Today we have a much better scientific understand- ing of the impact of human-induced stresses on natural systems. But information is only a means to an end ”” it has to be interpreted and translated into effective decision-making, be it in the realm of politics or that of our day-to-day activities. Indeed, how we choose to act on our understanding of resource use and environ- mental degradation will prove decisive in any transition toward sustainable patterns of living.

While in the past we have operated on the assump- tion that there would be continuous improvement in human wealth uninhibited by natural limits, we are increasingly rediscovering the critical interdependence of economic systems and natural processes. This, however, has proven insufficient to give environmental and related issues higher priority within the public consciousness: ecological concerns remain compromised in the political realm by other social and economic priorities. Surprisingly, evidence on the extent and rate of environ- mental degradation ”” encroaching deserts, deforestation, acid-rain precipitation, soil oxidation and erosion, species extinction, ozone depletion, greenhouse gas build-up ”” has yet to gain the potency to generate the necessary political commitment to bring about change. Nor, it seems, has the increase in unusual and often extreme weather events, floods and storm activity, and the enormous economic costs associated with such disasters, been sufficient to create a context for concerted action.

Similarly, despite the substantive evidence of the resource use and envi- ronmental impacts associated with buildings and current patterns of human settlement, it is difficult to instill a sense of the importance and urgency of improving their environmental perform- ance. A host of factors contribute to this situation. First, there is a considerable disjuncture between our general and our scientific understanding of environmen- tal issues and the priority placed on con- certed and effective action. Second, the interpretation and translation of infor- mation occurs through the filter of our individual values. If a sense of impor- tance is value dependent, then users of information must be predisposed to the issue to which it relates. Finally, many humans have ingrained biases that tend to favour countering notions. For exam- ple, they often lack the ”œsystems think- ing” necessary to seek solutions to complex problems that involve multiple scales of influence and timeframes; they typically underestimate large uncertain- ties and underinvest in measures that follow the precautionary principle; and they are transfixed with the immediate ”” the here and now ”” while many environmental problems have global and trans-generational consequences.

Within any one country there are constraints to and opportunities for progress, as there is a wide disparity in the interest in and the commitment and capability to effect change across coun- tries. In Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland for instance, statistical evidence on resource use and air emissions as well as the stringent envi- ronmental regulations suggest that there is a stronger culture of environmental responsibility and commitment to affect positive change in northern European countries than there is in Canada. Figures 1a and 1b show the extent to which the 15 old European Union member states and Canada have been pursuing their commitments to Kyoto targets. The European Union appears set to meet the 8 percent reduction target, based on 1990 levels, by 2012. By contrast, in Canada, the gap between greenhouse gas emis- sions and the Kyoto targets has widened each year, which means that achieving the committed 6 percent reduction below the 1990 level in less than a decade will be a daunting task.

The design of contemporary build- ings is influenced by a host of global, regional or local socio-cultural, economic and regulatory considera- tions. It is further shaped by the con- straints and opportunities afforded by the immediate physical surroundings. Design, as with other aspects of human thought, operates within the prevailing social and cultural para- digm, and it does not change funda- mentally until this context changes.

Buildings represent enormous eco- nomic and ecological investments. While capital cost has always been a dominant factor that invariably subjects any decision to the litmus test of short- term economic viability, increasingly environmental performance is becoming an important design consideration. The construction industry represents a very significant component of the global economy ”” more than $3.8 trillion ”” but it also has a consider- able direct and indirect impact on global resources and the environment.

Estimates indicate that buildings are responsible for approximately 40 per- cent of total energy use worldwide, most of which is sourced from fossil fuels. Emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and/or heat generation contribute to global warming, photo-oxidant smog, and acid rain, and buildings and their ongoing operation are responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse emissions. Similarly, the construction industry uses renewable materials at rates that far exceed their regenera- tion, as well as using a large quantities of materials that are nonrenewable. Current methods of extracting and processing raw materials into usable building products often result in habi- tat destruction, toxic runoff from mines, and air and water pollution.

The David Suzuki Foundation and Climate Action Network’s report Kyoto and Beyond: The Low Emissions Path to Innovation and Efficiency (2002) conserva- tively estimates that the operation of commercial and residential buildings in Canada ”” heating, cooling, ventilation, equipment, lighting, service hot water ”” accounted for 140 mega-tonnes CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2004. The report also suggests that through the better design of new buildings and retrofits emissions could be reduced by 41 percent (57 Mt CO2e) by 2012 and by 65 percent (91 Mt CO2e) by 2030. Wide-scale improvements in the environmental per- formance of buildings would thus be a significant, even a necessary, step toward Canada meeting its Kyoto obligations.

Green buildings have many features that make them far superior to their conventional counterparts. Over their lifecycle, green buildings will use less energy and water, generate less greenhouse gas, produce less waste and use materials more efficiently. They cost less to operate, and they are more adapt- able to alternative uses, which gives them longer economic lives. Features such as improved indoor air quality and thermal conditions, abundant natural light, greater personal control, the elim- ination of materials that emit harmful chemicals create healthier interiors which in turn are increasingly linked to gains in productivity, decreased absen- teeism, improved employee morale and occupant satisfaction.

Green building is as much about process as it is about product. The design of buildings involves the partic- ipation, interaction and coordination of a wide range of professions and trades; within a multitude of regulato- ry agencies and jurisdictions; and within demanding time and cost con- straints. Ideally, green building design includes all players in an integrated development process, from the design team (building owners, architects, engineers and consultants) and the construction team (materials manufac- turers, contractors and waste haulers), to maintenance staff and building occupants. The design team makes environmental and economic issues their guiding considerations in all decisions, and gives priority to natural systems and emerging environmental options over conventional ones. Finally, designers consider strategies and components as a part of a system rather than in isolation, and view the building as a series of interconnected systems, thus allowing cost savings through synergies. For example, by prioritizing air conservation and employing natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation is reduced and service equipment can subsequently be downsized or eliminated.

Although it is unlikely that there will be profound changes in build- ings and human settlement patterns until there is a fundamental shift in societal values and expectations, regulation and voluntary market-based pro- grams are two approaches cur- rently in use to improve building performance.

The regulatory approach assumes that increased international attention and public concern surrounding environmental issues will translate into political intent. This will then be manifested as more stringent environ- mental policy and regulations related to building performance requirements. Environmental standards and regulations related to buildings can be very effective but usually only define a minimally acceptable level of per- formance and are not, therefore, normally a vehicle for encouraging high levels of performance. Moreover, regulation typically only covers specific environmental per- formance aspects such as energy use. In Canada, for example, the Model Nation- al Energy Codes for Buildings (MNECB) aims at increasing the energy efficiency of new buildings by specifying mini- mum requirements for energy use.

In order to enable greater flexibili- ty in the design of buildings, building codes are moving away from prescrip- tive requirements toward perform- ance-based approaches. Perhaps more importantly, the notion of sustainabil- ity is emerging as an explicit element of some building codes. While build- ing codes currently focus on the health and safety of building users and evolve primarily in reaction to past catastro- phes, some experts, such as David Eisenberg of the Tucson-based Development Center for Appropriate Technology, advocates extending the notion of health and safety to embrace the broader and intergenerational environmental consequences of build- ings and ”œre-envisioning building departments as not just governmental agencies responsible for preventing the worst practices, but as true community resources for the best design and build- ing practices.” Building departments in some US cities, for example, Seattle, Washington, and Aspen, Colorado, have found that this transition not only accelerates beneficial change in the design, construction and develop- ment sectors of their communities, but also yields human benefits such as improved morale, effectiveness, and openness to change.

Turning to which improvements in buildings are considered integral to achieving sustainability, it is interesting to compare the European and Canadian approaches. European Community directive 2002/91/EC, on the energy performance of buildings, explicitly refers to improving the environmental performance of buildings and introduc- ing a uniform energy-labelling pro- gram. The UK Sustainable and Secure Buildings Bill, which received Royal Assent on September 16, 2004, aims to make buildings greener and safer by strengthening the building regulations on new, extended and altered buildings such that they require sustainability and crime reduction measures to be applied as a matter of course. The Bill gives new powers to improve the sustainability of buildings, including the conservation of fuel and power; preventing the waste, undue consumption, misuse or contamination of water; and furthering the pro- tection or enhancement of the environment.

Despite the fact that in Canada greenhouse gas emis- sions from the construction and operation of residential and commercial buildings account for over 30 percent of total emissions, the MNECB does not specify a demanding perform- ance level and still requires adoption by various jurisdic- tions before it can be enforced. The federal government’s Com- mercial Building Incentive Pro- gram (CBIP) provides financial incentives to incorporate ener- gy-efficient technologies and practices into designs for new commer- cial, institutional and multi-unit resi- dential buildings that achieve a 25 percent reduction below MNECB. To provide an example to the Canadian marketplace, the government requires this performance level for all federal buildings and has also mandated that as of 2005, the construction of new gov- ernment office buildings will be funded to meet the ”œgold” level of performance under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System (LEED®) (see below). It will also seek this level of performance in new long-term leases.

By far the most significant improve- ments in building environmental performance over the past decade have occurred as a result of voluntary mech- anisms, as evidenced by increased dis- cussion and application of green building practices, despite the absence of any significant or demanding energy or environmental regulations. Volun- tary environmental assessment and labelling programs have the primary objective of stimulating market demand for buildings with improved environmental performance. An under- lying premise of voluntary assessments is that if the market is provided with improved information and mecha- nisms, a discerning client group can and will provide leadership in environ- mental responsibility, and others will follow suit to remain competitive. There is little doubt that building environmental assessment methods have promoted higher environmental expec- tations and are directly and indirectly influencing the performance of build- ings. Assessment methods have enjoyed considerable success, and widespread awareness of them has created the critical mass of interest necessary to cement their role in creating positive change.

But, success here means the adoption of assessment methods into the parlance of the building industry rather than the number of actual assessed or certified projects, which is still rela- tively low. A number of factors have con- tributed to the early success of assessment methods:

  • The prior absence of any means to both discuss and evaluate building performance in a comprehensive way left open a distinct niche within an emerging European and North American culture of per- formance assessment.

  • The simple, seemingly straightfor- ward declaration of the require- ments of a limited number of performance measures presented a complex set of issues in a manage- able form.

  • By offering a recognizable structure for environmental issues, they pro- vided a focus for the debate on build- ing environmental performance.

  • Public sector building agencies have used them as a means of demonstrating commitment to emerging environmental policies and directives.

  • Manufacturers of green building materials and products have been given the opportunity to make direct and indirect associations with the relevant performance criteria.

The success of building environ- mental assessment methods has dwarfed all other mechanisms for establishing environmental issues within the building industry. Indeed, they are increasingly positioned not only as the most potent mechanism for affecting change but, unfortunate- ly, as the sole focus of the current building-environmental debate.

The Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC) was formed in February 2003 to promote green build- ings and building environmental assessment methods in Canada. Two of its roles will be to offer independent LEED® certification for Canadian proj- ects and to provide support through technical training, professional accred- itation and Web-based resources. LEED Canada for New Construction and Major Renovations version 1.0 is an adaptation of the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED® Green Building Rating System, tailored specifically for Canadian climates, construction practices and regulations.

The LEED® Canada-NC 1.0 Rating System recognizes leading-edge build- ings that incorporate design, construction and operational practices and combine healthy, high-quality and high-performance advantages with reduced environmental impacts. It pro- vides a voluntary, consensus-based, market-responsive set of criteria that evaluate project performance from a whole-building, whole-life perspective, providing a common understanding for what constitutes a green building in the Canadian context. This is done by awarding points for meeting specific performance criteria that outperform typical standard practice. Improved building performance is certified with ratings ”” Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum ”” based on the total number of points earned by a project. Building occupants, purchasers and lessors are assured of superior building perform- ance by an independent review and audit of the project’s construction doc- uments by experienced design profes- sionals who follow a well-defined and transparent methodology.

As of June 2005, there are more than 130 registered LEED® projects across Canada, including 11 that have been certified. The White Rock Operations Centre in White Rock, BC, designed by Busby and Associates Architects Ltd., (2003) was the first LEED® Gold Certified new building in Canada. The build- ing exemplifies innovative solu- tions, particularly in minimizing water consumption on the site and in the building. The project was built on the foundations of an old wastewater treatment plant, and stormwater is now held in a former detention tank and used for toilet flushing and to help heat and cool the facility. This, together with the installation of waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures, reduces site water use by approximately 90 percent and building water use by over 20 per- cent, which earned the project an innovation credit for exemplary reduction of water consumption.

Another LEED® Gold project, the Winnipeg Mountain Equipment Co-op store, designed by Prairie Architects Inc. (2002), also includes numerous design strategies that improve material and resource reuse, water management and energy performance. From the perspective of material reuse, for example, the project involved the careful dismantling of two of the three existing buildings on the site, conducting an inventory of reclaimed materials, then designing and constructing entire new sections of the building from these materials. In total, almost 4,000 tonnes of mate- rial was diverted from the landfill, ful- filling the project’s environmental objectives while reducing its total design and construction budget to less than $1,000 per square meter and providing weathered materials such as Douglas fir timber columns and reused brick that enhanced the retail aesthetic of the building’s program.

Other innovative developments are currently on the drawing board. Over the next 10 years, a collabora- tion between Windmill Development and VanCity Enterprises will reclaim and redevelop 14.87 acres of former industrial waterfront property previ- ously owned by the City of Victoria into a sustainable mix of commercial, residential, live/work, and light industrial uses. The project includes such innovations as on-site sewage treatment and waste-wood power plants, a greenway with recycled water channels, housing for all income levels and ages, a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design, and a boutique hotel. The development team is committed to achieving the highest level of LEED® certification, which, if attained, will be the first time an entire development has achieved a Platinum rating, and will position Dockside as a global show- case for large-scale sustainable devel- opment. In addition to a mix of uses, pedestrian-friendly streets, open space, and an innovative design that supports sustainable community objectives, the net result should be a community that is greenhouse-gas neutral, thereby illustrating the potential of improved building devel- opment to make a significant contri- bution to Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Accord.

While leading-edge Canadian proj- ects will continue to emerge and indirectly influence the mainstream, many factors currently constrain the variety and extent of possible improve- ments to their environmental perform- ance. For example, legal and property-ownership constraints limit design strategies to the possibilities afforded by individual buildings and their sites. Since few opportunities currently exist for buildings to make links with the energy and environmental systems of adjacent properties, self-reliance becomes an implicit environmental goal.

Also problematic is the tendency to describe and discuss buildings by typology ”” as office buildings, as multi-unit residential buildings, as libraries, etc. While mixed-use devel- opments involving retail, commercial and residential occupants are common in urban centres, the constituent uses typi- cally function independ- ently under the same roof with little attempt to seek synergistic environmental advantages by virtue of their adjacencies. Differ- ent building types have different energy require- ments in terms of amount, quality and timing. Numerous opportunities exist for creating, combin- ing and sharing energy.

Finally, zoning and planning ordinances embody the common good, and typically evolve slowly over time in response to real and per- ceived public concerns and priorities. Most current ordinances do not rec- ognize or secure environmental amenities such as access to sunlight for onsite renewable energy use, shared parking facilities or landscap- ing strategies that make use of green space for more than simply aesthetic purposes.

The West Coast Environmental Law’s Cutting Green Tape: An Action Plan for Removing Regulatory Barriers to Green Innovations (2002) identified a number of regulatory barriers that cur- rently tend to limit the environmental improvement of buildings, including

  • Local government standards that restrict innovative developments (e.g., minimum road widths, requirements to connect to municipal storm sewers and requirements for impermeable sur- faces) and development cost charges that do not account for savings in local services.

  • Parking requirements that do not reflect actual parking needs. Planning departments typically prescribe minimum parking requirements that must be pro- vided in different types of build- ings. This can compromise attempts to encourage more effi- cient transportation options for building occupants.

  • Unclear or poorly supported processes for equivalences to code provisions, and the fear on the part of local officials that they will be sued if green practices fail. Sim- ilarly, fire, building, plumbing or energy code provisions can unnec- essarily prevent or discourage green building and community practices. Although environmen- tal strategies are becoming famil- iar among design professionals, many challenge existing planning regulation or building code norms, and the authorities are unfamiliar with them.

  • Sequential permitting processes that do not allow integrated designers to at any point ”œtell the whole story.” Green building requires commitment to an inte- grated design process (IDP) involving many stakeholders. Similarly, the creative integration of systems requires the transcen- dence of professional boundaries between architects, engineers and all others involved in the produc- tion of buildings to work as a team from the outset. This often makes it difficult to communicate strategies to a still largely frag- mented permitting and planning approvals process.

The building industry involves a multiplicity of players and is, by nature, conservative and risk-averse. Cost has always been a major consid- eration and the cost of building green is no exception. A host of building and contextual factors ”” building size, expertise of the design team, the climate, maturity of the building mar- ket, flexibility of client/building program ”” influence the cost premiums associated with increased perform- ance, making it difficult to generalize. Although the direct and indirect eco- nomic benefits of improved environ- mental performance over a building’s life considerably outweigh any initial increases, current studies suggest that LEED® certified projects carry initial costs that are slightly higher than those carried by current standard prac- tices, by an average of between 1 and 3 percent. What is perhaps more sur- prising is that initial costs do not nec- essarily increase proportionally with the increase in greenness of a project (e.g., a LEED® Gold project can have a lower cost than a LEED® Silver one.)

There is an implicit assumption that by continually improving the environmental performance of indi- vidual buildings, the building indus- try will collectively reduce its resource use and ecological loadings sufficiently to fulfill its role in the environmental sustainability agenda. But notions of sustainability and life- cycle analysis have begun to extend the timeframe of decision-making from the immediate term to the long term. Indeed, shifting from the pro- duction of green buildings to those that support sustainable patterns of living will require an expanded boundary of considerations, as sum- marized in table 1.

Given the pressing anticipated time-scale of climate change, it is diffi- cult to imagine that a sustainable sys- tem of production and consumption will emerge from simply tweaking cur- rent practices. A key issue, therefore, is the considerable difference between the levels of change that the scientific community is advocating and levels that are socially and politically accept- able. The differences identified in table 1 extend the range of considerations beyond the scope and responsibility of current building design and, again, suggest that the necessary changes will require a fundamental rethinking of the way that buildings are conceived, designed and used.

A meaningful infusion of sustain- ability thinking into the building process cannot effectively be achieved solely through the regulatory frame- work or through stand-alone methods and ad-hoc assessments. To engage mainstream building design and con- struction practices in Canada over the next decade, it will become increasing- ly important to understand the com- plementary relationship between these and other change mechanisms.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License