Photo:; Photo illustration: Paige Pennifold

Reaching net zero will take a top-to-bottom makeover of how buildings are constructed and operated

Want a glimpse into the future of sustainable construction in Canada? Take a trip to Hamilton, Ont.

That’s where you’ll find Mohawk College’s Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation, a rare example of a net-zero energy institutional building that is currently under construction for a 2018 opening. Boasting a 500-kilowatt solar array, 24 geothermal wells and numerous efficiency features, the project will serve as a living laboratory for students to learn about sustainability, with live data from the building systems easily accessible to support hands-on education.

Of course, net-zero buildings are not exactly new to Canada. Indeed, Edmonton’s own Mosaic Centre and Riverdale NetZero Project have both been lauded as leading examples of net-zero construction. But the Joyce Centre will be the proving ground for twin initiatives aimed at getting the carbon out of construction: the Canada Green Building Council’s (CaGBC’s) Zero Carbon Buildings Framework and EllisDon’s Carbon Impact Initiative.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has always been part of sustainable construction, but these efforts have taken on a newfound urgency in the past year as policy responses to climate change (finally) begin to take shape. Alberta’s carbon tax came into effect at the start of 2017, and the federal government has plans to impose its own national carbon-pricing scheme next year. The heating and cooling of buildings was responsible for 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014—the total rises to 17 per cent when including electricity use—and no climate plan can succeed without addressing that number.

So what is the construction industry going to do about it?

Counting to zero

Last year, the World Green Building Council set out targets for the buildings sector. All new construction and major renovations are expected to be net zero by 2030. By 2050, the council expects all buildings, old and new, to be net zero. The CaGBC is one of eight councils from around the world that has been tasked with developing the certification and training needed to make highly efficient buildings the new standard in construction.

To that end, the CaGBC rolled out its Zero Carbon Buildings Framework last fall—the first step toward the creation of a new net-zero building standard for Canada, which should be released by the organization in the second quarter of 2017. The Joyce Centre is intended to be just the first of several pilot projects that will help the CaGBC refine the standard before release.

The framework highlights five key components of any zero-carbon construction plan: renewable energy, either produced on site or purchased from somewhere off site; as well as metrics for the building’s energy intensity, embodied carbon, greenhouse gas emissions and peak energy demand.

EllisDon’s Carbon Impact Initiative will be grappling with many similar questions from a different angle. Launched in mid-2016, the initiative brings together major players from several different areas of the buildings sector, including the likes of WSP Global, the Cement Association of Canada, Cisco Systems and Avison Young. With EllisDon serving as contractor on the Joyce Centre, the project is a natural fit for the first pilot, but the company is already looking to add more to the cause.

Whereas the CaGBC is developing metrics for builders looking to go net zero, the EllisDon effort looks at the problem of reducing carbon from the industry’s perspective. What are the practical steps a builder will need to take to create a net-zero project? Which supports are already available and which are missing? In the Carbon Impact Initiative report, EllisDon outlines four areas where it will focus its energies: building net-zero projects, developing carbon accounting, adopting clean technologies and finding financial models that can support these projects.cover feature 3The Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation in Hamilton, Ont., is a pilot project for two new initiatives focused on reducing the carbon impact of buildings. Image: Mohawk College

Life after LEED

Both programs represent a shift in how the construction industry approaches environmental concerns. For years, LEED and other green building certification systems have served as the foundation for industry’s sustainability efforts. But perhaps the time has come to consider what lies beyond points and ratings.

Andrew Bowerbank, global director of sustainable building services for EllisDon, knows exactly what he doesn’t want to do with the Carbon Impact Initiative. He doesn’t want to create another association. He’s not looking for a new ratings system. He’s not interested in hiding away in a windowless office to churn out corporate sustainability reports that will just collect digital dust somewhere online.

“It’s just corporations getting together,” he says of the initiative. “When a project comes up, we jump on it like a bunch of ants. Let’s get this thing done, and let’s hit our targets.”

Bowerbank, who previously served as the founding executive director of the Toronto chapter of the CaGBC, is no stranger to LEED. He sees its value, but he also knows it isn’t the tool to change the entire industry. LEED creates beacon projects to light the way for others and promote sustainability. But complete market transformation requires the industry take charge instead of chasing points, he believes.

“My real interest is creating a true tipping point in the Canadian market toward a low-carbon economy,” he says. “We’re building on some of the leadership that has been there, but recognizing it was a stepping stone. I think things like the Carbon Impact Initiative need to be the next stepping stone.”

Mark Hutchinson, the CaGBC’s vice-president of green building systems, notes that LEED can have wider ramifications even if only a minority of projects uses the system. For instance, he’s already seeing a trickledown effect as manufacturers work to provide environmental product declarations spurred by changes in the latest version of LEED.

However, the CaGBC is not looking to duplicate LEED in its Zero Carbon Buildings Framework. The ratings system can continue to address the wide-ranging sustainability concerns facing projects, while a zero-carbon building standard will allow the council to hone in on the specific challenges of reducing building emissions. “We are not developing a ratings system with a series of credits and ways to earn points,” Hutchinson says. “Hopefully, this initiative is going to be much more straightforward.”

The innovation conundrum

Designing more efficient buildings will be just one part of the emissions equation. Everything ultimately comes down to the real-world outcomes after the tools have been put away and the keys handed over to the owner. “Design and construction of buildings can be evaluated, but at the end of the day how they perform is what determines their impact on the environment,” Hutchinson says.

That’s one reason why the CaGBC is clear on the need to consider the carbon from not just new projects, but also existing building stock, which will remain a major source of greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. Hutchinson estimates that buildings standing today will still account for over 60 per cent of structures in 2050. Significant emissions reductions will remain an impossible dream unless those structures can be turned to net zero somehow.

But improving the performance of older buildings and creating more efficient new structures hinges on the same question: can the construction industry embrace technological change? Bowerbank notes that the buildings sector often lags behind other industries when it comes to adopting innovations. Often, this is a matter of financing models, which do not necessarily favour the use of expensive technologies that only pay back their upfront costs over a long time frame—particularly if there is a risk that some wunderkind buildings system might turn out to be a technological dead-end.

“Our buildings and infrastructure need to be around for decades. If you have a disruptive technology that actually does not work or is not adopted, that’s an expensive thing to fix,” he says. “If we can figure out the innovation opportunity for the building construction sector, then we’re going to figure out sustainability at the same time.”

Carbon contained

Truly sustainable construction will eventually require that everyone understand the amount of carbon embodied in each building. The idea is straightforward, if daunting to calculate: combine the emissions produced in the transport and production of the various materials used to create a building and you have the amount of carbon embodied in it. Already a consideration in Europe, embodied carbon is likely to grow in importance in the North American market as well.

Hutchinson notes that this number is currently dwarfed by the total life cycle impact of the building, but as operations become more efficient, embodied carbon will take on greater precedence. While its zero-carbon buildings standard will initially be focused on operations, the CaGBC does want to begin developing a system for calculating embodied carbon. Such a metric would encourage the use of lower-carbon materials and in the future could also play a part in how zero-carbon buildings are evaluated.

Similarly, Bowerbank wants to see better carbon accounting in construction on everything from materials production to building operations. Creating a financial model that nurtures sustainability will hinge on improving everyone’s understanding of the economic impacts of carbon—and the benefits of addressing it. Armed with this knowledge, project teams can establish emissions targets early in the design stage, and society as a whole can make informed decisions on what to build and how to offset the attendant emissions.

“I personally think net zero is a bit of a holy grail, but it’s a journey—it’s about where your project is going to sit along your target to net zero,” he says. “If we can say where the opportunities are and how much you’re saving over the long term, that’s where we find clients are really listening.”

But those conversations can only happen once all the players in the industry are aligned, which is where nation-wide sustainability initiatives like EllisDon’s and the CaGBC’s come in. These efforts are not just about changing how we construct buildings, but also how we look at all the structures that surround us in our daily lives. Owners look at a building and see cost. Architects look and see the stylistic choices. Builders look and see their own sweat and hard work. But everyone will need to look and see carbon.

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