A Solid Green Foundation

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Recently, Toronto has been the center of a building boom the likes of which have not been seen for decades. Housing prices have shot up to record highs, developers cannot put condos up fast enough and new iconic buildings – like Libeskind’s Crystal and Ghery’s AGO - are leading some to declare the city to be experiencing an architectural renaissance. Despite these exciting times, one feature that has been largely missing is green design. This might all be about to change. With a new commitment from the mayor, David Miller, and the establishment of the new World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) secretariat in Toronto, the city, and the country, might just be on the verge of a dramatic change in how Canadians build.

In May, the WorldGBC selected Toronto as the home for its global secretariat and set up shop in a LEED-Gold certified building on the Living City Campus being developed by the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority. The WorldGBC aims to recruit member national Green Building Councils and work towards infusing sustainability throughout the property industry worldwide.

This summer I had a chance to speak with Kevin Hydes, the Chair of the WorldGBC, about the organization’s goals and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The WorldGBC had to consider many factors in deciding where to set up the secretariat. Ultimately Toronto provided the right combination of size, capacity and knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, the city, which is part of the Clinton Climate Initiative, has made a commitment to push the green building agenda. There are plans in the works to retrofit City Hall and make it a showcase for green design.

In July, the WorldGBC held its largest congress ever, with over thirty countries represented in Toronto. Hydes noted that this was not simply a trade show, but a meeting of the leaders of the green building movement from around the world. He is particularly excited about the emergence of new Green Building Councils worldwide, such as the recent addition of the Brazil chapter. This is one of one hundred countries that fit into the WorldGBC’s 100/100/100 campaign.

Their first goal is to establish 100 green building councils around the world. Next, they aim to help the 100 million people who work in the construction industry learn about the importance of building green. Finally, they have determined that they will need to secure 100 million dollars to execute their programs and bring about this massive shift.

One of the tools used by their members in North America, the LEED green building rating system, has begun to take hold as a recognized global brand. LEED “is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Recently the system has come under attack by a range of critics. Some architects and developers have said that the system leads to an obsession with attempts to simply find as many points as possible (which are necessary depending on what level of LEED certification is up for question). They also say that this approach does not necessarily lead to the most efficient buildings. Kevin Hydes is not fazed in the least by these statements.

According to Hydes, LEED “is no different from other emerging rating systems—they are not perfect, and they are all a work in progress.” Furthermore, “LEED will never be perfect, nor should it be. It is there to stimulate innovation.” What the Green Building Councils do is to revise the LEED standards on a regular basis. In Canada the LEED requirements are ratcheted up every two years when they revisit the standard. This could be compared to something like the Canadian National Energy Code that is already ten years old and is very much out of date. Hydes sees the consensus necessary for establishing the LEED standard, and the ongoing improvements, as the foundation of a “progressive” approach. These systems, like LEED, “are a stepping stone on a path to sustainability."

Ira Magaziner, the Director of the Clinton Climate Initiative, opened a USGBC conference by saying that we only have about 10 years "to do something very drastic about this climate change problem,” or we face catastrophic repercussions. In reference to these comments, Hydes responds with a question of his own: “Why not move to the Swedish model, or the German model, in the next five years?” He goes on to say that we have seen them experience great success and a high quality of life, and yet design places and spaces that run at dramatically higher levels of efficiency. The technology is there, and the costs are reasonable.

Hydes does not understand the obsession with looking at the supply side in terms of energy and resources. According to Hydes, “we can reduce energy consumption in almost every community across Canada by 50%” for virtually no premium.

After we shrink the demand side, then we can look at what other forms of improved energy production makes sense, depending on the conditions of the region in question.

Of the 10-year time line, Hydes says that if the whole world was consuming at the same rate he “would say the 10 year window is scary—but when the West has already has achieved such high levels of efficiency through best practice, then in many ways it becomes a question of tech[nology] transfer.” One of the examples of this that Hydes had mentioned were the C-2000 building projects, designed to use 50% less energy than conventional buildings, that were established by Natural Resources Canada ten years ago.

What Hydes does say is that we should not be moving at an incremental pace, and that the last thing we should do is panic. This is a tremendous opportunity and an area in which private sector players and regions have the opportunity to develop a competitive advantage.

Perhaps with the WorldGBC now centered in the city, Toronto (and Canada as a whole), can use this occasion as an excuse to do just that—set the agenda for green building worldwide.

Front image: Kevin Hydes
Inside image: BrazilGBC receiving membership certificate