot traffic, near intersecting bus routes, away from the far-flung mega-malls on Halifax’s outskirts. The building is heated with biodiesel and insulated well beyond Canadian building standards – factors that mean 25 percent less energy use than a conventional retail building of similar size, and a savings of $100,000 in energy costs for the building since it opened, according to MEC estimations.

But energy is just one part of the green equation. The store also uses a minimal amount of building materials, a factor that creates a stark retail interior: burnished concrete floors, sparse ceiling covers and light fixtures. The cooling system is CFC free, the toilets are low flow and the store has paper and bag reduction programs in place. Even the cleaning contractors are educated by MEC staff to use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and no paper towels.

Each one of these buildings is much more than a place where people work or learn. They are living laboratories, according to Crace, where architects, designers and engineers develop the techniques that will take Nova Scotia’s building industry into the 21st century. “We’ve learned a lot from the Joggins Centre,” he says.  “And we’re still learning.”