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In Canada, commercial and institutional buildings such as stores, offices, schools and hospitals account for almost one-tenth of our total energy consumption and represent an important focus of efforts to curb energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Since a typical building may be occupied for 50 years or more, it’s critical that sustainable design principles guide the planning and construction of new buildings.
In this article, Dimensions presents the views of three leading experts on sustainable buildings to find out what we’ve achieved and what we need to do to ensure tomorrow’s buildings have a minimal impact on the environment.
Question: How would you define a green or sustainable building?
A green building uses very little energy and uses water very carefully. It doesn't waste anything. The definition of a sustainable building is more ambitious: it uses renewable energy for construction and operations; it doesn't emit any pollutants into the water, land or air; it keeps people comfortable with the resources available on site (for example, it might collect rainwater to provide drinking water); and it actually supports an equitable lifestyle for a group of people.
A decade or so ago, the definition was predominantly driven by our need to reduce energy consumption and environmental loadings from buildings. Over the past decade, drivers such as climate change mitigation, increasing fuel and electricity costs, and “sick building syndrome,” have led to more aggressive and global performance targets for green buildings. The main aims now are to design buildings with near-zero energy consumption and carbon emissions that integrate renewable energy sources, use little water, and keep people healthy and comfortable.
The simplest definition is one where the building doesn't affect the natural environment around it. In other words, a green building doesn't consume water or energy and has a limited impact on resource consumption. Sustainable buildings for me are those that consume less water and energy than normal buildings. They are healthier buildings. They're made out of materials that have lower carbon and energy content, and off-gas fewer pollutants. Sustainable buildings are just better for the environment and for the people in them.
Green and sustainable buildings.
Question: What are the biggest challenges in designing and constructing sustainable buildings?
In 2002, the David Suzuki Foundation published “Kyoto and Beyond: The Low Emission Path to Innovation and Efficiency,” which said we’ve got all of the understanding and technology required to satisfy the Kyoto Commitment right now. The challenge is changing our contractual agreements, ideas about responsibility, and value for real estate to reflect the aspiration of sustainability.
For example, to do “whole building” accounting, society needs to make the value argument and confirm that the owner has the willingness and ability to achieve a certain level of performance. The value argument has to touch not just the general operations of a business, but also its marketing and mission. One reason that Mountain Equipment Co-op has done so well is because its Board decided to translate their aspirations for outdoor equipment to their buildings.
One major challenge involves regulatory hurdles. For example, re-using building materials, mechanical, plumbing and electrical equipment (which may be perfectly good) is often barred by regulations or bylaws. Similarly, the use of “grey water” rather than potable water in toilets is barred by Health Canada in most jurisdictions. And the use of wood as a building product is often an uphill battle with municipal authorities and fire departments.
Question: What is your organization doing to advance the development of sustainable buildings?
NRCan is helping to set up benchmarks for building performance that people can use for a specific project and place. Our CanmetENERGY program is starting to develop a library of energy models for common building types that professionals can use to find out what happens if you tweak this or that. These models would help in the early stages of design to establish trends for higher performance at lower costs.
NRC works with industry and government partners on research and innovation involving sustainable buildings through two research programs on the indoor environment and the building envelope, and through our Codes and Evaluation Program. The research programs target the development and integration of technologies and decision-support tools for sustainable buildings. Their goals are to significantly reduce energy consumption from building services (including lighting, heating and ventilation); increase the thermal resistance and durability of building envelopes; improve indoor air quality; and reduce carbon footprints through environment-friendly concrete and insulation materials.
Today, NRC leads a multi-year project — funded by a consortium of more than 10 industry, federal and provincial government partners — to calibrate green-building rating systems, such as LEED, by measuring the actual performance of several green buildings across the country. This project will also result in the development of post-occupancy tools for green buildings. Another NRC-wide initiative, now nearing completion, led to the development of an automated building energy management system that integrates personal and occupancy controls.
We have a project under construction in Vancouver called the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre, which will feature significant improvements in biodiversity and in environmental and ecological systems. The building will use the nutrients from composted human waste, and will feature green roofs that are complex and deliberately designed to increase biodiversity.
About the LEED initiative
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a green building certification system that promotes sustainable buildings through third-party verification. LEED certification encourages builders to take five areas of human and environmental health into account: sustainable site development, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, as well as indoor environmental quality.
Question: What is your vision for the future of sustainable buildings over the next 10 or 20 years?
Sometime between now and 2030, the price of energy will rise significantly, which will result in a significant overhaul of existing buildings to make them much greener than they are now. In the United States, real estate data over the past 10 years shows clearly that green buildings are a better class of physical asset that bring in higher rents and better sales prices. In Canada, the real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield has reported the same trend.
So how long will it take to see significant movement? It depends on how serious our provincial and federal governments are about offering incentives to promote sustainable buildings. I would like to see a very aggressive push on improving the performance of buildings. The 2011 National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings will require buildings to reduce energy consumption by 25 percent below the level set by the 1997 Model National Energy Code, but I would like to see this target made 30 or 40 percent lower, with incentives to cover the design process. The good news is that $80,000 could cover a lot of design work and yet is not a lot of money in terms of a $7-8 million building
Our vision is two-fold: first, to help Canadian industry develop and integrate cost-effective technologies and systems that meet more aggressive and higher performance targets for green buildings with respect to energy, climate change mitigation and healthy indoor environments (including indoor air quality); and second, to enable the evolution of green buildings that combine near-zero energy use and carbon emissions with healthy indoor environments by developing innovative and performance-based decision-making tools, codes and evaluation systems.
Two important changes are coming. First is a reduction in the cost of renewable energy sources. Solar photovoltaics are currently expensive and not that efficient. But there is an extraordinary amount of investment right now in solar panel development. In the next three to five years, solar tiles are set to become as cheap as any other cladding material, which means the roofs, walls and windows of buildings can produce energy. Depending on the time of day and season, buildings will generate energy, not just use it, and will move toward becoming “energy neutral” (by generating almost as much energy as they consume) on an annual basis.
A second important change is the Living Building Challenge — a new standard that surpasses the LEED certification system. It looks at a whole new series of environmental measures where buildings start to reach levels that are truly sustainable and don’t tax the environment for water or energy: they treat their own sewage; they create their own power; and they address challenges such as how to increase biodiversity and how to positively affect the environment. Called regenerative buildings, they will do good rather than harm, add to nature rather than take from it, and create resources rather than consume them. Five to ten years from now we will see regenerative buildings emerge as an exciting new frontier in sustainable design.
Did you know?
Canadians spend about 90 percent of their time inside homes, offices, factories, commercial establishments and other buildings.