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Green building — taking it mainstream

Buildings represent about 35 per cent or more of North America’s greenhouse gas emissions, and they are one of the few sectors where it’s possible to get quick reductions of those GHGs in a cost-effective, economically viable way. This is a message that was emphasized by a report released by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) the week of Globe 2008. The proof of what can be achieved through truly intelligent design was demonstrated in presentations by a number of Canadian architects at the conference in Vancouver.


March 31, 2008
March 31, 2008
By Robert Colman

Revamping the design approach
The CEC is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico, and the United States under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation to address regional environmental concerns and help prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts. The report was entitled Green Building in North America: Opportunities and Challenges.

John Westeinde, chair of the advisory group for green buildings in North America, which put together the report, emphasized that it was written in the hopes of elevating the importance of green building and what it can achieve in the policy making processes in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

Despite all that is known about green building practices within the industry, it’s still not considered a front-and-centre issue, suggests Westeinde. And yet, as he noted during a panel discussion at Globe, “it’s very achievable to reduce as much carbon as is produced in the transportation sector as a whole in the U.S. today. And it can be done in an economically positive way. With buildings, it’s not technology, it’s just back-to-basics conservation-oriented design where the bulk of achievements can be made.

“We’re stuck in an approach to designing that works to the minimum standard and to the highest use of equipment to make sure that there’s never a failure,” he continued. “That creates a substantial amount of over-design, versus really looking at a systems integrated approach of thinking, how do we design to maximum efficiency? That’s where the change of culture needs to happen in our building codes and policies and regulations.”

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The problem, according to the report, is that we currently design buildings for the lowest capital costs we can from a construction point of view, rather than considering the life cycle cost of the building.

The challenge is also in the execution of designs. As Kevin Hydes, chair of the World Green Building Council, noted in the same panel discussion, “if we don’t get the electricians and plumbers and carpenters to transform within their businesses, then we won’t succeed in what we are trying to do, which is to transform the building industry.”

Hydes, who also serves as vice-president of buildings engineering and sector leader for sustainable design at Stantec, is busy pushing the green building agenda worldwide. With green building councils now being established around the world, the hope is that leaders in each market will push innovative green building ideas, and gradually shift the market in a more sustainable direction.

Integration beyond the envelope
In Canada, there are a few innovative developers that are pushing green building to its obvious extreme — the net zero building or development, a development that is essentially carbon neutral, or essentially uses no power from the grid.

As Peter Busby, principal and managing director of architectural firm Busby Perkins + Will, stated during a net zero energy session at Globe, over the last 15 years of practice, architects have developed their understanding of sustainable design substantially.

“It’s common in our practice and among other architects to be able to reduce energy consumption by 50-60 per cent,” he noted. “We can do that typically with the usual budgets. But to get to carbon neutral you have to do much better.”

Much better means 85 per cent below ASHRAE 90.1 — and then you have to add renewables to offset the energy consumption on an annual basis.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. Busby is involved in two projects, currently, that match that lofty goal. One is a design for an office tower that will be built next to GM Place. As a commercial office building, it’s bound by commercial constraints, but the company worked with those. Firstly, the tower is a somewhat triangular design, making it possible to plan all core functions and workspaces within eight metres of glazing around the perimeter.

“One hundred per cent of the desks and the operational spaces can be daylit,” says Busby.

The building also includes operable windows for natural ventilation, light shelves, and a superior envelope. It uses geothermal and a radiant ceiling system.

Energy consumption, however, remained a challenge. “While cooling buildings in Vancouver might consumer 230 kWhr per square metre per year annually, we got this building down to about 110,” remarked Busby. “That’s pretty good performance but not carbon neutral.”

To take it that step beyond, the company considered how the tower could work with its neighbour, GM Place. From that came a great idea — link the energy systems of the two.

“GM Place requires heat and has lots of ice shavings, which can provide cooling,” noted Busby. “By linking the two systems, we can take waste heat and dump it in GM Place to heat it, and run our cooling pipes through its ice shavings and cool our buildings. So the total energy reduction in GM Place is larger than the energy use in our building. So it’s interesting to look at the buildings out there and think, where are the synergies, what can we do by linking buildings together?”

Community support
This community approach to development is one that many presenters, including Westeinde and Hydes, encouraged as a key to pushing the green agenda further. This is an approach that Joe Van Belleghem seems to have mastered in the development of Dockside Green in Victoria, B.C. Belleghem is managing partner of developments and consulting for Windmill West and as such was behind the mixed use development that has garnered awards and much attention.

Dockside Green was developed on a 15 acre contaminated site, five minutes walk from downtown Victoria. It includes everything from residential to light industrial use.

In the process of developing the community, Belleghem’s team focused on passive design. To avoid putting in air conditioning, they installed better glazing systems and exterior blinds and awnings where necessary. The office building will be all naturally ventilated. The development includes wind turbines on certain buildings, its own sewage treatment plant, and a Nexterra biomass energy plant onsite that will use waste wood to produce heat for the buildings as well as domestic hot water.

The developers spent more on better washing machines, dishwashers, dual flush toilets, and low flow showerheads, but by doing so they saved a substantial amount of money and got water consumption down by 56 per cent, while lowering the capital costs of their sewage treatment plant by 50 per cent.

Although much more can be said about this project, the point to be taken from it is that, through intelligent design, the community will save a substantial amount of money. And in the process of carefully designing the site, Belleghem has managed to set record price levels, selling out 85 per cent of the first phase of the residential development in a matter of three hours.

Another lesson to be learned is that effective engagement with the community and partners makes a huge difference in any development.

“There was no community opposition to this project,” stressed Belleghem. “We were supported on new density, new height rules. I think that people’s values are changing, and no one wants us to fail. We are trying to refocus our values to be the ones we want our children to have. When you do that, the economics take care of themselves.”


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