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Why Canada leads in green building


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March 18, 2016 by Jim Barnes

Cover-Thomas-Mueller-3-cropped-copySince the Canadian Green Building Council began operating in 2002 as an offshoot of the US Green Building Council, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED) has led Canada to a prominent position internationally in environmental construction. We interviewed Thomas Mueller, a founding director of CaGBC as well as its president and CEO, on how LEED grew so quickly in Canada, what its current challenges are and where it goes from here.

Q: How did LEED attain such a dominant position in green building internationally?

“A significant amount of effort has gone into developing the various versions of LEED over the years. It has had the best minds in green building developing and fine-tuning it for the past 20 years. Thousands and thousands of people are involved in developing the rating tool. Other rating systems do not have even close to the same level of effort. It’s a globally recognized system and there are LEED-certified projects in more than 140 countries. LEED can be delivered in any country that wants to participate. It has industry support.”

Q: Canada is a world leader in LEED. Why is that?

“Outside of the US, Canada has the largest number of both LEED-certified and LEED-registered buildings in the world. On a per-capita basis, I think we are on par with the US.”

“We were an early adopter. It’s partly the proximity to the US. We were looking for a green building guideline or rating system and it seemed that LEED had all the qualities we were looking for, including a holistic emphasis on areas like water and building materials. And compared to other rating tools, it was more market-oriented.”

“Another factor is that we do not regulate our construction sector as much as other countries, like Singapore and in Europe. Europe has very stringent regulations in place. We rely more on the market and a good, strong business case. LEED and green building have that.”

Q: What does CaGBC bring to the table?

“We make sure that the LEED rating system works well within the Canadian context. That means it works according to Canadian standards and it is appropriate for the Canadian climate and geography. For example, in Canada we use the National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings. In the US, they use ASHRAE. In Canada, we allow both.”

“We have an industry advisory group that meets at least once a year and associations such as the Canadian Construction Association are part of that. We have a good relationship with the Real Property Association of Canada, which represents building owners. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada is one of our founding organizations. We also have relationships with the National Research Council, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a long list of industry organizations.”

Q: Who are the primary users of LEED?

“The federal government, most provincial governments and all the major cities are building to LEED, usually to LEED Silver or LEED Gold. This has been mandated for their own buildings. The private sector and the commercial sector are showing real leadership. When it comes to office buildings, a lot of the commercial owners are looking at delivery to LEED Gold or Platinum. As well, there are more than 400 retail projects in Canada and a growing number of
industrial projects.

“We have about 44 million m² of LEED NC (New Construction) buildings and about 24 million m² of existing building projects.”

Q: How is LEED being developed?

“LEED is in the process of constant improvement, to make it more applicable, demanding and useful. So far in Canada we have seen v1, Version 2009 and now, v4. Many variants of LEED have been developed, such as LEED for schools and LEED for retail. However, most of the new projects in Canada are registered to LEED NC, which is flexible enough for most purposes.

Q: What is new in v4?

“Version Four is more ambitious around anything that has to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, water efficiency, renewable energy – those types of applications.”

“One of the major rewrites is in the materials section. That’s something that’s very applicable to construction companies, because it includes the areas of recycling, construction and demolition waste – the types of things that are the responsibility
of the contractor.”

“The new version is looking at materials more from a life-cycle perspective, from material sourcing to demolition. We are asking manufacturers and suppliers to provide Environmental Product Declarations, to increase transparency on what is in those products.”

“It’s a big step to reduce the environmental impact of the product, be it how it’s extracted, how it’s manufactured, how it’s transported and so on. The goal we have down the road is building products that have a lower environmental impact including a low carbon footprint.”

“We are working with the Canadian Standards Association, which supports companies to get Environmental Product Declarations for their products. Once these products have been used in LEED projects, I think they will find their way into master specifications.”

Q: What are the timetables for registration and certification?

“Projects usually take from three to five years from design to completing construction and it can take about six or seven years to build large projects. It can take quite a bit of time from the date of registration until a project is submitted for certification.”

“LEED Canada v1.0 was used for six years until 2010. All the LEED v1.0 projects that wish to certify must submit by June, 2016. We’re expecting several hundred projects to come in for certification.”

“Projects can still be registered until October 31, 2016 under LEED Canada 2009. After that, projects must register under LEED v4. We expect that the last of the LEED 2009 projects will be certified
in 2021.

“The USGBC made a decision to extend that cut-off date to register under LEED 2009 until October 31, 2016, to give the industry time to transition to LEED v4. However, you can register a project under Version 4 right now if you wish. This was a decision by the USGBC related to the significant changes to the material section. The industry asked for more time to be able to deliver it successfully.”

Q: What misconceptions do people have about LEED?

“LEED is about transformation and change. When you do it for the first time, it can be challenging.”

“There is this misperception that LEED costs much more, and in fact it does not. Perhaps in the beginning there was a significant premium. For a LEED Gold building today, the premium might be about two per cent, and in some instances three per cent or so. These additional costs can be recouped easily through reduced operating costs in a quite reasonable period of time. It isn’t even a question of life-cycle costs: you can get payback in three to five years.”

“If it were not cost-effective, we wouldn’t have more than 5,000 projects in Canada. That is 5,000 projects that thought this was quite doable, and there is probably another 50 to 70 thousand projects globally.”

“Some very large developers and owners are using LEED very successfully. They’re doing it because it has a strong business case. Of course, you need the right expertise – the right people who know what they’re talking about.”

Q: What causes LEED projects to fail?

“Most of the projects that are registered get certified. There’s enough experience now in Canada and the U.S. to deliver this high success rate. In the early days, some people didn’t have the expertise and follow-through to submit for certification successfully.”

“If you say you are registered to LEED Gold, that means nothing until you are certified. We are very clear about that – you cannot call it a LEED project unless you get it certified.”

“There are some pretenders in the marketplace. There is terminology out there that the building is ‘LEED-like,’ or ‘shadows LEED,’ or other kinds of wording. Basically, it means nothing. LEED certification is a kind of quality assurance to verify that designers, contractors and owners have followed through on their commitment to higher environmental performance.”

Q: What are the other impacts of LEED?

“Apart from the environmental impact, there are quantitative impacts on the economy in terms of jobs and GDP. It allows tradespeople and designers to upgrade their skills. It allows manufacturers and suppliers to offer new products and service providers to market new services. These jobs require a higher-level skill set that is marketable.”

“It supplies a pressure to evolve. It’s about change – because otherwise, why would we do it?”

Jim Barnes is On-Site’s contributing editor. Send comments to editor@on-sitemag.com


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