Buildings play a vital role in our economy and in our lives. A great number of the buildings in which Canadians spend 90 per cent of their time operate continuously in order to provide the safety, comfort, and services we require to live and work.
But there is no overlooking the fact that buildings also have an important impact on the environment and the natural resources on which we all depend. Overall, they consume more than one-third of all primary energy, two-thirds of electricity, one-third of all raw materials, and a growing percentage of our freshwater resources. At the same time, buildings account for one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change and the material waste that continues to present disposal challenges.
Constructing buildings that will reduce these environmental impacts, provide the basic functions on which we all depend, and at the same time continue to inspire us with their design is one of the great challenges of our time. Over the past decade, Europeans have made significant progress towards more environmentally sustainable development, thanks to a number of factors including higher energy prices, land and resource constraints, and greater cultural emphasis on design innovations. North America, unfortunately, has lagged behind our counterparts across the sea.
Over the past two years, however, North Americans have started to pay attention to sustainable design principles and green building practices. From New York City to Victoria, British Columbia, a new crop of high performance, energy efficient buildings are starting to appear.
Why the sudden green consciousness? For one thing, technology continues to improve and become more available in the marketplace. But more important is the advent of third party certification programs, particularly the LEED green building rating system, which has helped developers, purchasers, and renters get a handle on what green really means.
LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is administered by the Canada Green Building Council and provides a four-tier ranking of a building's environmental performance, starting with basic certification, silver, gold, and platinum ratings. Buildings can accumulate credits in six categories related to environmental impacts: land use and site development; water efficiency; energy performance and emissions reductions; efficient use and/or re use of products, materials, and resources; indoor environmental quality; and overall environmental innovation. Achieving certification requires special attention to various details about a building's performance in each of these categories.
LEED buildings offer some clear advantages to their owners or occupants. For one thing, the focus on energy performance results in significantly lower operating costs. Less tangible, but no less significant, is the benefit of improved indoor air quality and exposure to natural light. LEED offers a number of credits for the use of products like carpets, paints, adhesives, and sealants that contain fewer volatile organic compounds that contaminate the indoor environment.This is important, as many buildings designed over the past two decades support indoor environments that are actually worse than the air outside.
Most of the LEED buildings to date are institutional, government, or commercial properties. When it comes to residential buildings, particularly multi-unit condominium buildings, there are very few examples. This is largely due to the economics of the residential development industry and the added costs associated with superior products, design, and quality control.
However, achieving high standards of environmental performance goes against the chorus of conventional wisdom that has for so long said it will cost too much and buyers are not willing to pay? This is an important question for the condominium industry. Condo builders have only one chance to recover their costs of construction and make a profit?and that?s in the sale price of the home. If buyers are not willing to pay more, then there is no benefit to the builder to spend more. Furthermore, raising prices is not the best answer from a social equity perspective either. For one thing it would make green building a luxury good and too costly for the people who would benefit from lower maintenance costs the most. So the goal should be to deliver the environmental goods, without pricing green homes out of reach.
Ultimately, the answer lies in a combination of educating both the marketplace and municipalities about the value of better residential buildings and then developing creative solutions to dealing with capital costs. With regard to creative financing, Toronto-based condominium developer Tridel, which recently launched two large projects that are pursuing LEED certification, worked with the Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF), to develop a green loan' program at one of these projects. TAF, established by Toronto's City Council, has a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve urban air quality. And the green loan is an innovative financial instrument that leverages projected operating cost savings of an energy efficient building to increase the investment in equipment and material. The added investment is then paid back over a five to 10 year period by the Condominium Corporation with funds that would otherwise have been spent on higher gas and electricity bills.
Eventually, mortgage lenders and building appraisers will begin to recognize the added value of energy efficient buildings. In the long run, it is better to have homes that are insulated from escalating utility costs because the more a building costs to operate, the less cash owners have for mortgages, subsistence, and discretionary expenditures. Cities, for their part, could do worse than having a crop of state-of-the-art buildings that use land and resources efficiently and lighten the load on strained municipal infrastructure.
North America, and Canada in particular, still has some catching up to do when it comes to improving the environmental performance of multi-unit residential buildings. But thanks to rigorous rating programs like LEED and responsible, progressive developers, our cities will soon be graced with examples of green buildings worthy of a new century.
Jamie James is a principal of BuildGreen Consulting, one of the most experienced Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) consulting firms in Canada.